I found an interesting op-ed from 2006 that talks about stuff that we still see Christians talking about today: that somehow, the “Religious Right” has “distorted the faith.” And it’s by someone who might know, too: Randall Balmer, a professor of religion. I’ve heard this accusation flung at today’s culture-warrior Christians more times than I can count. And today, we’re going to take a closer look at how this accusation works–and why it fails against its chosen targets. The Religious Right hasn’t distorted anything. Rather, these Christians have simply shown everyone what a weak ideology Christianity truly is.
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Introduction: My audio equipment is officially on walkabout
Hello and welcome back! As you can tell, today’s post did not come with an audio read or stream. My microphones, both of them, are currently having a grand ole time in a storage unit somewhere in Boise. I hope they’re partying enough for both of us.
My new hometown is in the middle of a massive and debilitating heatwave. I do not function well in the heat. Really, who does? But I especially wilt when temperatures soar to the triple digits.
(On that note, I saw a headline recently that read, “Air conditioning won’t save us.” I pressed X to doubt. It absolutely will. In fact, it’s all that’s saving me now.)
In a couple of weeks, Mr. Captain will be heading back there to get a bunch of our stuff, and my audio equipment rests near top of our gotta-have list. Until then, I’ve figured out how to get stuff done on the phone, so we’ll test it out soon.
Before we start, I want to say thank you to all of my supporters! Thanks to you, Roll to Disbelieve’s site and blog are a reality. Thank you. If you aren’t a supporter yet, there’ll be links at the bottom of today’s post to get you started. And thanks to you as well for whatever you decide to do.
And now, let’s check out all the ways that Christians are sure that other Christians are totally wrecking Christianity.
An evergreen headline: accusing the Religious Right of wrecking Christianity
Evangelical: Religious Right Has Distorted the Faith
When I first saw this headline, I thought for sure it had been published very recently. But it’s from 2006, right around when I think Christianity began its long decline.
The story itself concerned an interview with one Randall Balmer, who (at least at the time) was a professor of religion at Barnard College, Columbia University. He was also billed as a contributing editor to Christianity Today.
And he had an accusation against culture-warrior evangelicals that we’ve seen countless times in the years since 2006: that they were totally harshing his vibe as a fellow evangelical.
Everyone, meet Randall Balmer. He’s okay.
Interestingly, we’ve briefly mentioned Balmer a couple of times around here:
In 2020’s “The legacy of The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience” (Amazon link), he wrote a glowing endorsement for the book and seemed to hope very much that evangelicals would pay attention to it.
(Narrator: They did not.)
In 2018’s “The dark origins of the anti-abortion culture war,” we see him accurately dismantling evangelicals’ revised history of always totally being at war with
(Narrator: That didn’t pull them back from their heady moral high-horse either.)
So overall, for whatever this might be worth, I think that overall he’s got the right ideas. According to the Font of All Knowledge, Balmer moved across to Dartmouth College, became an Episcopal priest, and ran for office (unsuccessfully). He’s also written a bunch of books criticizing culture-war evangelicalism, including one published last year called Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right. That one accurately reveals that though modern evangelicals have coalesced around fighting legalized abortion, it was racism that got them started on their path.
(Evangelical leaders cynically and deliberately substituted abortion for segregation as a ploy to get non-Southern evangelicals voting for hard-right conservative candidates. It worked very well.)
Given the whole Episcopalian thing, Balmer might not be evangelical at all anymore. But in 2006 he definitely was.
And in his 2006 interview, he blows it–and hard.
I like the guy and agree with him about a lot. But oh dear, this wasn’t good.
These bad evangelicals in the Religious Right are wrecking everything!
For years now, non-culture-warrior evangelicals have been getting increasingly upset at the culture warriors. The faction warfare we see in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) represents one of the most crystallized and obvious examples of that warfare, but it’s sure not the only example out there.
This interview in 2006 seems noteworthy to me because it’s one of the earliest examples of that two-way antipathy that I’ve encountered. Even at the absolute zenith of evangelical power, these arguments, like cracks in the foundation of a shoddily-built house, were always there.
In the interview, Balmer notes that these culture warriors really flew in the face of what he saw as evangelicalism:
He says blind allegiance to the Republican Party has distorted the faith of politically active evangelicals, leading them to misguided positions on issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
“They have taken something that is lovely and redemptive and turned it into something that is ugly and retributive,” Balmer says.
I can just imagine evangelicals everywhere considering this statement and responding, as Kuzco did in The Emperor’s New Groove, “and that’s… bad.”
This is an authoritarian’s brain on evangelicalism
Heck, being “ugly and retributive” to their tribal enemies is half of why authoritarians get involved with evangelicalism in the first place. We talked about that recently, in fact!
