A Tale of Two Evangelicalisms: A Q&A with Randall Balmer

Randall Balmer is a prize-winning historian and Emmy Award nominee. He earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1985 and taught as Professor of American Religious History at Columbia University for twenty-seven years before becoming the Mandel Family Professor in the Arts & Sciences at Dartmouth College in 2012. Dr. Balmer has published widely in both scholarly journals and in the popular press, and has authored more than a dozen books, including Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, which was made into an award-winning three-part documentary for PBS. He has appeared on network television to comment on religion in American life and has served as an expert witness in several First Amendment cases, including Snyder v. Phelps and Glassroth v. Moore. He currently holds the John Phillips Chair in Religion, the oldest endowed professorship at Dartmouth.


Q: How would you define ‘evangelical’? When did the term first acquire prominence?

A: I have a three-part definition for ‘evangelical.’ First, an evangelical is somebody who takes the Bible seriously as God’s revelation to humanity and so would be inclined to approach it literally—that is, to interpret it literally—although evangelicals engage, like other people do, in what I call the “ruse of selective literalism” when they come to the Bible.

Second, based on that approach to the Bible, an evangelical believes in the centrality of a conversion or “born-again experience” for which the most obvious biblical warrant would be the third chapter of Saint John when the Jewish leader Nicodemus visits Jesus by night to ask how he, Nicodemus, can enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus replies that he must be born again (or “born from above” in some translations).

And the third characteristic is that an evangelical takes seriously the mandate to evangelize, or bring others into the faith—although my observation over the last half-century is that evangelicals talk about this doing much more than they actually do it. They tend to hire professionals to do it for them, such as missionaries or outreach ministers in megachurches and so forth.

Now the term “evangelical” properly actually belongs to the New Testament, to the first four books of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So, the term “evangelical” refers to the Good News and the gospel, and in the sixteenth century came to be associated with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. In America, I think you have for evangelicalism a peculiar constellation that came about through the confluence of what I call the “three P’s” in the eighteenth century: the remnants of New England Puritanism, Scots-Irish Presbyterianism, and finally continental Pietism—and those three P’s came together in the event historians call the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. And I think it is possible today to see remnants of each of those P’s in evangelicalism. For example, you have among evangelicals a very introspective piety they inherited from the Puritans, who were always looking inward trying to figure out whether or not they had a grasp of the truth of the gospel, or how they were doing on their pilgrimage toward heaven. From Presbyterians, evangelicals have inherited a sense that doctrine is important; Presbyterians are known for a kind of doctrinal precisionism that evangelicals think is important. And finally, from the Pietists, evangelicals have inherited a warmhearted piety. It’s not merely enough to have certain beliefs or certain doctrines; you have to have that inward piety as well. So those three P’s came together in the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, and the whole evangelical movement took a more democratic cast in the Second Great Awakening around the turn of the nineteenth century.

Regarding when the term itself became popular, it really was with the presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter that ‘evangelicalism’ entered the lexicon. Before that time, people like Billy Graham or even Carter himself would refer to themselves as born-again Christians more often than they would use the term ‘evangelical.’ But with Carter’s campaign in 1976, the term ‘evangelical’ became part of the lexicon.

 Q: In your article, “The Radical Tradition of Progressive Evangelicalism,” you wrote, “Evangelicals in a previous age, especially during the Antebellum period, aspired to reform society according to the norms of godliness and devised creative ways to act on their benevolent impulses.” Furthermore, you associated this “reforming zeal” with postmillennialism. How would you define postmillennialism, and how is it related to this reforming zeal? What were some of the movements evangelicals spearheaded?

