Randall Balmer: Jesus Is Not a Republican

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Randall Balmer is a professor of American religious history at Barnard College. This essay is excerpted from Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical's Lament, to be published next month by Perseus Books.]

In November 2002, 30 years after my previous visit to Wheaton College to hear George McGovern, I approached the podium in Edman Chapel to address the student body. At evangelical colleges like Wheaton, in Illinois, there are two kinds of required gatherings: chapel and convocation. The former is religious in nature, whereas a speaker at convocation has the license to be far more discursive, even secular — or political. The college's chaplain, however, had invited me to preach in chapel, not convocation, and so, despite temptation, I delivered a homily that was, as I recall, not overly long, appropriate to the occasion, and reasonably well received.

I doubt very much that I will be invited back to Edman Chapel. One of the benefits of being reared within evangelicalism, I suppose, is that you understand the workings of the evangelical subculture. I know, for example, that when my new book on evangelicals appears, the minions of the religious right will seek to discredit me rather than engage the substance of my arguments. The initial wave of criticism, as an old friend who has endured similar attacks reminded me, will be to deny that I am, in fact, really an evangelical Christian. When that fails — and I'll put up my credentials as an evangelical against anyone's! — the next approach will be some gratuitous personal attack: that I am a member of the academic elite, spokesman for the Northeastern establishment, misguided liberal, prodigal son, traitor to the faith, or some such. Another evangelical friend with political convictions similar to mine actually endured a heresy trial.

The evangelical subculture, which prizes conformity above all else, doesn't suffer rebels gladly, and it is especially intolerant of anyone with the temerity to challenge the shibboleths of the religious right. I understand that. Despite their putative claims to the faith, the leaders of the religious right are vicious toward anyone who refuses to kowtow to their version of orthodoxy, and their machinery of vilification strikes with ruthless, dispassionate efficiency. Longtime friends (and not a few family members) will shuffle uneasily around me and studiously avoid any sort of substantive conversation about the issues I raise — and then quietly strike my name from their Christmas-card lists. Circle the wagons. Brook no dissent.

And so, since my chances of being invited back to Edman Chapel have dropped from slim to none, I offer here an outline of what I would like to say to the students at Wheaton and, by extension, to evangelicals everywhere.

Evangelicals have come a long way since my visit to Edman Chapel in 1972. We have moved from cultural obscurity — almost invisibility — to becoming a major force in American society. Jimmy Carter's run for the presidency launched us into the national consciousness, but evangelicals abandoned Carter by the end of the 1970s, as the nascent religious right forged an alliance with the Republican Party.

In terms of cultural and political influence, that alliance has been a bonanza for both sides. The coalition dominates talk radio and controls a growing number of state legislatures and local school boards. It is seeking, with some initial success, to recast Hollywood and the entertainment industry. The Republicans have come to depend on religious-right voters as their most reliable constituency, and, with the Republicans firmly in command of all three branches of the federal government, leaders of the religious right now enjoy unprecedented access to power.

And what has the religious right done with its political influence? Judging by the platform and the policies of the Republican Party — and I'm aware of no way to disentangle the agenda of the Republican Party from the goals of the religious right — the purpose of all this grasping for power looks something like this: 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....

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