If you’re wondering: For authoritarian followers, the other half involves feeling safe as long as they follow all the rules, even the ones that make no sense and provide no clear instructions for doing the thing. For authoritarian leaders, meanwhile, the other half involves getting handed unilateral, unfettered power over others without having to earn that power and follow all kinds of accountability rules while doing it.
No other ideology would give either kind of authoritarian any of that.
Non-authoritarian evangelicals–and there are plenty of them–can’t possibly understand that mindset. It’s as alien to them as it is to anybody outside evangelicalism.
(At least half of what Roll to Disbelieve exists to do is explain that mindset and give words to the nameless feelings people get when they encounter it.)
In 2006, when Randall Balmer was an evangelical, he clearly belonged to the non-authoritarian camp. However, he had the insight, education, and language skills needed to dissect the authoritarians in the evangelical tent. And he used them.
The cruelty of the Religious Right goes back much further, though
In that interview, Balmer told NPR something that caught my eye:
He [Balmer] argues that modern evangelicals have abandoned the spirit of their movement, which was founded in 19th-century activism on issues that helped those on the fringes of society: abolition, women’s suffrage and universal education.
And I must ask: which evangelicals were these, in the 19th century? Because even then, there were evangelicals and evangelicals. The spirit of the Religious Right permeated even that age.
In 1845, the entire SBC itself became a formal denomination because its founders really liked slavery. Northern Baptists didn’t. The proto-SBC leaders pushed hard for slave-owning Baptists to hold denominational offices and get support from the denomination as foreign missionaries. When the other Baptists refused to allow any of that, slave-owners and their sympathizers (who tended overwhelmingly to be Southern) left that group and formed their own.
All through the decades past, I guarantee that SBC leaders and other evangelicals did horrendous things regarding human rights. My own Pentecostal denomination’s lore stated that my first pastor had left the Assemblies of God because of that denomination’s leaders’ racism and hypocrisy.
And their cruelty persists in the modern age
Even nowadays in the modern age, Southern Baptists took 150 years to finally apologize for their slavery-steeped past (in 2009). Then, in 2017, it took them hours of arguing and wrangling just to condemn white supremacy.
(I am now typing at a 45 degree angle to my keyboard because Y’ALL, BOTHER SPOTTED A HUGE SPIDER OVERHEAD. I tackled it with Formula 409, at which point it decided to scuttle UNDER MY PC TOWER. More 409 and a relocated tower later, it seems to have passed away. Bother is laying at my feet watching over its body, and I am freaking out in case it’s a zombie spider. YOU NEVER KNOW WITH SPIDERS. It might revive and run across my bare little feet.)
Around 2015, evangelicals finally realized that they–along with all of Christianity–were in decline. In a wild overcorrection, they glommed onto Donald Trump to help them return to dominance. He explicitly promised them that he would return them to power. One could well say that this summer’s reversal of Roe v. Wade came about thanks to that unholy alliance.
But could we reasonably say that it was really that unholy, in Christian terms?
I don’t think so, not when many millions of evangelicals acted together to make Donald Trump’s presidency a thing in 2016. And certainly not when the biggest denomination of Protestants, the SBC, is such a decidedly-strong part of the Religious Right.
At that point, the Religious Right stops being a few really bad apples in a bunch. It starts looking more like a bunch of rotted fruit with a few good ones struggling to survive somehow in there.
The Religious Right reveal some serious flaws in Christianity
A long time ago, I heard a quote about fundamentalists revealing the flaws of a religion’s fundamentals. Indeed, images like the following one circulated around various heathens’ groups in the early 2010s:
And that’s definitely true of the Religious Right. Other evangelicals might not like culture-warrior authoritarian evangelicals much, and may disagree with them about absolutely everything. But these ickie Christians still reveal very serious flaws in Christianity as an ideology.
First, the Religious Right reveals that the Bible can be made to support literally every imaginable stance. In evangelicalism alone, we find antivaxxers and vaccine embracers, Creationists and people who know evolution is true, patriarchy proponents and feminists. We even find evangelicals who embrace abortion alongside all those creepy anti-abortion culture warriors!
And every single one of those evangelicals can justify their beliefs with tons of Bible verses. They can also deploy Bible verses to condemn the evangelicals who disagree with them.
Ultimately, very few matters in the Bible are clear-cut and unequivocal. Most matters go unmentioned at all.
Other problems with the Religious Right
Second, the Religious Right reveals the shortcomings of Christian beliefs. Evangelicals believe a lot of things about groups and relationships of all kinds. Almost all of those beliefs are demonstrably false. So, if an evangelical leader decides to abuse children, like Warren Jeffs guy in the macro picture above with his 12-year-old child bride, then nothing within Christianity can or will rein them in. Jesus certainly won’t lift a finger to stop child abuse! No, evangelicals need real-world authority figures and accountability measures to ensure the safety of vulnerable people. Every time an evangelical leader refuses to accept accountability, we should fully expect to find scandals in that leader’s private life.