A: Postmillennialism comes out of the Second Great Awakening, and it is an understanding or interpretation of the Bible that sees Jesus coming back to earth after the faithful have constructed the kingdom of God. This is an optimistic movement that arises out of the Second Great Awakening—out of the sense that the gospel can reform not only sinful individuals, but also sinful social institutions. Hence, evangelicals were animated by this postmillennial impulse to make the world, and more particularly America, into the kingdom of God. So, evangelicals were very much involved, for example, in the common school movement, or what we would call today public education, because they saw this as a way for those on the lower rungs of society to become upwardly mobile and join the middle class. They were involved, of course, in the abolitionist movement—doing away with slavery. They were involved with prison reform and contributed to the idea of a penitentiary—a place for a criminal to go not merely to be segregated from the rest of society, but to become penitent and thereby be able to, at some point, constructively rejoin society. They were involved in various peace movements in the antebellum period, foreswearing war and conflict. I’ve even run across an evangelical effort at gun control in the early part of the nineteenth century. Imagine that! They were involved in women’s rights and women’s equality; they were at the forefront of the movement advocating for a woman’s right to vote, which in the nineteenth century was a radical idea! And finally, they were involved in very full-throated attacks on capitalism. Charles Finney believed that a Christian businessman was an oxymoron, because business necessarily elevated avarice over altruism—though those are my words and not his. He was very critical of our Chambers of Commerce, for example, decrying the term ‘Chambers of Commerce’ as something inimical to the gospel. In general, these nineteenth-century evangelicals, particularly in the antebellum period, were very much concerned for those who were on the margins of society, those Jesus called the least of these. And this was the ethic that really informed evangelical activism for much of the nineteenth century.

Q: One might situate the beginning of a serious division within the evangelical ranks toward the end of the nineteenth century with the rise of the fundamentalist-modernist split. What factors led to this division?

A: To be clear, the fundamentalist-modernist controversy reached the apex of its expression in the 1920s. Now, what happens in the late nineteenth century is that—to put it in millennial terms— evangelicals who believed that they were constructing the kingdom of God on earth began to have doubts. These doubts were sowed initially with the carnage of the Civil War. Here they thought they were building this kingdom of God, so how could they account for these terrible battlefields—Gettysburg, Mechanicsburg, and Shiloh—where you had this terrible destruction? Compared to the Vietnam War, in which American losses were around 59,000—which is far too many, of course—the Civil War led to the deaths of around 750,000, which is quite a magnitude of difference.

The other thing that happened late in the nineteenth century was the influx of non-Protestant immigrants who didn’t share Protestant scruples about temperance. As Roman Catholics and Jews came into the cities and threatened evangelical values, evangelicals begin to rethink their understanding of the end of time. For most of the 1800s, they thought they were constructing the millennial kingdom talked about in chapter 20 of Revelation. By the 1880s, some evangelicals were rethinking this belief. They began to adopt a new mode of biblical interpretation that came over to North America in the person of John Nelson Darby. Darby emphatically rejected postmillennialism—the optimistic eschatology (i.e., theology of the end times) that for decades had captured the evangelical imagination—and instead articulated a particularly pessimistic eschatological paradigm known as dispensational premillennialism. While postmillennialists believed that Christ would physically return after a millennium of peace and prosperity, one that would be ushered in by human progress, Darby maintained that Christ could return at any moment. And if you believe that Jesus is coming back at any moment, why bother with social reform? Instead, what mattered most was the condition of your own soul. Thus, evangelicals who fell under the sway of dispensational premillennialism turned their gaze inward, toward individual regeneration and away from social reforms. The pessimism of dispensational premillennialism is captured by a quote from Dwight Moody, who remarked, “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’” Clearly that is not a prescription for social reform!

Q: Would you say that Protestants who rejected Darby’s dispensational premillennialism—those who were more willing to make concessions to Darwinism and higher biblical criticism— sometimes tended to neglect individual regeneration as they pursued social reform and preached a social gospel?

A: Yes, although we have to be careful about being too general about this. People like William Jennings Bryan would be considered today a liberal Democrat by almost any metric. That is to say, he was very much in favor of workers’ rights to organize; he was very much in favor of women’s rights; he was a pacifist. So, he would be one of the people who would not exactly fit into that dichotomy, but generally you are right. Some evangelicals were turning inward, emphasizing individual regeneration, while at the same time other evangelicals preached the social gospel. These people talked about how Jesus is capable of reclaiming sinful social institutions, such as the seven-day work week and child labor. Indeed, you have the beginnings of the divide between evangelicals around the turn of the twentieth century, and then it really culminates in the 1920s with the so-called fundamentalist-modernist controversy. The term ‘fundamentalist’ really did not come into play until the publication of the series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals, which appeared between 1910 and 1915. Therefore, at the turn of the twentieth century, there was a kind of proto-fundamentalism exemplified by people like Billy Sunday and others, but ‘fundamentalism’ did not enter the lexicon until the mid-1910s.

