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John Wilson

The Strange Case of Dr. Balmer and Mr. Hyde

Among the many books this season warning about the dire influence of the Religious Right, the one I was most looking forward to—maybe the only one I was looking forward to—was Randall Balmer's Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America—An Evangelical's Lament (Basic Books; not to be confused with Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, published by Norton, nor with Mel White's Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Religious Right, from Tarcher, or any one of a dozen or so other books with similar titles or subtitles). Balmer is an excellent writer as well as a first-rate scholar; his 1998 Christianity Today profile of Jimmy Swaggart, "Still Wrestling with the Devil," is one of the finest pieces I've read in the past ten years. Randy is also someone I consider a friend. I think he would say the same of me, though we don't see each other often. And although we disagree about all sorts of things, I've always felt that the core convictions we share as believers outweighed such differences.

I still felt that way after reading Thy Kingdom Come, but the book was very disappointing. "Disappointment" suggests that reasonable expectations were not fulfilled. I couldn't honestly say I was disappointed by Balmer's apocalyptic take on the Religious Right, since other things he's written have already pointed in that direction. And I have become resigned to a state of affairs in which many people I respect seem to be living in a parallel universe, where—as in a number of science fiction novels published in the late 1980s, when the "Moral Majority" was on every pundit's lips and Pat Robertson was being described as a plausible presidential candidate—theocracy is the greatest threat to our nation, and where evangelicals in particular need to walk around wearing placards disassociating themselves from the excesses of their mean-spirited brethren, as Brian McLaren lamented recently in The New York Times.

Even so, I admit, I was surprised by some of the details in Balmer's account—the notion, for instance, that Reconstructionism or "theonomy," as propagated by R. J. Rushdoony, is "popular among leaders of the Religious Right." (Footnote: In the unlikely event that anyone who is reading this was present during my public argument with Rushdoony when he was speaking at Westmont College, probably in 1969 or 1970, please give me any recollections you have of the event, so that I can check my memory against them.) ¬†And I was downright astonished by Balmer's attack on homeschooling—in the name of pluralism, a dazzling feat of rhetorical contortion. (Perhaps Balmer could take a look at Mitchell Stevens' book, from Princeton University Press, Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homechooling Movement. Maybe he could even get to know some of his homeschooling neighbors.)

But never mind. What really disappointed me about Balmer's book was the absence of the depth, the nuance, the texture, the alertness to human complexity that made his portrait of the aging Jimmy Swaggart so powerful. Consider, for example, the chapter in Thy Kingdom Come entitled "Creationism by Design," which includes Balmer's account of a debate between William Dembski, one of the leading figures in the Intelligent Design movement, and the distinguished molecular biologist Lee Silver. Here is how Balmer introduces Dembski:

Wearing a dark suit slightly too large for his lanky frame, Dembski had the mien of an assistant vice president at a local bank or of someone who has just been dispatched to notify the next of kin. The moderator introduced him as having an unspecified affiliation with Baylor University, but that was somewhat misleading, and Dembski made no effort to correct the impression that he was a member of the faculty at Baylor.

Balmer then pulls back from the narrative of the debate for two long paragraphs filling in the history of Dembski's stormy time at Baylor—the upshot of which is that, on the account Balmer himself provides, it is difficult to imagine what Dembski was supposed to do to "correct" the moderator's introduction. Like this imputation of deceit, Balmer's physical description of Dembski suggests that he is stacking the deck, but perhaps that is exactly how Dembski appeared to him that night, and he is thereby fleshing the scene out.

There is nothing comparable in Balmer's treatment of Silver. What did he resemble that night? What was he wearing? We don't know—though Balmer does tell us at one point that Silver "reclined in his chair and flashed a confident smile." And while Balmer rightly steps back and provides extensive context for Dembski, with Silver he limits himself to a respectful summary of what the molecular biologist said in the debate.

How different this chapter would have been if Balmer had fleshed Silver out, had gone behind the scenes as he does with Dembski, had given us some impression of the man, had referred to Silver's 1997 book Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World. For Silver, as well as being a scientist honored by his peers and a skillful writer, is a man who is by turns condescending toward and openly contemptuous of Christians while making claims for science that even many of his fellow scientists would reject as hubristic. (Silver also ridicules many of the environmentalist convictions that Balmer holds dear.) I'd urge readers of Thy Kingdom Come to check out Remaking Eden and Silver's new book, published this spring by Ecco Press, Challenging Nature: The Clash of Science and Spirituality at the New Frontiers of Life, wherein Silver—in the course of his magisterial account of "Science, Faith, and Religion"—explains that

Members of many religious groups are content to be left alone to practice their faith within their own communities. They are not particularly concerned about the attitudes or practices of others in the society at large who do not hold their beliefs. American Christian evangelicals, however, are different. They believe that God in the form of Jesus Christ will grant them an eternal afterlife only if they work sufficiently hard to persuade non-Christians to become evangelicals themselves.

Well, actually, no—that's not what evangelicals believe about salvation, is it? In the footnote that follows this claim, Silver refers the reader to a lecture by Mark Noll, available on the web (which, as his own summary makes clear, Silver has misunderstood), and to a Wikipedia entry.

Had some of this background been sketched, instead of a cartoonish set-piece in which the doofus Dembski comes up against the suave confidence and sweet reason of Silver, we would have seen a complex conflict. By all means look at Intelligent Design with a critical eye. But don't stop there.

Alas, this is a pattern throughout Thy Kingdom Come. In the same chapter that features the Dembski-Silver debate, Balmer takes several swipes at George Marsden, whose The Soul of the American University he describes as "William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale on steroids." Comparing Marsden with the proponents of Intelligent Design, Balmer writes:

George Marsden's vision is equally misguided, not to say quixotic. America's universities play a vital role in American life as places where, as in public schools, we confront the challenges of living in a pluralistic context. Contrary to Marsden's assertions, people of faith are welcome in that environment, but they have to compete on an equal footing in the marketplace of ideas, unlike Dembski and his colleagues, who refuse to engage in that competition.

¬†This is positively smarmy; it reads like copy churned out by a flack for the American Association of University Professors. "America's universities play a vital role in American life as places where … we confront the challenges of living in a pluralistic context." Please! No more treacle. Notice how here, as with homeschooling, "pluralism" is invoked against genuine pluralism. "Is There Room for Institutional Pluralism?" was precisely Marsden's question in the "Concluding Unscientific Postscript" to Soul of the American University, where he explicitly said—contra Balmer's summary of the argument—that "this prescription for American higher education is not a call for a return to the past."

I hope that in time Balmer will write another book covering some of this territory, a book in which the moral passion that informs Thy Kingdom Come will not be dimmed but which will do greater justice to the moral complexity of the terrain, a book that will be likely to unsettle some of his university colleagues as much as it angers many on the Religious Right. That's a book I'm eager to read.

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