Evangelicalism in America

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Randall Balmer
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , October
     2016.
     211 pages.
     $24.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481305976.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Randall Balmer is a well-known name among those who study Evangelicalism. His Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory (Oxford University Press, 2006) is a standard introduction to the topic. Known for his sympathies toward and criticisms of the Evangelical movement, it is instructive to consider Balmer’s insights in this small book of his collected essays, Evangelicalism in America. Bringing together eleven articles from lectures and previously written pieces, this collection serves as a useful overview of Balmer’s work in the field while at the same time giving a sense of the scope of the movement.

The first essay—“An Altogether Conservative Spirit: The First Amendment, Political Stability, and Evangelical Vitality”—considers the differences between Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson. Both advocated for religious freedom, but from divergent perspectives. This very freedom has led to political stability, Balmer suggests, in that Americans have been free to take out their frustrations in the religious sphere, allowing for an undercurrent of centrist political life. (One does have to wonder if the future will continue to support this observation.) This “siphoning dissent away from politics into the realm of religion” has been an unrecognized gift of Evangelicalism (9).

“Turning West: American Evangelicalism and the Restorationist Tradition,” the second essay, explores how around the time of the Second Great Awakening, American religious thinkers began to leave European traditions behind in favor of a kind of primitivism. Such expression of religious thought sought to return to the Bible—especially the New Testament—in an effort to use the “plain sense” of Scripture as the paradigm for Christian life and belief. This naturally played into the Evangelical movements beginning around that time, although the social critique moved away from early egalitarian concerns. Essays three—“Casting Aside the Ballast of History and Tradition: Protestants and the Bible in the Nineteenth Century”—is a reflection on various aspects of the Second Great Awakening.

Essay number four—“An End to Unjust Inequality in the World: The Radical Tradition of Progressive Evangelicalism”—is, in many ways, the heart of this book. Balmer documents the strong social commitments of Evangelicals prior to the rise of the Religious Right. Part of the malaise began with the introspection following the Civil War, but clearly, the shift from support of women’s rights and distrust of capitalism changed forever when the lure of political power proved too strong to resist. Balmer, it is clear, laments this shift of focus.

“Thy Kingdom Come: The Argot of Apocalypticism in American Culture” traces the origins of Premillennialism. This essay again represents a shift, considering that Evangelicalism had historically been primarily postmillennialist in orientation, allowing for improvement in this world rather than awaiting the next. Exploring the Evangelical love of, and ability with, mass communication is the subject of essay number six—“A Pentecost of Politics: Evangelicals and Public Discourse.” The facility with technology among Evangelicals should come as no surprise, given this history.

Essays 7 and 8—“A Loftier Position: American Evangelicalism and the Idea of Femininity” and “Re-Create the Nation: Evangelicals and the Abortion Myth”—take up key planks in today’s Evangelical platform. In changing their historical stance in support of women’s rights, the new Evangelicalism has become manifestly patriarchal. This reflects the shift Balmer notes in the previous essays. The issue of abortion, however, was not the start of political activism for Evangelicals. Balmer demonstrates that the withdrawal of federal funds from segregated Christian schools was the issue of greatest concern to the Religious Right. The right to abortion, which was supported by many Evangelicals, was reassessed and brought in later as a social problem in order to galvanize the movement.

Essay 9—“His Own Received Him Not: Jimmy Carter, the Religious Right, and the 1980 Presidential Election”—explores the many paradoxes of how the Religious Right turned on one of its own (a born-again Evangelical) in favor of a nominal Christian in the form of Ronald Reagan. Key among the players here was Billy Graham. “Keep the Faith and Go the Distance: Promise Keepers, Feminism, and the World of Sports,” the tenth essay, discusses muscular Christianity. Sports—seen as a male preserve—in many ways, Balmer suggests, matched the Evangelical subculture and superseded militaristic images.

The final essay—“Dead Stones: The Future of American Protestantism”—suggests that the ecumenical movement has dismantled the distinctiveness of Protestant denominations. Not only that, but issues such as placing the Ten Commandments in courthouses betrays the religious freedom that made such actions possible in the first place. Counter-intuitively, Balmer suggests that if Baptists were truly Baptist—the great champions of religious liberty and freedom of conscience—the nation would be a far better place than it seems to be becoming.

As a collection of essays there is quite a bit of repetition in this brief book. Rather than detracting, however, it serves to bring out clearly several themes: Evangelicalism has become something vastly different than what originally characterized the movement; concerns with progressive causes—care for the poor, abolitionism, and prohibition (which was originally a progressive stance)—were absolutely central to being Evangelical; a turn towards introspection and fear of ridicule after the Scopes Trial (1925) led Evangelicals into an insular subcultural state; only with the rise of the Religious Right did Evangelicalism become the champion of social and fiscal conservatism; and the rights of women and the working class were secondary to the view that found the Prosperity Gospel compelling.

This summation of many of the themes in Balmer’s work will serve as a quick primer for how Evangelicalism became what it is today. As a self-acknowledged sympathizer with classical Evangelicalism, Balmer laments its fading into a mere shadow of its founding idealism. His choice of final essay indicates that he holds little hope for the future of a religion that uses political power as its main form of self-identity in a land founded on religious freedom.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steve A. Wiggins is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Randall Balmer is John Phillips Professor in Religion and Chair of the Department of Religion at Dartmouth College.

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