A Tale of Two Randalls

Editor's Note: Ed Blum is back in the house again -- this time as our newest permanent contributing editor! I assured him he wouldn't have to learn html, and he agreed to contribute periodically as the spirit moves -- we'll call that a bargain, the best we ever had (with apologies to Pete Townshend). He begins with a comparative reflection on two seemingly dissimilar recent books, including one by our contributing editor Randall Stephens.

A Tale of Two Randalls

It is hard not to love a good pair. Two socks are always better than one; I still hope that Sonny and Cher will reunite in the afterlife; and who can imagine Clyde without Bonny. I guess this makes me a little like Noah; not the last righteous man or drunk and naked under a vine, but having a propensity for twos. So today I want to draw your attention to two Randalls: Stephens and Balmer. Both have recently published incredible books in American religious history – one on presidents, the other on Pentecostals; one of friends in high places, the other, well, with friends that traffic with Garth Brooks. Interestingly, Stephens’s The Fire Spreads and Balmer’s God in the White House may have more in common than at first glance.

Randall Balmer is a name we all know. I first encountered him in the summer of 1999; I was babysitting at the pool and reading Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. It was great vacation reading then, and is still today. His sensitivity and insight for religious people often misunderstood is amazing. Balmer fashioned himself then as the grand critic and insider of evangelical America, and everyone seemed to agree he was ideal for the role. Now, with God in the White House, Balmer has taken up a prescient task – explaining the relationship between religion and the American presidency over the past four decades.

God in the White House is a book we desperately need. Balmer has studied and thought deeply about what is on everyone’s mind: religion and the modern presidency. Whether we’re trying to figure out Romney’s chances as a Mormon or Obama’s connection to African American Christianity, God in the White House helps us to understand the possibilities and perils of linking religion and politics. Balmer shows, hilariously at times, sadly on other occasions, a sweeping change over the past four decades. In 1960, John F. Kennedy urged Americans to disregard a politician’s faith when making a choice. By 2008, personal faith is ubiquitous in American politics. Balmer narrates how this happened. He takes the reader through the presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush; through the streets of Dallas, the hallways of Watergate, the tax status of Bob Jones University, and the prayer meetings of Bill Clinton. This is a remarkable book. It is much about the American present as it is the past.

It’s also funny. I laughed riotously when Jacqueline Kennedy faulted John’s critics about his faith when she commented, “I think it’s so unfair of people to be against Jack because he’s Catholic, … He’s such a poor Catholic.” There are bunches of quotes just like this.

Those vying for the White House should rush off, buy God in the White House, and read it immediately (or at least they should have an aide look into it). Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert should line up Balmer (and heck, other political news anchors, such as Tim Russert, should court Balmer’s time too). This is certainly the type of religious literacy we need far more than knowledge about the New England Primer. Balmer has an outrageous idea that Americans should consider, one that might make politicians shudder: we, the people, should hold our politicians accountable for the religious rhetoric they use. Say Jesus inspired you most, for example, then you better prize the humble, the poor, and the downtrodden. If not, then expect the wrath of the people.

Some scholars may dislike Balmer’s penchant for moral criticism, especially of conservative politics and politicians. It is true, Balmer tends to believe Bill Clinton while distrusting George W. Bush. Dissenters might say that Balmer is too political, too much of a presentist. But I think this type of criticism is misguided. Howard Zinn shouldn’t have had to tell us almost forty years ago, nor now, that history is political. There is no getting around it. And Balmer shouldn’t have to remind us, as Sydney Ahlstrom always said (so I’m told, I never met him) that one of the offices of the religious historian is to look at the moral world she sees and to tell the narrative of how we arrived there. Rather than lambast Balmer for being too political, his opponents should write honest moral histories of the Bush clan, of Ronald Reagan, and of Richard Nixon. Show Balmer, prove to him and others, that these men led Christian lives that translated into policies that supported Christian aims of love, mercy, forgiveness, honesty, compassion, and caring.

