Don Johnson is putting together a must-see documentary.
He needs your support to finish the project. Watch a teaser and support him by clicking here.
Some of you have asked about this video. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has now put it online. Get some context here.
Earlier this month I was at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the Boston area for a panel discussion with Dartmouth religion scholar Randall Balmer on “Evangelicals and Politics.” Mark Massa of Boston College’s Boisi Center served as the moderator.
Massa asked us if evangelicals had a “distinctive political style.” I suggested, as I did in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, that much of evangelical politics is defined by fear, power, and nostalgia.
Balmer summarized evangelical’s political style in one word: “victimization.” I thought about his answer again after reading Griffin Paul Jackson’s recent piece at Christianity Today: “Half of Americans Say Evangelical are Discriminated Against.” Here is a taste:
Though evangelical Protestants remain the largest faith group in the country, as clashes over their beliefs turn up in the public square, half the country has come to believe evangelicals face discrimination in the US.
A new report from the Pew Research Center reveals that Americans see discrimination on the rise or holding steady across demographic groups, with evangelical Christians and Jews experiencing a significant uptick over the past few years.
Fifty percent of US adults agree that evangelical Christians are subject to discrimination, up from 42 percent in 2016. One in five (18%) say that evangelicals—about a quarter of the population—face “a lot” of discrimination.
Read the rest here.
Evangelicals only represent about 25% of the American population. This means that a lot of non-evangelical Americans also believe that evangelicals face discrimination. As the readers of this blog know, I am not a fan of the victimization narrative that defines much of political discourse on the Christian Right. Balmer is right. But I also think some of the discrimination of evangelicals is probably real. Perhaps we brought it upon ourselves, but it is nonetheless real. I wrote about this a few years ago at Aeon.
I spent Monday night at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts (Boston-area). Thanks to Gordon-Conwell president Dennis Hollinger for the invitation and Mary Ann Hollinger for her hospitality.
The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life sponsored conversation on evangelicals and politics that included Boisi director (and Jesuit theologian) Mark Massa, Dartmouth historian of American evangelicalism Randall Balmer, and yours truly.
A few takeaways:
The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College is sponsoring a conversation with yours truly and Dartmouth’s Randall Balmer at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on Monday night. The topic is “Politics and Evangelical Christians.” Learn more here.
I am happy to contribute to this video posted today at The New York Times.
Retro Report spent over an hour interviewing me at Messiah College back in August. I was apparently not as engaging as Cal Thomas, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Randall Balmer since I only got a quick soundbite. (They even made me go home and change my shirt because it had too many stripes and did not look good on the camera!)
Whatever the case, it is a nice piece:
This past weekend we did a quick post on Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the royal wedding. Yesterday at The Washington Post, American religious historian Randall Balmer offers a more extended take on the sermon. Here is a taste:
Curry, a cradle Episcopalian (his father was an Episcopal priest), is often mistaken for a Baptist. His preaching style draws on the long and venerable tradition of black preachers dating to the days of slavery. At St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle on Saturday, he opened his sermon in measured tones, beginning with a reading from the Song of Solomon. This was to be a sermon about love, one appropriate to the marrying couple, but also — and here Curry demonstrated his artistic mastery — to the gathered audience and to the world at large. “There is power in love,” he said. “Don’t underestimate it.”
As he developed his argument, Curry drew from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, pointing out that Jesus summarized all the law and the prophets as love for God and love for your neighbor as yourself. And here, in the classic African American tradition of preaching, the bishop’s pace began to quicken; his tone grew more insistent and his gestures more expansive. Curry quoted King and Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, and added his own touches of humor.
Markle, the bride, sat transfixed from the beginning; Harry’s expression suggested skepticism. The cutaways to the other royals suggested that they, too, were not sure why this stem-winding African American preacher had been invited to participate.
Read the entire piece here.
Last week I was giving a lecture on American evangelicalism to the members of the Board of Trustees of a Christian college. I told them that some future historian of American evangelicalism is going to write an article about how the election of Donald Trump influenced the first wave of articles about the legacy of Billy Graham. It will make a great little project.
There have been a lot of glowing things written about Graham’s legacy. There have also been a lot of really critical things written about Graham’s life and his legacy.
The burden of this very long prologue is to say that I approach the question of Graham’s place in history with an enormous reservoir of good will. I think he was a remarkable man, a person of integrity and rare talent.