Third, the infighting between the Religious Right and their more loving brethren reveals that Christian unity will never, ever happen–no matter how bad Jesus totally wants his followers to be preternaturally united in their beliefs and causes. Neil Carter calls Jesus’ prayer for unity “the most fantastically failed prayer in history.” I agree wholeheartedly with him. Christians are completely incapable of finding true unity, and they’ve literally always been like that.
Bonus Round: That infighting also reveals that there’s no positive difference between Christians and non-Christians. The Religious Right is way more guilty of hypocrisy than their enemies, granted, but they demonstrate in crystal clarity that Christians can’t even consistently act like decent human beings, much less like the exalted ambassadors of a real live god.
The Religious Right only deteriorated further after 2006
Since 2006, evangelicals have completely failed to change for the better. In fact, they’ve only gotten more extremist, more polarized, more fanatical, more cruel and vindictive, and more ambitious.
I reckon Jesus ignored Randall Balmer’s prayer, which he summarized in an endorsement to Ronald J. Sider’s 2005 book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.
In the thirty years since Ron Sider seared the conscience of evangelicals with the publication of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, evangelicalism in North America has lost whatever claim it had to being a counterculture. The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience summons us, once again, to take the gospel seriously. For the good of society-and perhaps even for the sake of our souls-we had better take notice.
Notice the “we” and “us” inclusive language. Balmer definitely counted himself as an evangelical back then! I don’t think he is anymore, though. In a January 2022 op-ed he wrote, he speaks “as someone who grew up evangelical” rather than “as an evangelical.” If he did leave evangelicalism, he sure wouldn’t be the first person driven out of it. (They drove out Rachel Held Evans too, and probably many more.)
Regardless, nothing whatsoever has changed. Evangelicals still don’t act like they take their own talking points seriously. They have never taken notice of any calls for reform. And their consciences remain un-seared by any imaginary friends.
But that deterioration wasn’t some kind of weird aberration
For years now, I’ve seen articles and opinion posts and blog entries declaring that evangelicals’ support of the culture wars and Trumpism have completely wrecked Christianity’s credibility. As one op-ed writer put it just before the 2020 elections:
While Trump may help [evangelicals] win some battles, they’ll lose credibility in the process. Skeptics may henceforth be disinclined to consider Christianity because they’ll think of hypocrisy when they think of evangelicals.
Similarly, in March 2021, The Daily Beast accused Trump-adoring evangelicals of “tarnishing Christianity.” And in May 2022, The Atlantic ran a story claiming that politics “poisoned the evangelical church.”
But it didn’t. Authoritarian evangelicals always hungered for power. They always wanted to rule over everyone in and out of their tribe.
Christians lost their ‘moral credibility’ long, long ago
We can lay these posts beside Russell Moore’s fretting after the January 6 insurrection attempt:
“If people walk away from the church because they don’t believe that we really believe what we say, then that’s a crisis. . . There is an entire generation of people who are growing cynical that religion is just a means to some other end.”
Indeed, he’s been fretting since 2016’s elections that evangelicals’ adoration of Donald Trump would destroy their “moral credibility.” As he said then:
[L]ong term I’m afraid people are going to remember evangelicals in this election for supporting the unsupportable and defending the absolutely indefensible.”
He was right. But also wrong.
If that support had indeed been a total aberration, had Christianity never before then supported such terrible people as adherents, then chances are good that people would have tempered their deep anger and disappointment with the Religious Right with the knowledge that it was, indeed, not at all characteristic for evangelicals to wholeheartedly support someone as reprehensible as Donald Trump.
It was, unfortunately, very characteristic
But it was actually very characteristic of them. It was worst than that. This stance was inevitable. The moment authoritarian Christians get a chance to grab power over others, they take it. And then, they use it as much as they can. It’s happened over and over again since the beginning of their religion.
And not one other Christian or group of Christians can stop them, especially not if evangelicals manage to create their longed-for Republic of Gilead.
The only way to deal with authoritarians is to oppose them tooth and nail, every step of the way, without fail and without hesitation. They are like the Terminator: they can’t be bargained with or reasoned with, they don’t feel pity or remorse or fear when they’re on a roll, and they absolutely will not stop ever, until they have gotten their way.
All these other, non-authoritarian Christians can do, all that is within their power to reasonably accomplish, is to leave.
These non-authoritarian evangelicals still think there’s some magical way to stop authoritarians from destroying their religion. But the religion itself is what makes authoritarian evangelicals possible–and then makes it impossible to stop them.
There’s not a way for any Christians to square that impossible circle.
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