Friday, October 13, 2006

God and Country American Style, No. 1

[Note: here is a draft of the promised review essay of Balmer and Hart's recent books. It is in submission with an academic journal, but I thought it might be good, since there was interest, to post it here as well.]

It is not an overstatement to say that the hot titles in mainstream booksellers’ religion sections are those dedicated to religion and politics. Motivated by the fevered rhetoric of the culture wars and exacerbated by the weighty political pop of the Religious Right in the 2004 American Presidential elections, writers both non-religious and religious have lined the shelves with provocative titles all meant to distinguish and separate biblical religion from American politics. While many evangelical Protestants will probably see these titles and pass on buying them, two books that originated within their own ranks may catch their attention. Even more, these books could be the beginning point of reshaping the way evangelicals think about the relationship of their faith and their nation’s politics.

What makes the books by Randall Balmer and Darryl Hart so noteworthy is the fact that these critiques of evangelicals and their faith-based politics were written by men who have garnered a great deal of their livelihood by studying and selling books to evangelicals. Balmer, professor of religious history at Columbia University, first made his name through his book and companion film, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, which recently went into a fourth edition. He also has been a long-time member of the board of reference for the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE) at Wheaton College, studied for the ministry at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and was once a published defender of the Princetonian understanding of biblical inerrancy.

Similar in background, and certainly no stranger to Presbyterian and Reformed circles, is Hart. Currently director of partnered projects at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Hart has written a noteworthy biography of Presbyterian traditionalist, J. Gresham Machen, served as director of ISAE, trained students for the ministry at Westminster Theological Seminary (both in Philadelphia and Escondido), and also has defended Princeton’s understanding of biblical inerrancy. Books written by such evangelical insiders surely have more weight than the run-of-the-mill titles produced by those who may or may not fully grasp biblical Christianity.

These two titles have another thing in common: both react strongly against the “accomodationist” strategy pursued by evangelical leaders over the past twenty-five years. This approach suggested that the traditional American understanding of a stark separation between church and state was flat-out wrong; in fact, religion should be accommodated in the public square. Chief among evangelicals articulating this stance is Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who has appeared before federal government commissions and in mainstream magazines to argue for tuition tax credits and school vouchers for religious schools and for voluntary prayer by judges, court employees, public school students, and others who use and work at government-funded facilities. Land has prominent allies within the Presbyterian and Reformed world in Gary DeMar and D. James Kennedy, who each promote a vision of church and state in which the state accommodates public religious displays and activities.

Against this accommodation strategy, Balmer and Hart both agree that this approach has dangerous side-effects both for religion and the public square itself. Instead of seeking to force the state to accommodate religion, evangelicals should return to the older American position of separation between church and state.

There is one more commonality to note—while both books contain a number of useful insights, which taken together might point the way forward for thinking about how Christians and churches should relate to the public realm, each fails to present satisfactorily a compelling argument for why Christians should embrace a “separation of church and state.” To be sure, I believe that there is a compelling argument to be presented; further, I would suggest that the resources for doing so will be found within the (southern) Presbyterian tradition. As a whole, my sympathies lie closest to Hart’s own provocative approach.

However, when questions over the separation of church and state morph into questions of the relationship between faith and politics, I cannot help but wonder whether the attempt to craft a detailed and compelling “public theology”—either as a rationale for Christians entering into the political realm or for sitting out the struggles—may in fact go beyond the purpose and scope of the Bible itself. As a result, the answer may not be found in direct biblical mandate, but in “the light of nature and Christian prudence” as well as in general biblical principles that may admit of different strategies for different seasons (WCF 1:6). And if this is the case, then perhaps the greatest need in our conversations over religion and politics might be a healthy dose of Christian charity to be extended to all believers, whether red or blue, whether politically active or passive.

Saving America from the Religious Right
In the acknowledgements section of Thy Kingdom Come, Randall Balmer noted that he wrote his book in reaction to the 2004 American Presidential election [note: all references to the book will be in the text]. Since one son had worked on Sen. John Kerry’s campaign and another had been involved in AmeriCorps, Balmer decided that, rather than “vacillating between rage and despair,” he would write a book in the “hopes of effecting some correction to this country’s ruinous course” (203). From the opening subtitle to the last words of the final, “homiletical” chapter, Balmer laid the blame for America’s “ruinous course” directly upon the shoulders of the “Religious Right.” Who is the “Religious Right”? Apparently, it includes everyone from George Marsden (217n23) and Jean Bethke Elshtain (219n2) to James Dobson (90-2) and E. Calvin Beisner (152-3), not to mention other disparate characters such as Rick Scarborough (46ff.), William Dembski (127-32), Michael Farris (100-1), Tony Perkins (199-200), D. James Kennedy (155), and Rod Parsley (175). To see all of these individuals identified as belonging to the “Republican-Religious Right” complex makes you wonder who was left as the “good guys.”