To take one tiny example, anyone who has looked into a television camera knows how difficult it is to deliver one’s lines, even if they are prepared and memorized; to do so extemporaneously — and flawlessly — is an achievement. When I’m asked by reporters who will be the next Billy Graham (a favorite question), my answer is unequivocal: no one. Graham came to prominence at a unique moment in history, when new media were emerging. He and his associates exploited those media brilliantly to create the 20th century’s first religious celebrity.
No, there will never be another Billy Graham.
If I were to offer a “Yes, but” on Graham’s legacy, it would center around his political machinations. And here, in the interests of transparency, I should probably confess that I have never quite forgiven Graham for endorsing Nixon over George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election, even though Graham himself apologized to McGovern for his comments during the heat of that campaign.
Read the entire piece here.
Here is a summary of Balmer’s sense of the “new” Christian Right ethical code:
See how Balmer develops this points here.
Mark Labberton is president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. If you have never heard of Fuller, I encourage you to read George Marsden’s history of the school: Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism.
There are white people in America who call themselves evangelical yet demonstrate complicity with a white supremacy that scandalizes the gospel — and there are other white evangelicals in America who categorically and publicly disagree.
Balmer points out what many evangelical leaders have been decrying for years and what this election made apparent: that culture sometimes overshadows the gospel in determining the evangelical political vision. Evangelicalism is a movement dedicated to the primacy of faith in the way of Jesus, so this confusion of priorities is a crisis.
The word “evangelical” has morphed from being commonly used to describe a set of theological and spiritual commitments into a passionately defended, theo-political brand. Worse, that brand has become synonymous with social arrogance, ignorance and prejudice — all antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Balmer’s claims, while not new, are deservedly painful for millions of white evangelicals who are deeply offended by racism, repelled by Trump, and who vocally deny the false theo-political brand that co-opts the faith we hold dear.
Read the entire letter here.
For some folks who read The Way of Improvement Leads Home the sentiment expressed in the title of this post is a good thing. For others it might be a bad thing. Whatever the case, I want to thank Dartmouth’s Randall Balmer for referencing some of my stuff on Ted Cruz in his recent piece at Religion & Politics.
Here is a taste of Balmer’s “The Paradoxes of Ted Cruz“:
The paradox that most intrigues me, however, is Cruz’s ties to evangelicalism. At one level, judging by evangelical politics over the past several decades, that claim is unexceptional. As John Fea, of Messiah College, has written for Religion News Service, one of Cruz’s biggest supporters is the faux historian David Barton, who has fashioned an entire career out of arguing, against overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary, that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Although Barton and his arguments have been widely discredited—he apparently fabricated quotes to buttress his specious claims, so many that Thomas Nelson Publishers recalled one of his books—Cruz has not renounced Barton’s support. The payoff, according to Fea, is that, having asserted America’s Christian origins, Cruz can more credibly spin his campaign yarn about America’s declension from the piety of the founders, a decline that reaches its predictable nadir in Barack Obama’s presidency.
It doesn’t take much imagination to script the altar call for this declension narrative: Return the United States to its “Christian origins” and restore American righteousness by electing Ted Cruz president.
The corollary, and once again one not unfamiliar to those who have tracked the Religious Right over the past several decades, is the doctrine of “Dominionism” or “Christian Reconstructionism.” This ideology, examined nicely in Julie Ingersoll’s recent book, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction, traces its lineage to the 1970s writings of Rousas John Rushdoony and aspires to replace American legal codes with biblical law. At the outer fringes of this movement, seldom articulated publicly, is the conviction that capital punishment should be administered for such biblically mandated “crimes” as blasphemy, heresy, witchcraft, astrology, premarital sex, and incorrigible juvenile delinquency.
Cruz himself, of course, is politically savvy enough not to be caught articulating such specifics, but there can be little doubt that he falls within the general ambit of Reconstructionism. When he inveighs against the media or complains about the abrogation of religious freedoms, for instance, the underlying conviction is that the media are controlled by diabolical forces and that people of faith are being forced by an evil government to accommodate sinners—by providing business services to gays, for instance, or, in the case of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk, issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
As many of you know, Marco Rubio has been spending a lot of time bashing the humanities and, more broadly, the liberal arts. Ever since he got some traction with his conservative supporters when he disparaged philosophers majors in a GOP debate, it seems like he has been really running with this anti-liberal arts message.
In his regular column at The Valley News, Balmer welcomes Rubio to New Hampshire (Balmer teaches at Dartmouth) and then proceeds to teach him a lesson about the importance of the liberal arts. Here is a taste:
My guess is that is a facile attempt to link liberalism with liberal arts. That’s cute, but it’s also inaccurate. The liberal arts trace their history to the medieval study of the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium consisted of general grammar, formal logic and classical rhetoric; quadrivium included arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Together, these comprised the seven liberal arts taught in medieval monasteries, cathedral schools and universities.
