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Evangelical professor tackles 'religious right'
IndyStar.com
By Yonat Shimron
Raleigh News & Observer
August 22, 2006

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Randall Balmer, an evangelical Christian and a professor of American religion at Barnard College and Yale Divinity School, is best known for writing two largely sympathetic PBS documentaries: "Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham" and "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America."

But in his latest book, "Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America," Balmer goes on the attack. Calling himself a "passionate evangelical," Balmer denounces the "religious right" for hijacking the religion of Jesus.

Here are excerpts from a recent interview:

Question: Some people say Christians shouldn't be involved in politics, period. You're not advocating that, are you?

Answer: Not at all. I happen to think the arena of public discourse would be impoverished without the voices of people of faith.

What I am pointing to is the peril of aligning the faith too closely with any one political party or ideology or a specific administration. Then the faith loses its prophetic power.

Q: Give an example.

A: I contacted eight "religious right" organizations and asked them to send me a copy of their position paper on (President) Bush's use of torture against enemy combatants. I received a reply from two -- the Family Research Council and the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Both defended the Bush administration's position on torture. First of all, that's morally bankrupt. It's also aligning the faith too closely with a particular ideology.

Q: What prompted you to write the book?

A: The 2004 presidential election. I woke up the next morning with a hangover, and I hadn't been drinking. I wasn't so much distressed by the outcome of the election, as that anyone who called himself an evangelical Christian had to vote for the Republican candidate.

It's clear to me that evangelicals were very active in the 19th century. But that activism was always directed toward those on the margins of society: the abolitionist movement, the movement for comprehensive (public) education, the temperance movement, the movement to give women the right to vote. Those were all evangelical causes. At the turn of the 21st century, I don't find that same concern for people who are marginalized by society. That's what led me to write the book.

Q: You talk in your book about the need for a separation of church and state. Explain.

A: Any time you call upon the government to endorse a particular faith by emblazoning the Ten Commandments on a courthouse wall, mandating prayers or supporting school vouchers for religious education, you are threatening a delicate balance. It goes all the way back to Roger Williams, the founder of the Baptist tradition in America, who worried that the integrity of the faith would be compromised if it were entangled in the affairs of the state.

Q: Some evangelicals say they are only vying for a voice in a society they feel has excluded them.

A: There's this rhetoric of victimization that is popular in the religious right. Frankly, I don't see it. We are an overwhelmingly religious society and an overwhelmingly Christian society. When a majority imposes its will on a minority, that violates fundamental constitutional doctrines. It violates the principles of pluralism we've lived with for centuries.

Q: Some more conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics say they don't necessarily agree with the Republican Party, but they can't vote for the Democratic Party because of its views on "life issues" such as abortion and euthanasia.

A: I couldn't agree more. I believe abortion should be legal. But I want to make it unthinkable. That would entail access to contraception, abstinence education, even public service campaigns like those discouraging smoking, spousal abuse or alcohol abuse. Those are legitimate steps to reduce abortion rather than spending our energies on divisive and ineffective laws.

Q: These days, many evangelical churches are active in combating AIDS and poverty in Africa. Isn't that an example of helping those on the margins?

A: By no means are all evangelicals part of the religious right. It's a subset within that larger and extraordinarily diverse population. There's a growing number of evangelicals discovering or rediscovering their social conscience. I think that's wonderful.

Q: Why aren't those voices as prominent?

A: Those who consider ourselves politically left-leaning evangelicals don't have the same media empire. Any time James Dobson wants to say anything, millions of people hang on every word. Only now are some voices on the left beginning to be heard.

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