And indeed, it is this overwhelming sense that Balmer wrote more out of heated passion, rather than calm reflection that mars this book. Tip-off words such as insidious (122, 154), blasphemy (180), false gospel (190), theocracy (64-5, 181), minions (167), lockstep (160), hard-right orthodoxy (155, 160), deception and subterfuge (153) all suggest that Balmer really does believe that there is a “vast right-wing conspiracy” working to take over America. And so, in order to meet the crisis, Balmer wrote this apologetic on areas where the Religious Right distorts Christianity. By the end of the book, however, I could not help but think of L. Nelson Bell, founder of Christianity Today and a leading southern Presbyterian conservative in the twentieth century, who argued against ministers’ involvement in politics this way: “We resent this further intrusion of Church leaders into the realm of international polices for three reasons. First, they are not competent in that particular field. Second, they have no right to use the prestige of the Church in this matter. Third, we think their advice is dead wrong.” In reality, for Balmer, his problem with the Religious Right is not that their proponents are involved in politics, but that they are simply “dead wrong.”

From Balmer’s perspective, religious and political conservatives are wrong on school vouchers, which he typified as “the desire to garner taxpayer support for sectarian education” (82). In fact, vouchers are simply part of a “broader religious war on public education” (87). “Real Christians, those who take seriously the teachings of Jesus, should be fighting against voucher programs and charter schools because they perpetuate divisions, rather than reconciliation, within society,” Balmer claimed (93). But vouchers are only one weapon in that war; another is the homeschooling movement, which contributes both to the destruction of public schools and “a ghetto mentality” among Christians. Never mind that many parents choose to homeschool, utilizing their “fundamental” freedom to determine how their children are educated (82); such parents are betraying “an essential component of American culture” in doing so (95-6).

These religious conservatives are also wrong on “intelligent design” and the attempt to have it taught in public school classrooms. Here Balmer waxed his most conspiratorial, suggesting that “if the Religious Right, in this case the proponents of intelligent design, can win acceptance for their ideas in the academy, then they will have breached the final barrier to their conquest of American society” (122; he has similar statements on 140). The way these academic outsiders will complete their conquest is through “a Trojan horse by cloaking creationism in the guise of science: intelligent design” (123). Never mind that a majority of Americans believe that science ought to be taught from the perspective of intelligent design (as Balmer notes on 124); true Christians will want a public square in which there is “intellectual freedom to pursue ideas untrammeled by confessional agendas” (141). How intelligent design represents a confessional agenda that tramples intellectual freedom is unclear. Again, Balmer fails to engage in debate so much as bring the verdict that intelligent design is simply wrong, “nothing more than creationism in a cheap tuxedo” (141).

A third area where the Religious Right exercises tremendous power wrongly, according to Balmer, is in the area of the environment. As the benefactors of Big Business, they utilize the theological rhetoric of dominion to justify viewing “humanity as the apex of the created order” and trashing the earth in order to make life more livable for humans (151). Instead of actually engaging the environmental arguments of religious and political conservatives, Balmer simply associated prominent names with “a web of deception and subterfuge” (153). To be sure, there are places where evangelicals could be challenged in their practice of creation care; but the way that Balmer has prosecuted his argument will prevent any meaningful conversation from happening.

It may be apparent by now that Balmer’s book was more along the lines of a sermon than a serious and scholarly analysis. That being said, he does offer a solution to save America from the Religious Right: a renewed appreciation and enforcement of the separation of faith and politics. Balmer’s basic premise here is that “religion functions best when it is not tethered to particular political parties or ideologies. Religion works best when it operates from the margins of society and not at the centers of power and when it remains true to the faith and refuses to allow political interests to shape—or commandeer—its doctrines” (33).

While I personally agree that this is the case, it does not necessarily follow that faith should fail to shape political actions—and it is on this point that Balmer hesitates because this is not really his argument. His argument actually is that conservative faith shaping conservative politics is wrong; but his more enlightened Christianity, which prizes pluralism, public education, and intellectual freedom, is right. What is difficult to admit is that both sets of policy commitments flow equally from deeply held faith commitments, which is to be expected because religious beliefs and practices fundamentally shape personal identity. It would be impossible for Balmer to set aside his commitments; and a free state does well to make sure that he is able to make political statements and take actions in line with his personal identity as long as he does not break the law. In the same way, genuine pluralism would make sure to protect all religious expressions, which may result in wide-ranging political positions with which I or Balmer may disagree. This is because “equality before the law” demands that a variety of voices and faiths be accorded the same protections in the public square.

When Balmer attempts to transition his arguments against the relationship between faith and politics to defend a strict separation between church and state, he is less successful because he confuses the two categories. For example, when he worries over the ways some Religious Right operatives “would like nothing better than to dismantle the First Amendment,” he held this would produce “an America where public prayer is mandated in public schools, where school vouchers support religious rather than secular public education, and where religious texts, such as the Ten Commandments, are prominently displayed in government-funded spaces such as courts and schools” (48-9). While such policies may be ill-conceived, they do not act to establish a particular church; rather, they could violate the “religious establishment” clause of the First Amendment, which gets back to the issue of faith and public policy, not church and state. And as Balmer surely knows, exactly what the First Amendment meant is a matter of scholarly debate; certainly, it is a place where good people can disagree. By failing to preserve that meeting place where good people can talk and disagree, Thy Kingdom Come provides little light, but much heat, on the issues facing serious Christians today.

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