A Balm(er)y Fall

It's hard to keep up with Randall Balmer, but this fall is especially frenetic. Oxford University Press just released a new, twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory (and the scholar who had his evangelical conversion take place at Word of Life Bible Institute and the other scholar who performed as Jesus there will both remain nameless). A special panel at the upcoming Conference on Faith and History will address the many publics of Mine Eyes (Saturday morning).

With Balmer, however, there is always something new to match something old. Last May, Basic Books released his Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. Today, Elesha Coffman begins our three-part series of responses to the book. Look out in the next few weeks for the next two. (ejb)

Elesha Coffman

To paraphrase Mark Noll, the scandal of the evangelical left is that there is not much of an evangelical left. It does exist, as David Swartz has recently and Brantley Gasaway will soon remind us. Still, most writing on the topic adopts a wistful tone, pondering what might have been (or might yet be) if evangelicals disentangled themselves from political conservatism. If only different voices had gained a wider hearing, especially in the 1970s. If only the money and the organizational prowess had tipped the other way.

Randall Balmer takes a step further in his spiritual biography of Jimmy Carter, Redeemer. He posits that there actually was a viable, coherent “progressive evangelical” tradition, but twentieth-century evangelicals betrayed it. Instead of what might have been, this approach begs the question, “Who are we talking about?”

In this refreshingly brief, focused book, Balmer amply demonstrates that Carter was, himself, both progressive and evangelical. Except for a gubernatorial campaign during which he reluctantly courted segregationists, Carter vigorously opposed racial discrimination. He advocated women’s equality, responsible energy consumption, and a foreign policy centered on human rights, all unambiguously progressive causes. There was even less ambiguity about his evangelical faith. Carter talked about faith all the time, unlike his Democratic predecessor John F. Kennedy. And, unlike Ronald Reagan, Carter backed this talk with consistent church involvement. He not only attended First Baptist Church in Washington while serving as president, he also taught Sunday School there. The book brims with such revealing details about Carter’s religious life.

Balmer’s case for “the long and noble tradition of progressive evangelicalism” (xxiv) is shakier. He calls it “at one time the ascendant strain of evangelicalism in America” (xiv), referring roughly to the period between the Second Great Awakening and the Scopes Trial. Following the latter debacle, on Balmer’s timeline, evangelicals disappeared into political exile. Few even bothered to vote (xii), because premillennialism convinced them that engagement with the world was a waste of their fleeting time (xvii).

In the 1970s, Balmer’s narrative continues, progressive evangelicals tried to reignite passion for their tradition’s historic emphases: “nonviolence and peace, racial and sexual equality, economic justice, and care for those Jesus called ‘the least of these’” (45). Sadly, the spark fizzled. Instead, in 1977, Anita Bryant’s campaign against homosexuality in Florida “marked the beginning of conservative evangelical activity on a national level” (98). Then, conservative strategist Paul Weyrich seized on abortion as a rallying cause to replace his cronies’ no-longer-fashionable fondness for racial segregation. The rest is Religious Right history.

That last bit, about the right-to-life supplanting the right-to-segregate among conservative evangelicals (Balmer also told this story at Politico), makes for painful but important reading. 
Evangelicals today who see themselves forced to choose between standing on principle regarding contraception and homosexuality, or acquiescing to the framing of these issues as civil rights matters, need to be reminded that many of their institutions and spokesmen claimed not so long ago to stand on principle against equality for African Americans. No wonder critics of evangelicalism perceive these institutions and spokesmen (yes, they’re still mostly men) to be repeating the old pattern. Evangelicals who wish to argue that this time, it’s different, have to acknowledge that the tale Balmer uncovers weighs against their words. Last time was ugly.

The path Balmer takes to that juncture, though, is full of missteps. It is possible to identify a progressive evangelical tradition in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but folks in that tradition did not consistently advocate nonviolence and peace, racial and sexual equality, and economic justice. Sure, there were flashes of these ideas, but there was also plenty of support for the Civil War and World War I; for bearing the white man’s burden at home and abroad; for muscular masculinity and domesticated femininity; and for robber barons, provided that they also gave generously to their churches.

Furthermore, it is simply not credible to assert that all of the people who stood in this broad lineage went politically AWOL for the middle 50 years of the twentieth century. Though evangelicals were not watched as a salient bloc during that period, they did vote—and they constituted a higher percentage of voter turnout in 1960 than in 1976 or 1980, according to National Elections Studies. Also, if premillennialism killed political participation, evangelical resurgence shouldn’t have followed a few years after Hal Lindsey’s blockbuster The Late, Great Planet Earth. The subset of evangelicals who embrace premillennialism have proved plenty willing over the years to engage the world while anticipating its imminent demise.

Then there’s the whole fraught question of who should be counted as an evangelical. For example, the editors of the Christian Century self-consciously stood in the lineage of nineteenth-century progressive Protestantism, and they claimed the label “evangelical” until Carl F.H. Henry and Billy Graham snatched it away in the 1950s. These very politically engaged editors do not appear in Redeemer, though the magazine’s most prominent contributor, Reinhold Niebuhr, is repeatedly cited as Carter’s political inspiration. Including these figures in the progressive evangelical family tree would make some sense—Niebuhr was ordained in theEvangelical and Reformed Church, after all—but it would also significantly change Balmer’s narrative arc.

Balmer depicts Carter as the president evangelicals should have loved, if only they had listened to their own better angels. It is hard not to love Carter after reading this book, but it’s also hard to swallow Balmer’s representation of the evangelical tradition. Carter is better understood, as E. Brooks Holifield described him in a June 5, 1976, article for the New Republic, as the product of a few religious strands: revivalist Puritanism, the Baptist separation of church and state, and Niebuhr’s Christian realism. In other words, Carter represented a confluence of religious streams rather than a single tradition. He also served in the midst of a howling political storm, buffeted constantly by foreign and domestic crises. Balmer seems less interested in these complications, though, than in the pathos of a noble tradition, and a noble man, betrayed by callous, scheming conservatives. 


Mark T. Edwards said…
Very thoughtful review, Elesha, thanks for it.

Might it be truer to say, then, that Carter was the President the mainline should have loved? My understanding (from the essays in RELIGION AND THE BUSH PRESIDENCY) is that the mainline voted Republican until fairly recently. Or am I mistaken?
Elesha said…
Thanks, Mark! I haven't read _Religion and the Bush Presidency_. According to this graph by my friend Tobin Grant, though, it would appear that the mainline still leans Republican, at least if they're voting on domestic policies:


It's astonishing to me that, based on this data, the mainline opposes Big Government even more strongly than do evangelicals. I'm still trying to figure this out.

To your other question, if Holifield was right in identifying the streams that came together in Carter, he's the president that other revivalist, Baptist Niebuhrians should have loved. Only that doesn't describe much of anybody, which was kind of the problem. The Christian Century loved him, for whatever that's worth, but even its writers considered him ineffective.

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