Faith in Public Live, Part 6: Balmer on the Origins of the Religious Right

August 23, 2006, 9:27 am | Posted by

Dear Bruce,

The causes you cite behind the rise of the Religious Right — the civil rights movement, Francis Schaeffer, Reconstructionism, and the like — are absolutely correct, though I think we can push it back even farther. (I might add to your list the reaction to the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s.)

William Jennings Bryan, probably the most identifiable evangelical in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, would be considered a political liberal by almost any standard today. Bryan, three-time Democratic nominee for president and Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, was involved in liberal and progressive causes.

Bryan, however, suffered a brutal character assassination at the hands of H. L. Mencken during the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in July 1925. He died in Dayton several days after the trial, and evangelicals thereafter retreated into a subculture of their own making. Evangelicals (at least those in the North) were largely inactive in political matters during those years, until the emergence of Jimmy Carter as a national figure in the mid-1970s.

During this half-century of political quiescence, there was a good bit of cold war rhetoric in evangelical circles, and this had the effect of nudging evangelicals toward the right. That tendency was abetted also by the very public friendship between Billy Graham and Richard Nixon, who formed a bond in the 1950s when they were both coming of age as anti-communist crusaders.

At that point, the forces you mentioned came into play, leading to the organization of the Religious Right as a political entity in the late 1970s. This coalition, as I demonstrate in the book, coalesced, not as a direct response to the Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973, but rather in an attempt to defend the tax-exempt status of institutions like Bob Jones University, despite their racially discriminatory policies.

By the way, as you know from reading Thy Kingdom Come, I don’t much care for the term Christian Right to describe this loose federation of politically conservative evangelicals. I think Religious Right is far better. I find the term Christian Right offensive, because I detect little that I would identify as Christian in the actions and the agenda of the Religious Right.

Randall Balmer

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Faith in Public Live Part 5: Mainstream Baptist Posts Back

August 22, 2006, 12:57 pm | Posted by


Thanks for your kind words about Mainstream Baptists. We are indeed calling Baptists back to their birthright as advocates for liberty of conscience and we are not alone.

While the news media has been fixated on the political antics of the current leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, moderate and progressive Baptists across America have been quietly working to forge new alliances. Some reconfigurations are taking place that may strengthen the voice of traditional Baptists. In June 2007 American Baptists (Baptists in the North) and Cooperative Baptists (moderate Baptists that left the SBC in 1990) are holding a historic first joint session in Washington, D.C. A few months later, Mainstream Baptists are involved in planning a meeting for all North American Baptists.

Bill Underwood, President of Mercer University, described the significance of this new movement with these words:

There are whispers of an exciting new movement emerging in Baptist life. Within the past several weeks, leaders of Baptist organizations representing more than 20 million Baptists have launched an unprecedented initiative to advance the Kingdom through the combined voice and work of Baptists throughout North America. Baptists from the North and from the South. Black and white Baptists, conservative, moderate and progressive Baptists joining together in a covenant — the North American Baptist Covenant — to affirm “their desire to speak and work together to create an authentic and genuine prophetic Baptist voice in these complex times.”

David asked what features of modern American society created the opportunity for the ideological development of the Christian Right religio-political machine. Here are some of features that I think have been most overlooked in reporting about the rise of the Religious Right:

The Civil Rights Movement. Randall is one of the few who have written about the abortion myth that the Religious Right developed to explain their conception. He emphasizes the role that the 1972 Green v. Connally decision played in motivating religious conservatives to organize politically. Anyone with a memory that extends back to the mid-1960′s knows that the names and faces of the religious leaders who opposed Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement and school integration are largely the same as those who led the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980′s.

Christian Reconstructionism. I think Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto served as a bridge from more traditional conservative evangelical thought to the theocratic ideology of Rousas J. Rushdoony. Schaeffer and Rushdoony always shared a presuppositionalist apologetic and a belief that the U.S. was founded as a Christian Nation. Schaeffer’s latest writings also appear to be encouraging some form of Christian Dominionism.

The Council for National Policy. In 1981 Tim LaHaye, Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie founded a secretive Christian lobbying group which appears to have played a significant role in frequently bringing together America’s most powerful conservative politicians, journalists, lawyers, and industrialists to strategize about politics and public policy with Christian right leaders .

