Friday, October 15, 2010

Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical's Lament by Randall Balmer (Sep. of Church/State)

This book was a revelation to me. I read it not long after it was published in 2006. It was a time when I felt increasingly alienated from the media’s portrayal of Christianity as well as many local faith communities in Texas where I was living at the time. When I read the words of Jesus in the Bible, I was at a loss to understand how they could be used to support preemptive war and economic policies favoring the wealthy, as well as to foster hostility towards efforts to protect the most vulnerable in our society and the health of our fragile planet. However, until I found Thy Kingdom Come, I had begun to feel like one of the only folks who saw any type of a contradiction.

Dr. Balmer’s Preface begins:

I write as a jilted lover. The evangelical faith that nurtured me as a child and
sustains me as an adult has been hijacked by right-wing zealots who have
distorted the gospel of Jesus Christ, defaulted on the noble legacy of
nineteenth-century evangelical activism, and failed to appreciate the genius of
the First Amendment. They appear not to have read the same New Testament that I open before me every morning at the kitchen counter.

Randall Balmer is a professor of American religious history. One of the aspects of Thy Kingdom Come that I found most compelling was the historical commentary he provided to put into perspective the relatively recent attempts in the United States to impose religion on government. Although he is a committed Christian and well-versed in the Bible, Balmer makes clear he is not a theologian. He explicitly leaves to theologians the analysis and interpretation of Scripture.

As someone with many friends and family who belong to Southern Baptist congregations, I enjoyed reading of the history of the Baptist tradition. Balmer traces its roots to reformers in sixteenth century Europe who were deeply suspicious of church-state entanglements. In the New World, the Baptist tradition took root under the leadership of people like Roger Williams and Isaac Backus, who championed the ideas of separation of church and state. Williams was concerned that state endorsement of religion would diminish the authenticity of faith. Backus shared such concerns and noted that Jesus “made no use of secular force” in establishing the first Gospel church. Later, in the nineteenth century, George Washington Truett, characterized the Roman Empire’s embrace of Christianity as disastrous because “when Constantine crowned the union of church and state, the church was stamped with the spirit of the Caesars.” Truett also championed the concept of religious liberty as the “chiefest contribution” of America to civilization; he also declared it “preeminently a Baptist achievement.”

Balmer then compares the traditional Baptist scorn for mixing religion and government with the modern trend of many Baptists to meld the two. Since the late 1970s, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was taken over by conservatives. (Ironically, this took place during the presidency of a Southern Baptist, Jimmy Carter.) Since that time, the SBC has aligned itself more and more with the political movement of the Religious Right. Balmer gives examples of Baptist leaders advocating a mixing of religion and politics in the context of court rulings on school prayer, same sex marriage, reproductive choice issues, and the posting of the Ten Commandments on public property. Indeed, some leaders mentioned in the book are promoting the notion that the separation of church and state is a “myth” propagated by political opponents.

Nonetheless, historian Balmer builds a persuasive case that religion tends to flourish in societies where it is independent and not supported by the state. Indeed, I have witnessed this phenomenon first hand when I have traveled abroad. In countries where the government provides financial support to churches and/or regulates the activities of the church, I have been saddened by the way religion is marginalized in society. Certainly I witnessed this when I have traveled to the People’s Republic of China, and worshipped with local Christians. But I have also seen this happen in Europe, a traditional Christian stronghold in the two centuries since Jesus walked on this Earth.

When I lived in Europe for a school year in the 1990s, I traveled a fair amount around the continent and worshipped at a number of churches in the towns I visited. There were not as many churches as one typically encounters in the United States. Moreover, many of the church buildings are no longer even used for worship. Instead, many are vacant structures left to decay or are in decent shape physically but have been reduced to mere tourist venues. The churches that do open their doors for worship services typically have just one or two services each week, and have just a handful of worshippers at even the most popular services. When I lived in Europe, I was often one of the very few persons under the age of 60 in the churches I attended. I always wondered what would happen when those worshippers died or were physically unable to come to church any more. I was not sure if the folks who were middle aged at the time might take their place, or if there would eventually just be no worshippers.

In his book, occasionally Balmer does step aside from his role as historian and does inject a bit of theology:

But I know of no concept more radical than Jesus’ declaration of love.

This radical notion of love doesn’t comport very well with most
political agendas. Politics and politicians concern themselves with the
acquisition and the exercise of power, whereas the ethic of love, more often
than not, entails vulnerability and the abnegation of power. For the Religious
Right, the quest for power and political influence has led to both distortions
and contortions—the perpetration of the abortion myth, for instance, or the
selective literalism that targets certain sexual behaviors for condemnation,
while ignoring others. History, moreover, teaches us the dangers of allying
religion too closely with politics. It leads to intolerance in the political
arena, and it ultimately compromises the integrity of the faith.

This last line rings true to me and causes me particular concern. As a citizen and patriot, I am concerned about the intolerant attitudes displayed in our political arena these days. That is not good for our country. But perhaps more importantly, as a Christ follower, it disgusts me that the beliefs I hold so dear are betrayed by some Christians and non-believers for short-term political exploitation.

Ultimately, it is all in God’s hands. As a Christian, I believe my creator is omnipotent. He can install whomever he chooses in the White House, Congress or any other political office. Even the longest serving politicians are in office for only a finite political term. We human beings forget that God’s time line is much longer. To turn our back on his teachings in order to gain earthly power for a brief period, it astoundingly short-sighted, imprudent and tragic.

Matthew 22:21

Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

John 6:15

So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone.

Mark 8:36 (Amplified Bible)

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life [in the eternal kingdom of God]?

1 comment:

  1. We posted this on The Christian Left!

    Join us!