Among the Intellectualoids

The Liberal Jesus

A plethora of new books is pouring out explaining why Jesus is not a Republican. The latest is by the very angry Randall Balmer.

By 7.26.06

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WASHINGTON -- A plethora of new books is poring out explaining why Jesus is not a Republican. Supposedly millions of conservatives believe that the Savior does have a political registration. So liberal theologians and activists are rushing to the barricades to correct the record.

The irony is that theological conservatives are the most likely to recognize that the Eternal Son of God transcends human political labels, and the least likely to ascribe salvific importance to politics, important though politics may be.

Theological liberals, who usually have abandoned doctrines about divine transcendence and eternal judgment, are far more likely to prioritize politics. In fact, politics is often all they have.

The latest book of warning is Randall Balmer's Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical's Lament. Although clearly a political liberal, Balmer emphatically denies that he is a theological liberal. Indeed, he is a "passionate evangelical" who is distressed by evangelical alignment with political conservatives. He is particularly distressed the conservative evangelicals are supporting the Bush Administration, whose "chicanery, bullying, and flouting of the rule of law...make Richard Nixon look like a fraternity prankster."

Balmer, who teaches American religious history at Barnard College, insists that evangelicals historically and rightly are aligned with "progressive" political causes like the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, and public education. But seduced by the issues of homosexuality and abortion, much of the organized evangelical movement in the U.S. has now sold its soul to the Republican Party. With his usual nuanced subtlety, Balmer discerns that the Religious Right "hankers for the kind of homogeneous theocracy that the Puritans tried to establish in 17th-century Massachusetts" and "renege on the First Amendment."

Conservative evangelicals are also hypocrites, Balmer contends. Absurdly, he cites conservative evangelical support for the bribe-taking Congressman Randy Cunningham, for a Washington state mayor who solicited sexual favors over the Internet, for Ralph Reed despite his coziness with gambling interests, and for the casino visiting William Bennett. After their public exposure, of course, Cunningham, the Spokane mayor, and Ralph Reed are all now politically finished. Bennett, who is Catholic and not Baptist, probably was not sinning in Las Vegas, according to the teachings of his own church.

Much of Balmer's reaction to conservative religionists is angry and personal. In a chapter from his book excerpted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he alleges that evangelicals "prize conformity above all else." Supposedly longtime friends and family members have stricken him from their Christmas card list because he has daringly "challenged the shibboleths of the Religious Right" (i.e. he has liberal political beliefs).

Given the heat and tone of Balmer's rhetoric, it is probably not his politics but his irritable attitude that has estranged his relationships with fellow evangelicals. His anger leads him to distort and assume the very worst about their motives and positions. Who wants to send a Christmas card to the angry cousin who is always denouncing you?

ONE EXAMPLE OF BALMER'S technique involves my organization, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). Supposedly, the Religious Right, with which Balmer lumps IRD, refuses to "climb out of the Republican Party's cozy bed over the torture of human beings." He claims, after having contacted us during the course of his book writing, that IRD is "eager to defend" the supposedly pro-torture policies of the Bush Administration.

By "defend," what he really meant is that we declined to denounce the Bush Administration. We also declined to denounce the Clinton Administration. IRD primarily reports about what church officials do and say politically. Almost never do we critique U.S. politicians. Balmer omits that fact because he evidently was looking for a stereotype to fulfill. He was kind enough to include an actual quote from IRD, which was that "torture is a violation of human dignity, contrary to biblical teachings." But because we do not automatically accept his premise that the Bush Administration supports torture and respond with a denunciation, therefore we are soft on torture.

Balmer basically wants his fellow evangelicals to stop supporting conservative political causes and candidates and to start espousing the liberal ones that he prefers. Here is how he heatedly describes the highly problematic conservative evangelicals: They support

an expansion of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the continued prosecution of a war in the Middle East that enraged our longtime allies and would not meet even the barest of just-war criteria, and a rejiggering of Social Security, the effect of which, most observers agree, would be to fray the social-safety net for the poorest among us. Public education is very much imperiled by Republican policies, to the evident satisfaction of the religious right, and it seeks to replace science curricula with theology, thereby transforming students into catechumens. America's grossly disproportionate consumption of energy continues unabated, prompting demands for oil exploration in environmentally sensitive areas. The Bush administration has jettisoned U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which called on Americans to make at least a token effort to combat global warming. Corporate interests are treated with the kind of reverence and deference once reserved for the deity.

Of course, millions of evangelicals agree with Balmer's agenda of the left. Twenty or thirty percent of evangelicals, which includes millions of voters, support Democratic candidates of whom Balmer would probably approve. Of course, mainline Protestant officials espouse liberal political causes that Balmer supports. Meanwhile, most mainline Protestants tend to vote Republican. Catholics are usually evenly divided, but in recent years, church-going Catholics have favored Republicans. Black churchgoers are socially conservative but vote Democratic. No faith community is monolithic.

Decades ago, liberal mainline church leaders used to dominate the media. But their denominations lost millions of members and now they are mostly ignored. Meanwhile, conservative evangelical churches and movements grew. Now, their leaders fill the airtime. If Balmer and his fellow liberal evangelicals can repeat that demographic success, they will get their share of airtime too.

Balmer complains that the evangelical community, especially its schools, has shut him out because of his provocative opinions. This is somewhat laughable. There is a growing liberal movement on evangelical campuses. Many evangelical academics, eager to distance themselves from Pat Robertson, have endorsed a smorgasbord of liberal causes, from Global Warming, to the "One Campaign," to opposing the "torture" that U.S. law already prohibits. Balmer should have plenty of company. He certainly would be a welcome speaker at liberal-dominated mainline Protestant and some Catholic schools. And doubtless secular campuses would throw upon their doors to him, even as they shun conservative evangelicals.

When Balmer claims that evangelical academic institutions do not "suffer rebels gladly," does he consider how conservative evangelicals fare at liberal institutions?

EVER THE MARTYR, Balmer warns ominously that after his book hits the streets "the minions of the religious right will seek to discredit me rather than engage the substance of my arguments." Indeed, they will denounce him as a "member of the academic elite, spokesman for the Northeastern establishment, misguided liberal, prodigal son, traitor to the faith, etc."

Balmer takes himself a little too seriously. And he does not provide many substantive arguments with which to engage. Instead, he vents and rages that most evangelicals are conservative rather than liberal. It is not clear why that is so upsetting to him. The Religious Left, composed of old-line Protestant agencies and liberal Catholic orders, is just as moneyed and expansive as the Religious Right.

True, the Religious Left does not marshal the number of voters that the Religious Right does. Perhaps that is because it is dominated by "academic elites" and the "Northeastern establishment" rather than by ordinary church-going people. But Balmer does not deeply examine that possibility.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.