NPR loves to interview RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) or CHRINOs (Christians in Name Only) to make the point that the currently self-identified Republicans or Christians are imposters who have wandered into the wilderness, abandoning true Republicanism or true Christianity. These interviewees may, of course, be correct, and those who consider themselves true, modern Republicans or Christians may be on the wrong side of history. Nevertheless, it’s always rather striking what unconvincing arguments the interviewees make. The latest example is NPR’s interview with Randall Balmer, a Columbia professor who has written a book — Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament — stating the modern conservative Evangelicals are, essentially, fakes.
Let me say immediately that I haven’t read Balmer’s book; I’ve only heard the NPR interview. This means that I’m basing all my conclusions on a four minute interview and not on the more substantive arguments (I assume they exist) that Balmer makes in his book.
Balmer’s first point is that, in the 19th Century, Evangelicals were cutting edge people, pushing for, in his words, “progressive” issues, such as abolition and women’s education. From this, he appears to argue that modern Evangelicals are failing by not being progressives. This is a peculiar argument. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that 19th Century Evangelical movements were grounded in the Bible and that 21st Century Evangelical movements are also grounded in the Bible. That is, just as Evangelicals believed that the Bible militated against slavery, so too do they believe the Bible militates against abortion — the death of children in utero.*
Indeed, Balmer makes no mention of religion at all. Instead, Balmer seems to believe that, because Evangelicals protested at the cutting edge 150 years before, they should automatically do so now. In this way, his argument is remarkably similar to that used by the current anti-War movement: It was right thirty years ago to be on the barricades protesting the Vietnam war so now, thirty years on, under entirely different circumstances, with an entirely different enemy, it’s again right that, unthinkingly, Evangelicals should once more mount those barricades. So too, Balmer seems to say, with Evangelical Christians, if it was right to think progressively about ending slavery in 1856, so too is it right in 2006 for Christians to harmonize their religious beliefs with whatever cause is currently considered progressive.
Balmer is also very disturbed about the fact that he can’t get pro-Life Evangelicals to get equally excited about the death penalty or about using torture to elicit information from prisoners. Again, because religion doesn’t actually factor into his analysis, he doesn’t seem to recognize, or be ready to address, the Evangelical argument that the fetus is an innocent, while the prisoner on death row (assuming a rightful conviction) is a cognizant actor who made his own fate. The same holds true for torture of prisoners (and I use the term torture advisedly, because I’m not ready to call fake menstrual blood or undies on the head torture). Those men who are at the receiving end of such treatment are combatants, who willingly threw themselves into the maelstrom of war.
In any event, I found Balmer’s four minutes of air time remarkably unconvincing and strangely lacking in any religious context. In this regard, it reminded me strongly of an interview I heard a year or so ago (also on NPR) with that gay Episcopalian Bishop elected back East. He didn’t make any effort to provide a doctrinal basis for embracing homosexuality within the new church. Instead, this man of the cloth, presumably well-versed in Church doctrine, fell back on New Age talk about God is Love, sex is love, love is love, he’s in love, blah, blah, blah. Ultimately, while the Bishop’s viewpoint may be the correct one, as embraced by future generations, it fell short as convincing argument.
* I’ll say, at this point, as I always do, that I’m a formerly die-hard pro-Choice person and that I have not migrated wholehearted to a pro-Life position. Unlike Balmer, though, I’m able to recognize the consistent religious basis for the pro-Life movement, and to recognize the inherent inconsistencies in my own position.