Knowledge tends to be cumulative, adapting to changing times and circumstances. Today, the liberal arts encompass, as Merriam-Webster defines it, “areas of study (such as history, language, and literature) that are intended to give you general knowledge rather than to develop specific skills needed for a profession.”
I don’t deny for a moment that America needs welders — along with carpenters, plumbers, midwives, technicians and many other kinds of skilled workers. Those are all good and important, even noble, vocations. But do you seriously want to live in a nation of citizens lacking in “general knowledge,” who have no education in logic or no experience of critical thinking?
A liberal arts education provides a broader perspective. The study of history, to take one example, allows us to learn from the past — the perils of isolationism, for example, or the dangers of demagoguery. Learning a foreign language helps us to understand and to appreciate cultures other than our own. Music, literature and the arts not only have the capacity to elevate the human spirit and shed light on the human condition, they also provide a window into different societies, personalities and historical periods. And the philosophers you denigrate? They prompt us to ask the big questions — what is good or true or ethical — and they call us to account when our logic is faulty.
And Balmer can’t resist making stinging (and accurate) critique of David Barton.
Read it here.
Here is the latest piece on Ben Carson’s Seventh-Day Adventist faith. It comes from Dartmouth religion professor Randall Balmer in the Concord (NH) Monitor.
Balmer argues something similar to what I did last week in response to statements from David Corn of Mother Jones and Donald Trump. Voters should treat Carson in the same way that they treat all the GOP candidates who apply their faith to their vision for the United States.
Here is a taste:
Scholars too often speak only among themselves, in rarefied vocabularies. I think one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in as a society is because people who actually know something refuse to communicate that to the public. In graduate school I made a vow that I would never allow my work to become so recondite that I couldn’t communicate with a larger audience.
-Randall Balmer, John Philips Chair of Religion, Dartmouth University
|Ronald Reagan speaks before the National Association of Evangelicals-1983|
My friend at KonicekLawOrlando.com sent me this originally, in an LA Times op-ed Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College has offered some historical perspective on the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. Balmer argues that evangelical views on marriage have changed over the last fifty years and he fully expects the same thing to happen with evangelical views on marriage.
Here is a taste:
Religion & Politics is running a piece by Randall Balmer describing a Sunday he spent with Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter while conducting research for his new book Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. Here is a taste:
In the course of our interview in the pastor’s study, after church and photographs on the side lawn, Carter declared himself “honored” to be numbered among such progressive evangelicals as Charles Grandison Finney and William Jennings Bryan. Mark Hatfield, he said, “was a kind of hero of mine.” Carter characterized Hatfield as “a genuinely devout believer in Christ who sought to put Christ’s teachings into practice.” Carter also acknowledged that his own defeat in 1980 followed by Hatfield’s retirement from the Senate in 1997 had left a void, at least among elected officials. Carter lamented the “new definition” of evangelicalism that had taken hold, one associated with “rightwing Christianity.” He recalled hearing about Jerry Falwell “giving me a hard time” in 1976, but his was just a lonely voice at the time; Falwell and his associates, however, “had remarkable success in four years in making that a driving force in American political history.” When did the president have a sense of the gathering storm as he prepared for reelection? Carter remembered that his sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, “told me that there was a stirring of animosity toward me because of some of the moderate positions I had taken on human rights and so forth and that they thought I had betrayed their own definition of Christianity. But I didn’t really see it as a serious thing until the altercation arose in the Southern Baptist Convention.” After the conservative takeover in 1979, he said, he began to recognize the ramifications of the evangelical shift away from progressive evangelicalism.
See our interview with Balmer here. For more coverage of the book at The Way of Improvement Leads Home click here and here.
evangelicals – started to break down, I think, a lot later than Balmer claims. He’s right to point to taxation – it’s just that the fears were driven by different things in different regions. In the Old South, yeah, it was the segregation academies. In the Southwest, it was, I think, part of the broader regional culture of John Birch conservatism, which overlapped quite a bit with conservative evangelicalism. In the North (and to a certain extent the Ozarks), though, I strongly suspect that anti-federal/anti-tax attitudes developed among evangelicals in a widespread way as they sought to opt out of late capitalism – they saw tax burdens as a way to obligate people to participate in regularized wage labor, which tore social institutions apart. This opting-out is particularly apparent in, for example, people’s explanations for their attraction to Amway and other kinds of multi-level marketing – they overwhelmingly talk about it as a way to achieve self-sufficiency and to reintegrate work and family life. (I suspect, also, that attraction to these kinds of business enterprises reinforced preexisting negative attitudes toward taxation; anyone who’s dealt with small-business or independent contractor taxes can tell you how much more onerous the administrative, and often financial, burden is compared to simple employment taxes).