I would be interested in learning what the two of you think about these features of modern American life.


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Faith in Public Live Part 4: Balmer and the Good Baptists Still Left

August 21, 2006, 4:49 pm | Posted by

Dear Bruce,

I returned last night from a weekend in North Carolina — a meeting at the National Humanities Center on Saturday, and then on Saturday night a lecture and discussion at the Regulator Bookstore in Durham and on Sunday morning a gathering at the Unitarian Universalist church in Raleigh. The latter two events, as you might guess, centered around Thy Kingdom Come.

I gave a presentation and a short synopsis of the book, including a brief account of the second chapter, “Where Have All the Baptists Gone?: Roy’s Rock, Roger Williams, and the First Amendment.” I made my passionate plea for the recovery of the Baptist tradition in America, especially noting the importance of safeguarding the separation of church and state.

The lectures were well-received, but what surprised me somewhat was the number of people who stood during the question-and-answer session to declare that they are real Baptists — meaning that they remain faithful to the Baptist tradition of maintaining the line of separation between church and state. What I found especially striking was the pride in their voices as they affirmed Baptist principles. The audience (well over a hundred in both venues) applauded lustily.

In checking my e-mail messages this morning, I found a kind note from Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee. He thanked me for the book, but he also reminded me that there are indeed a good number of real Baptists left in America, so I’d like to use this post to underscore that fact.

You and your organization of Mainstream Baptists are another example of people who seek to call Baptists back to their birthright. I applaud all of you. Keep up the good fight against the counterfeit Baptists. It’s important for the integrity of the faith, and it’s essential for the future of America.

Keep the faith,

Randall Balmer

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The Radical Right, Again Attacking Families

August 21, 2006, 3:07 pm | Posted by

For the second time in less than a month, radical right leaders (those champions of family values) have used the family of a political candidate as a target for attack. In late July it was the shameful questioning of the sexual orientation of Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland and his wife. The most recent attack has taken place in Arkansas at the hands of the American Family Association. This email, sent to the AFA’s supporters last week, speaks for itself (hat-tip to the Arkansas Times for the find):

If you are a member of the United Methodist Church, I felt you would be interested in the two sermons preached by Rev. Betsy Singleton, pastor of Quapaw Quarter United Methodist Church in Little Rock. If you are not a United Methodist, please forward this to any friends you may have who are United Methodist.

Rev. Singleton is probably better known as being the wife of U.S. Representative Vic Snyder.

Sermon: Is Homosexuality a Sin? — click here

Sermon: Is Christianity the Only Way? — click here


Donald E. Wildmon, Founder and Chairman

American Family Association

The AFA can’t come right out and campaign against Rep. Snyder, so they drop this hint to their base as election season approaches. As usual, the willingness of these groups to manipulate religion for partisan gain seems to know no bounds.

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Faith in Public Live Part 3: Buckley on Mainstream Baptist’s Good Question

August 18, 2006, 4:16 pm | Posted by

Dear Randall and Bruce,

First of all, thanks to you both for taking the time to join in this exchange. You’re both experts in this field, so it’s a real treat to have you bouncing ideas off of one another.

I have a feeling that the two of you agree on a good many things about the current state of Baptist thought on the First Amendment. So allow me to throw a question or two out there that may stir the pot a bit. Bruce, I found your closing question compelling, and would like to hear both of you spend a good bit of time actually answering it. Why, in God’s name, are Baptists erecting monuments to Pilgrims and Puritans in Massachusetts?

The well-developed Christian Right religio-political machine undoubtedly has something to do with answering this question. But that seems to me to be only half of the answer. Why has that machine found such fertile ground for its ideas, especially since they seem to fly in the face of so much history? What features of modern American society created the opportunity for such ideological development?

It seems to me that these questions have a lot to do with how one responds to the Christian Right. How do we critique the Right whlie offering an alternative vision that imbues American public life with enough meaning to sustain our republican project? In other words, what different prescription should we offer for the ailments that the Christian Right has manipulated to its own advantage?

Many thanks, and looking forward to how the conversation progresses next week,


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