Review: Evangelicalism in America

Steven P. Miller

Steven P. Miller is Adjunct Professor of History at Webster University and Adjunct Instructor of History at Washington University in St. Louis.

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Steven P. Miller, "Review: Evangelicalism in America," Journal of Southern Religion (19) (2017):

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Randall Balmer. Evangelicalism in America. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016. 211 pp. ISBN 978-1-48130597-6.

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As I sat down to read this book, I came to an unsettling pair of realizations: first, I had something of a Randall Balmer problem; and, second, I needed to get over it already. As most readers of this journal likely know, Balmer is a prominent historian of American evangelicalism, as talented as he is prolific. His interpretations of Christian Right-era evangelicalism are unrivaled in their reach among lettered Americans. The liminal space he occupies as a self-described “wounded lover” of evangelicalism (who happens also to be an Ivy League professor and an Episcopal priest to boot) has allowed him to credibly advance a cogent and candid argument that has come to define his public persona, if not his academic oeuvre: The Christian Right has hijacked the faith tradition that it purports to represent. In this latest expression of his thesis, Balmer hopes that evangelicals eventually will “regard the Religious Right as the tragic aberration that it was and consign it to the dustbin of history” (xvi). After November 2016, when countless believers backed a candidate whom I suspect my four-year-old would whip in a Bible quiz, the descriptor “aberration” makes as much intuitive sense as ever. Yet this is precisely where my problem kicks in.

Like many problems, mine is based on an impulse both perfectly reasonable and ultimately unfair: a suspicion of the scholar as polemicist. Something has to give, I suspect, and that something, I think, goes a long way toward explaining how Balmer became progressive America’s go-to historian of evangelicalism. I count myself as a denizen of that America, but have long wondered if Balmer simply has been telling us what we wanted to hear. Viewing the other side as a bunch of fakes might be irresistible as short-term therapy. But it usually makes for incomplete history.

The present volume was a fitting place to confront my problem. The collection of “occasional pieces,” most of which are lightly updated versions of previous publications, collectively provides a representative snapshot of Balmer’s take on evangelicalism in the quarter-century since his landmark Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory first appeared (xvi). Both the scholar and the polemicist are on full display in Evangelicalism in America.

Much of the volume will sound familiar to Balmer’s regular readers, especially those aware of his background as a historian of colonial America. The essays span from the Puritans to the Promise Keepers. The opening piece sees American religion as a “conservative” force, in that the nation’s religious diversity “has contributed to America’s political stability by siphoning dissent away from politics into the realm of religion” (9). The implication, in light of the preceding Preface, is that the Christian Right is not terribly conservative. Another chapter, taken from Church History, is a thick description of the nineteenth-century evangelical reform tradition, which “stands in marked contrast to the political agenda of the majority of evangelicals at the turn of the twenty-first century” (59). Later, Balmer fruitfully explores the “correlation between evangelical rhetoric and public discourse” in American history (81). An example is the aforementioned Promise Keepers, which during its 1990s glory days expanded male responsibilities in the private sphere (“encouraging men to be more attentive to their wives, to visit museums with their sons, and to take their daughters fly fishing”) without returning the favor for women in the public sphere (140). The closing chapter, titled “Dead Stones,” is a deeply pessimistic take on the prospects for American Protestantism. Balmer lights into mainline Protestantism’s vacuous paeans to ecumenism before returning to his more familiar critique of evangelicalism’s “shrill voices who claim to be leaders” (145). Somewhat mischievously, Balmer longs for a revival of old-style Baptism, by which he means Roger Williams as mediated by the First Amendment.

Throughout the volume, Balmer’s ample facilities as a writer are on full display, marred only by a few copyediting oversights and awkward repetitions. Encountering Balmer’s wordsmithing is akin to taking a vocabulary vitamin. I placed checkmarks by lines that transformed simple points into memorable ones. To wit: the “wall of separation” between church and state “more accurately resembles a line in the dust, continually drawn and redrawn,” while “[a] fixation on the prophecies of the Bible . . . places evangelicals in control of history (5; 75).

Balmer continually measures American religious history against the failings of modern American evangelicalism. As suggested earlier, he is best known for his historically informed criticism of the Christian Right (including its enablers, such as Billy Graham, whose heir Franklin is the fruit that proves the rule). Balmer wastes few opportunities to accuse politically conservative evangelicals of being dishonest stewards of their own history. His moves, while delivered skillfully and energetically, often have less explanatory value than meets that eye. Two examples stand out in the volume under review.