In 2008, it is almost impossible to stand aloof from politics. It would have even been hard for the people discussed in Randall Stephens’s The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South. But I’m sure they would have managed. The Fire Spreads isn’t as funny as Balmer’s book, but it contains its share of chuckles. Remember John Ashcroft’s “Let the Eagle Soar” song (if not, check it out on youtube; uproarious)? Who would have known that it stemmed, in part, from his Pentecostal roots? Or how about when those who think they have the gift of speaking in foreign tongues trek out to those foreign lands. Surprise, surprise, they really couldn’t speak Swahili. Stephens, too, narrates a story of how religious ideas moved from outside of the political realm into the mainstream. But instead of focusing on elite figures, he focuses on the grassroots. This is truly history from the bottom-up, and done at its best.

The Fire Spreads tells the tale of how first the holiness crusade crept into the South and then the Pentecostal movement swept in. Both, he suggests, were imports. Holiness descended from the North, while Pentecostalism went against the grain, moving West to East. Stephens is at his best when discussing holiness/Pentecostal battles with established Protestant denominations. He finds, for instance, that theological battles with the mainstream led holiness adherents to adopt pessimistic worldviews and premillennialism. Perhaps their internal church battles led Pentecostals to avoid politics, Stephens conjectures. In his final chapter, Stephens shows how a coterie of white Pentecostals joined the American mainstream by hitching their wagon to conservative politics. These may be some of the people with whom Randall Balmer is so upset.

I was fascinated by the role of holiness in sectional reconciliation after the Civil War. As Stephens shows brilliantly, holiness advocates and Pentecostals in the South really didn’t care about the Lost Cause or issues of race or making a whole lot of money. Their apolitical stance – toward the Civil War and toward southern identity – may have aided in the process of national reconciliation, at least by not stirring up the pot. Stephens directs us to spend more time thinking about the relationship between religion and regional relationships.

These two Randalls not only deserve our congratulations, but they merit our attention. Both books speak to the importance of religion in American politics. Both books teach us so much about the state of our world. Maybe they’ll help us pick a better president. Maybe they’ll help us understand the worlds we inhabit both politically and spiritually. I know they did for me.


Anonymous said…
If folks have other thoughts on these books - or questions, concerns, whatever - feel free to post them here.

For instance, I forgot to mention one other point about Stephens's argument. He focuses a significant amount of attention on the print culture of the holiness and Pentecostal folk. He suggests, at one point, in an argument that parallels Candy Brown's work on the 19th century, that their literary work helped create communities of belief that (sometimes) rose above their local congregational communities.
Randall said…
Looking forward to reading Balmer's new book. I've enjoyed Thy Kingdom Come. He summarized that pretty well in the Chronicle some time ago: http://chronicle.com/free/v52/i42/42b00601.htm

I've noticed that recent works on evangelicalism and pentecostalism have really shifted the focus to the ways that these movements were, in many ways, modernist. From the late 19th cen. on followers used the most modern means to promote an olde tyme religion. I'm thinking in particular of the work of Roger Robins, Matt Sutton, Anthea Butler, and others.

I've been wondering bout that element, the modern/tech savvy bit, and how it might make an interesting focus for an edited vol., panel, or conference.
DEG said…
Funny y'all should bring this up since I was chatting with a friend about this topic this very morning. I'm seeing that fascination with modern technology with the Christian entrepreneurs I'm studying, especially the evangelical ones. You should read S. Truett Cathy of Chick-fil-A wax rhapisodic (and theological!) about the chicken friers he experimented with in the 1950s and 1960s. Or Anthony Rossi on the technology behind Tropicana's mass produced orange juice. Since market dominance depends on technological acumen and innovation, these businessmen had to be modern if they wanted to confirm their own theological views about the American Dream. They may not go the way of affirming evolution or social science, but for the most part, modern science and religion were a (literally) profitable mix.
Anonymous said…
Ed, great post, and it's great to have the promise of more regular missives from you.

A few random responses:

1) In general, I agree with your statements re: presentism and politics. And I have no problem with historians openly making moral judgments, since all do. My only concern is for historians while making such judgments to treat their evidence and their subjects fairly. I haven't fully read any of Randall B's books since Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. I thought he treated evangelicals very fairly in that book.

2) I don't have links for them, but exchanges between John Wilson and Randall Balmer in Books & Culture about two years ago were rather gripping reading on the above topic.

3) I thoroughly enjoyed reading Randall S's The Fire Spreads. First of all, it's very well written throughout and therefore a pleasure to read. It's also full of fascinating anecdotes. I thought the treatment of conflicts both between holiness denominations and mainliners and then later between pentecostals and holiness denominations was particularly illumininating.

Popular Posts