by John G. Turner
I found the July / August issue of Books & Culture in my mailbox yesterday. For some thoughtful interpretations of the intersection of religion with American politics, read two pieces by Randall Balmer (on Ron Sider) and Gary Scott Smith (on Randall Balmer). One receives point-counterpoint in only two pages.
First, Balmer reviews Ron Sider's latest scandal, The Scandal of Evangelical Politics (Baker, 2008), and finds it insufficiently discerning of said scandal. In fact, Balmer concludes his review by lamenting that "one of our clearest, most prophetic voices [Sider] has been reduced to equivocation" for adopting the triumphalism of contemporary evangelicalism and failing to critique mainstream views ranging from the Iraq War to homosexuality. In his review, Balmer also includes his own conclusions of the Religious Right:
The cautionary lesson from the sorry saga of the Religious Right lies not in the movement's political ineptitude, egregious as that has been, but in its devaluing of the gospel in the quest for political influence. The New Testament suggests that religion always functions best from the margins of society and not in the councils of power—a principle strongly reinforced by an overview of American history. Whenever people of faith begin grasping after power, they lose their prophetic voice. This was no less true of mainline Protestantism in the 1950s, tethered as it was to white, middle-class Eisenhower suburbanism, than it has been of the Religious Right in the decades surrounding the turn of the 21st century.
Smith commends Balmer's "critique of American Christians' self-delusion and hubris," found in his latest God in the White House (Harperone, 2008). Balmer -- and I certainly agree -- questions whether any "clear connection exists between a president's faith and personal morality and his policies." [See discussion thread about John McCain below]. Yet Smith still finds something of greater significance in presidential faith:
On the other hand, in many instances, the faith of presidents has strengthened their character, increased their courage and confidence, helped them deal with the immense challenges of their office, inspired them to exhort Americans to live up to their best ideals, and encouraged citizens to promote policies that truly embody biblical teaching ... their personal faith has generally helped them perform their duties more effectively.
For those tired of both historical and contemporary wrangling over religion and politics, Paul Harvey has an entertaining review (no link yet) of Scott Gac's Singing for Freedom (Yale, 2007). Gac's book recovers the ministry of a largely unknown set of entertainers, the Hutchinson Family Singers (whose popularity appears to have peaked in the 1840s). The Hutchinsons were an antislavery, "antiminstrelsy" who sang lyrics such as these:
Yes we're friends of emancipation
And we'll sing the proclamation,
'Til it echoes through our nation from the Old Granite State
That the Tribe of Jesse
That the Tribe of Jesse
That the Tribe of Jesse are the friends of Equal Rights.
The Hutchinsons lend support to Balmer's contention that "religion always functions best from the margins of society and not in the councils of power—a principle strongly reinforced by an overview of American history." On the other hand, Abraham Lincoln might provide yet another counterpoint...