The first addresses the disjuncture between antebellum evangelicalism and the present. Here, Balmer constructs a handy syllogism: X (the regnant contemporary evangelical politics that fetishizes the Ten Commandments and makes an idol out of Reagan) was once Y (the radical abolitionism and proto-feminism of nineteenth-century evangelical social concern). X now touts itself as Y incarnate. Therefore, the most important thing to know about X is that it is untrue to Y. Leaving aside the question about whether Balmer idealizes nineteenth-century reformers, the above formula seriously downplays just how much changed in the century-plus between the Civil War and the founding of Moral Majority. During that time, the modern American state took form, including the welfare state, which is only indirectly heir to the benevolent empire of yore. One issue that Balmer neglects in this volume is evangelical discomfort with the state—not the nation, which most evangelicals are resolutely willing to defend, but the secular apparatus of governance. The broader political Right has successfully exploited this discomfort to convert often legitimate worries about individual liberties into run-of-the-mill anti-liberalism. A recent example is the political affinity between religious freedom and partisan attacks on the Affordable Care Act.

The second allegation of historical hypocrisy concerns what Balmer influentially has called the “abortion myth” of the Christian Right’s origins. By this, he means the false claim that the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 sparked the Christian Right. Rather, Balmer shows, the prospect of enhanced Internal Revenue Service oversight of Christian private schools (some of which were de facto segregation academies) was the galvanizing issue behind the entrance of Jerry Falwell, et al, into the political arena. This argument is true on its face, but it also has more zing than depth as a historical narrative. Leaning heavily on New Right activist Paul Weyrich’s self-understanding as conservative puppet master, Balmer succeeds in bringing the founding fathers of the Christian Right down a notch. Falwell and friends were originally more concerned with protecting tax exemptions than with protecting the unborn. Thus, their subsequent embrace of abortion politics comes across as a product of political machinations. Yet it is worth considering that this story unfolded over just a few years. The nearly wholesale transformation of abortion from a therapeutic-medical issue into a constitutional-political one happened very suddenly in the mid-1970s. Outside of the Catholic hierarchy and second-wave feminist circles, the political learning curve was steep. Initial responses to the Supreme Court’s decision on all sides of the issue, and there were more than two, often were not well thought out. Perhaps, then, it simply took a little while for existing evangelical wariness about abortion to sort itself out into a coherent political affiliation, one that pushed most committed abortion opponents toward a Republican Party that was already moving rightward (and which, as early as 1976, endorsed a constitutional amendment overturning Roe v. Wade). If I understand Balmer correctly, he wishes that evangelicals would stop using abortion as a trump card (pun intended, alas) to reflexively support politicians who are pro-life in the most limited sense possible.  On a personal level, I could not agree more with this sentiment. However, the historian in me thinks that the more pressing task is to explain why abortion remains such a contested issue to this day, rather than focusing on the several years when it was a marginal one for most evangelicals.

Very little about my above critique is unique to me. A generation of historiography about evangelical politics has moved away from a narrative that privileges antebellum reform. Also, most historians would now at least heavily qualify Balmer’s assertion that “evangelicals by and large had retreated from the public arena in the middle half of the twentieth century” (81). The chronological breadth of the search for proto-Christian Rightists now exceeds the real thing by several decades. Despite this overreach, it is not hard to see conservative evangelical businessmen and philanthropists, such as Lyman Stewart (The Fundamentals), Henry Crowell (Moody Bible Institute), and J. Howard Pew (Christianity Today), as pivotal agents in a story that somehow gets us from abolitionist Oberlin to fundamentalist Lynchburg. Finally, newer studies of the early Christian Right do not pit abortion against other issues. As Daniel K. Williams makes clear in his recent history of the early pro-life movement, anti-abortion activism did not have to wait for Francis Schaeffer. Moreover, as Seth Dowland’s work convincingly demonstrates, opposition to abortion quickly became of a piece with a larger evangelical family values agenda.

While I remain skeptical about several of Balmer’s historiographical moves, I am happily over my problem, silly as it was. This volume is a reminder of the extent to which Balmer’s professional presence—his scholarship, for sure, but also his witness as a public intellectual—created the conditions that made evangelical history such a dynamic field over the last decade or so. This is true even though few younger scholars have dared to take him on directly—and even though he remains largely unconvinced by their unannounced correctives. I see also that, despite Balmer’s ease within elite academia, it is not his real home. He truly wants to resurrect the dead stones of American Protestantism. And, well, who can dispute that Christianity requires faith in a usable past?