Congregations can play an important role in helping individuals live as people of faith in today’s world, agreed two nationally recognized authorities on evangelicals during a recent Alban Institute event.
Randall Balmer, professor of American religion at Columbia University’s Barnard College, encouraged congregations to provide education on such issues as the separation of church and state.
“The challenge for all of us who call ourselves the followers of Jesus is to try to puzzle out the real intricacies of how we function in essentially two worlds,” he explained. “That’s not easy to do.
“I function in this world as a believer, as a follower of Jesus, as an evangelical Christian—whatever label I want to attach to it. But I’m also a citizen of a gorgeously pluralistic and diverse society, which means that my behavior in that larger society has to conform to the basic etiquette of democracy.”
People of faith, therefore, may voice their opinions in the larger society, Balmer explained, but should not coerce others. In addition, people of faith should accord the same right of expression to others who differ with them.
Rich Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, agreed on the difficult nature of functioning in those two worlds. “We evangelicals have never understood how to have a public faith,” he said. “We understand how to have a private faith and how to have a public citizenship, but we haven’t understood how to have a public faith.”
Evangelicals, he added, have tended to jump over the moral theology provided by the Catholic Church. The NAE, which represents more than 60 evangelical denominations, has developed a document that attempts to address this area.
There is a need for congregations, according to Cizik, that “talk to one another and are led by people who are open and willing to do that.” He said that he is seeing more evangelical pastors who are willing to do this than in the past and who are willing to “stand up and say no to some of the voices of our movement.”
Cizik argued for a new consensus of the middle that would involve evangelicals, mainline Protestants, and Catholics. This new consensus, he said, could show a new way of behaving that would avoid the “acrimony, the almost visceral hate that’s out there” and “drive to the margins those that continue to behave that way.”
Balmer and Cizik spoke to more than 60 congregational leaders during an Alban-sponsored discussion of Balmer’s book Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament.
Balmer explained that he wrote the book as a “jilted lover” whose evangelical faith “has been hijacked by right-wing zealots.” Leaders within the Religious Right, he continued, have distorted the gospel, contorting something that is “lovely and redemptive” into something that is “ugly and punitive.” They also have ignored evangelicalism’s historical tradition of attempting to reform society—especially on behalf of people on the margins.
An evangelical who is a political liberal, Balmer said that for a long time he treated the Religious Right like a “bad cold or a nagging cough,” thinking that if he ignored it, it would go away. That changed, he explained, on the morning of November 3, 2004. As a result, he began working on Thy Kingdom Come.
In the book, Balmer confronts the “abortion myth,” arguing that the Religious Right did not emerge as a political movement in direct response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Rather, he contends, the group mobilized around an effort by the Internal Revenue Service to remove the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policies. It was only later, he said, that abortion became one of the issues that would animate the Religious Right.
Balmer said that he does not think that racism was at the heart of this movement. Instead, he explained, the issue was “defending the sanctity of the subculture,” which had developed since the 1920s. As evangelicals retreated from the larger culture, they formed a network of organizations—including Bible camps and schools, publishing houses, and missionary societies—in an effort to protect themselves and their children from the corruption of the larger world. They, therefore, saw the attempt to remove the tax-exempt status of part of this network as an attack, Balmer explained.
In his book’s exploration of “where have all the Baptists gone,” Balmer makes an argument for a Baptist cornerstone—the separation of church and state. He said that he believes that a key to the success of American religious life has been free expression of religion without government interference. He voiced a concern that blurring the separation between church and state could lead to a trivializing of faith.
“I am not arguing, by any stretch of the imagination, that people of faith should be silent in the arena of public discourse,” Balmer explained. “I happen to think that the arena of public dialogue would be impoverished without voices of faith.”
Instead, he noted the dangers when faith is too closely aligned with any particular political movement, party, or administration. When this happens, he continued, faith can lose its prophetic voice.
Balmer also uses his book to explore public education, intelligent design, and the environment, as well as the responses that evangelicals have provided regarding each of those issues.
In the book’s conclusion, Balmer notes that his travels have made him more suspicious of the leaders of the Religious Right—whom he argues have “led their sheep astray from the gospel of Jesus Christ to the false gospel of neoconservative ideology.” He writes that his regard for “the flock,” however, has remained undiminished, and he urges these believers to “recover the scandal of the gospel” and rescue evangelicalism.
In responding to Balmer’s presentation, Cizik contended that—despite their good intentions—evangelicals at times have been naïve and, as a result, have been “played.” Although acknowledging that issues in which evangelicals become involved can be “highjacked by people with political agendas,” Cizik contended that it is a “sincere commitment to a certain set of principals” that drives evangelicals.
Cizik spoke about the complexity of today’s evangelical community. He noted the diversity of opinions that exists among evangelicals on a variety of topics, including those addressed in Balmer’s book. That diversity, he explained, makes it difficult for organizations such as his own to take positions that will not be too divisive.
He also pointed to the difficulty that exists today in trying to translate the language of faith to public life. He sees that difficulty especially among evangelicals who, as pietists, see “belief and action as two sides of the same coin.”
The environment, Cizik said, may provide an issue around which a number of evangelicals can come together and take meaningful action. He pointed to several NAE projects related to the environment as hopeful examples of this positive development.
“Evangelical activists and others, they do have good intentions,” he said. “There is a concept in their head that, yes, there is a world here that we should change for Christ, there is a gospel that says we should stand for these things. Well, at times we do get played.
“But nonetheless, we are pursuing these principles that range from human rights all the way to creation care, and we are going to flesh this out in ways that are true to our tradition.”
Copyright © 2006 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go to www.alban.org/permissions.asp.
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