Scholar: Politics has been death of evangelicalism

Voters ready for a president with a strong moral core

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BENNINGTON — Randall Balmer, a nationally recognized scholar and author on religion and the presidency, laments what he sees as the demise of evangelical Christianity.

Balmer is a professor of religion at Dartmouth College, lives in Norwich and is an Episcopal priest. In the latter role, he fills in at parishes in the region to conduct Sunday liturgies.

His current talks about the presidency are "mostly about evangelicalism. I talk about the death of evangelicalism, 'the death of evangelicalism from Ronald to Donald,' actually," Balmer said with a laugh in an interview on Oct. 6.

"I think that evangelicalism died in 2016, when 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for a man who's really the antithesis of everything that evangelicals have said they believed over the centuries," Balmer said. "And I mourn that. This is the tradition that I come out of myself, and I feel very sad about that, but it's gone, it's gone."

Balmer regularly fills in at Zion Episcopal Church in Manchester, where he has also given public talks. He recently served for two months at St. James Episcopal Church in Arlington, and now is filling in during September and October at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Bennington.

His numerous books include "Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter," published in 2014; "God In the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush," 2008; and "Thy Kingdom Come: How The Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America," 2006.

Balmer grew up in evangelicalism, the son of a minister in the Evangelical Free Church. In 1975 he worked in Washington for Republican Congressman John Anderson, of Indiana, also a member of this denomination. Anderson ran for president in 1980 as an independent against incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan.

Origins of religious right

In his work, Balmer disagrees with the general view that the religious right originated because of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

Instead, as he did in a talk in Manchester in 2013, Balmer points to a lower court decision denying the right to tax-exempt status for any organization engaged in racial discrimination. This was used by the IRS in 1975 to rescind the tax exemption of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist school in Greenville, S.C., which did not admit African Americans to the student body until 1971 and until 1975, out of fears of racial mixing, did not admit unmarried African Americans.

"That is what got people like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and the other leaders of the religious right activated as political players in order to reverse those actions against these schools," Balmer said in 2013. "That was the catalyst for the Religious Right. Abortion did not become part of the religious right agenda until 1979."

In the recent interview, Balmer agreed when asked if evangelicals sold out for political power.

"I think 1980 is the turning point. Evangelicals turning their back on one of their own, Jimmy Carter. I mean you can't get any more evangelical than Jimmy Carter. And especially in the 19th century sense, where evangelicals took seriously the words of Jesus to care for 'the least of these,''" Balmer said. "That was very much part of Carter's ethic, part of his attitude toward race, also, but part of his attitude even toward power. He saw power as a way to enact the principles of the Gospel, not that he did so in an overt way, a way that violated the separation of church and state."

He added, "I think by forsaking Carter in favor of Reagan it pushed evangelicalism into the far-right precincts of the Republican party — and that interweaving, it's just got closer and closer over the decades."

Balmer has a three-part explanation why 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. "First of all you have the longstanding and frequently stoked animosity toward Hillary Clinton." he said. "Even members of my own family, they just couldn't imagine themselves ever voting for Hillary Clinton."

"I think the second reason is that they respond to the rhetoric of victimization," he said. "And Trump's very good at that. It's always about him, of course, he's the victim, but they understand that because they want to see themselves as victims in this larger so-called secularizing society."

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The third reason is that the 2016 election offered the religious right a chance to drop the pretense that theirs was a movement about family values.

"There's just no way you can argue that Trump is representative of or an embodiment of family values. I mean you just can't make that, you can't make that argument. And it allowed the religious right to circle back to the charter principle of their founding, which was racism," Balmer said. "And Trump articulated that very, very well and thoroughly and frequently over the course of the 2016 campaign, and sadly they responded to that."

As for knowledge or appreciation of faith, President Trump "can't even fake it," Balmer said. "He can't even fake religious literacy. It's hilarious to watch him try."

A 'redeemer president'

The level of faith or the moral compass American voters want in their presidents goes in cycles, Balmer said.

One benchmark was John F. Kennedy's 1960 speech in Houston, where, to quiet concerns about his Catholicism, he "forcefully made the case that voters should disregard a candidate's faith when they went into a voting booth. And I think that Kennedy paradigm stayed in place for a dozen years or so." This held in place until the mid-1970s.

"We're in a bit of a cycle right now. That is to say that I think that American voters right now are looking for what I called a 'redeemer president,' just as we did in 1976, after Watergate, and in 2000 after the Monica Lewinsky tawdriness," Balmer said. "And frankly I think the Democratic nominees are making a mistake if they're not talking about either their faith or at least something about their moral compass. I think voters are looking for someone with a moral compass. Just as we did in those previous two elections."

Most of the Democratic candidates for president do not talk about their faith very much. Two exceptions to a limited extent are Indianapolis Mayor Pete Buttigieg and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren will talk about it when she's asked about it, Balmer said.

"But it seems to me what we're looking for is somebody who can demonstrate that she or he has that moral core, because we have a president who has none. I mean I would be curious if anyone found anything. There's nothing there. Other than his own self-aggrandizement and his ravenous ego," Balmer said. "And I've been astonished, frankly, that more of the Democratic candidates are not trying to make that case. I think we're at that moment."

'New American religion'

Among other projects, Balmer is working on a book about sports. "When I was in New York, at Columbia, I got addicted to sports radio. And at first I was just utterly befuddled by this," he said. "You could spend a four-hour program debating whether Joe Torre should have pulled the starting pitcher with two outs in the bottom of the sixth. And the passion, the passion behind this."

He started thinking about the four major sports — baseball, football, basketball and hockey — and the origins, meaning and symbolism of each of them. He's thought, too, about why Americans have become so passionate about sports. "I think it has to do with the fact that sports is the closest we have in our society to meritocracy," he said.

He added, "It's the proverbial 'level playing field,' right? And it's also a part of our society where the rules are clear and they're impartially enforced," he said.

"Sports offers this clear road, and to escape into that world for three hours on a Sunday afternoon provides kind of an oasis of clarity."

As in his other works, faith and religion play a part. "What I'm trying to argue is that sports has become the new American religion as measured by the passion and devotion," he said.

"It's fun; I'm having fun with it."

Mark Rondeau is the Banner's Night Editor and Religion Editor. He can be reached at mrondeau@benningtonbanner.com


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