Molly Worthen of the University of North Carolina reviews two new books on Jimmy Carter. One of them is actually written by Carter.
They are: Randall Balmer, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter and Jimmy Carter, A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power.
Here is a taste:
In the early 1970s, the Christian right was not yet the political juggernaut it would become. Fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell were still wondering if activism was compatible with the Gospel. But then Paul Weyrich, a Catholic from Wisconsin who had been trying to organize conservative Christians since the Goldwater campaign, struck political gold when the I.R.S. revoked the tax exemption of whites-only Christian “segregation academies.” Conservative evangelicals felt victimized by court decisions and new regulations that policed their private schools — and they blamed the evangelical in the White House. The call to defend “religious liberty,” not the legalization of abortion, first summoned them to politics.
“Weyrich finally had discovered the issue that would persuade evangelical leaders of the importance of political activism: defense of racial segregation, albeit framed as a defense of religious expression,” Balmer writes. For all of Carter’s personal piety, he was out of touch with his fellow believers’ rightward tilt. In 1980, televangelists mobilized their media empires in the Republican cause. Balmer charges that the culturally conservative, fiscally libertarian platform of the Christian right “bore scant resemblance to evangelical activism in the 19th and early 20th centuries.”
In April we interviewed Balmer as part of our “Author’s Corner” series. Check it out here.
I just got my copy in the mail today. I immediately read the following two reviews:
Eric Miller’s review of Peter Hales’s Outside the Gates of Eden: The Dream of America from Hiroshima to Now. Miller writes:
However [John] Winthrop may hover over Hales’ story, his own vision and hope are most decisively inspired by the classic Emersonian ideals: the spontaneous discovery of an inward connection to a greater reality; a harmonic convergence of self and society; above all, a religious confidence that The Self Knows, and that our true enemy is the enemy of the self. Will these ideals be enough to save us from the mighty surges of history Hales with such acuity uncovers? Many of us, still poised at that watchtower, listening to that howling wind, find ourselves looking for rescue from another direction. Still: Read this book
Todd Ream and Drew Moser’s review of Randall Balmer’s Redeemer; The Life of Jimmy Carter. Ream and Moser write:
Redeemer is a biography of Jimmy Carter that has little to do with Jimmy Carter in critical places. As the story advances, it reads at times more like an account of the rise of the Moral Majority in evangelical America, with Carter cast as an almost accidental antagonist. The book’s epigraph sketches its narrative and theological arc and its fundamentally ironic perspective: He came unto his own, and his own received him not, John 1:11 (King James Version).” But Balmer’s irony isn’t calculated to elicit cheap sneers; it grows out of the tangle of American history. And if his book isn’t entirely satisfying as a biography, he does succeed–in contrast to previous biographers–in rightly portraying Jimmy Carter’s Christianity as the driving force behind his political and personal life
We did an interview with Balmer last week about this book.
I am sure these reviews will appear soon on the B&C website. Stay tuned.
I should also add that there is an ad on page 18 for the 29th Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History to be held on September 25-27 at Pepperdine University. Learn more about the conference here. Though the ad does not provide details, and the conference program has not been released, I can spill some of the beans and let you know that the following historians/authors/friends of this blog will be speaking in various capacities over the course of the weekend: Charles Marsh, Daniel Williams, Lendol Calder, Allen Guelzo, John Wigger, Jim LaGrand, Colleen McDannel, Thomas Albert Howard, Margaret Bendroth, Beth Barton Schweiger, Jay Case, Eric Miller, Chris Gehrz, Jonathan Den Hartog, Timothy Hall, Christopher Shannon, Darren Dochuk, Mark Noll, Molly Worthen, David Bebbington, Shirley Mullen, Jana Riess, Mike Kugler, Randall Stephens, Ed Blum, Randall Balmer, Jonathan Yeager, Bill Trollinger, Tracy McKenzie, Brad Gundlach, Warren Throckmorton, Paul Contino, John Wilson, Don Yerxa, and Wilfred McClay.
See you in Malibu.
The best reviews are behind the paywall, but it is definitely worth going to your library and looking at the hard copy for these two reviews alone:
Kevin Schultz reviews George Marsden’s The Twilight of the American Enlightenment