Q: You mentioned that Darby introduced a new mode of biblical interpretation along with his dispensational premillennialism. Is it fair to say that the most prominent feature distinguishing this method from its predecessors was its strict adherence to biblical literalism?

A: Yes, proto-fundamentalists and fundamentalists proper tended to be rigid literalists when it came to biblical interpretation. What really sets them apart is their militarism. The standard, semi-flippant description is that a fundamentalist is an evangelical who is mad about something. That captures it pretty well. It’s not so much differences in terms of doctrine or theology, as it is militarism and separatism. They want to separate away from those who do not believe as they do.

Q: The mid-twentieth century witnessed the ascendance of Billy Graham to the forefront of evangelicalism. Could you comment on his contribution to evangelicalism?

A: Billy Graham is one of the figures who casts a shadow over all of twentieth-century evangelicalism. He does so in a number of ways. One is that Billy Graham, early in his career, made a conscious decision to forsake the narrow, censorious fundamentalism of his childhood in favor of a broader, more capacious evangelicalism. (It is worth mentioning as a side note that his son, Franklin, has done exactly the opposite.) Billy Graham is also important in that, particularly in his very public friendship with Richard Nixon, he nudged evangelicals in the direction of conservativism, which was largely marked by anti-communism during the Cold War period. Graham, despite not being a great thinker, political theorist, or towering theologian (by his own admission), knew how to telegraph his preferences politically—particularly with Nixon, but with others as well. I think many white evangelicals followed his lead and his prompting. He has the effect of moving evangelicals more to the right than they might have otherwise gone.

Q: In your op-ed “The evangelical slippery slope, from Ronald Reagan to Roy Moore,” you lament that evangelicalism left you more than you left it. You argue that the evangelical turnout for Reagan, who was divorced and remarried, began a descent down a slippery slope in which they made moral compromises, counting the character of a candidate as an issue of secondary significance compared to the policies he or she promoted. Why did evangelicals abandon Jimmy Carter, one of their own, for Ronald Reagan?

A: Indeed, I think the 1980 election is going to be seen by historians as a crucial turning point in the history of evangelicalism. What happened during Carter’s presidency is that a number of evangelicals got together and decided, for various reasons, that they wanted to have somebody other than Carter as president. Now the standard narrative that they, or at least many of them, give is that they were so morally exercised over the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 and the legalization of abortion that they decided to become politically active and seek to overturn Roe v. Wade. That purportedly was the reason they mobilized against Carter. It’s a great story that has been rehashed many times by people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. It’s also utter fiction. What got them started was a court decision, but it had nothing to do with Roe v. Wade or the Supreme Court. It was a lower court decision handed down by the district court in the District of Columbia on June 30, 1971, in a case called Green v. Connally. The gist of Green v. Connally was that no institution that engages in racial segregation or racial discrimination can define itself legally as a charitable institution. The ruling in this case raised the hackles of people like Jerry Falwell and Paul Weyrich, an architect of the religious right; they used this as a tool to organize politically against Jimmy Carter. This was peculiar, because Jimmy Carter had nothing to do with this court decision or the IRS enforcing the ruling. Jimmy Carter wasn’t even president when this began to happen. But they used it as a tool to mobilize against Jimmy Carter and in favor of Ronald Reagan in 1980. I call this the “abortion myth,” namely, the fiction that the religious right coalesced as a political movement to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision. It’s absolutely false. Only later, just before the 1980 election, did they begin to talk about abortion as a part of their political agenda. Their agenda was to defend racial segregation at places like Bob Jones University and other “segregation academies” in the South. That’s what got them going as a political movement.

Q: Recently, there have been some pastors and authors who would largely be associated with conservative evangelicalism—Timothy Keller, Russell Moore, and others—who are very frustrated with what the term ‘evangelical’ signifies in public discourse. Some have disavowed the label, arguing that it is now “a tribal rather than a credal description.” When did this shift in how the  term is understood take place?

A: As I said in my op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, the slippery slope began in 1980. In the decades prior to the 1970s, and even throughout that decade, divorce was a huge taboo. I remember in the mid-1960s asking my mother why we as a family were not supporting Nelson Rockefeller. I remember her face turned ashen as she exclaimed that we could never vote for somebody who had gotten a divorce, let alone someone who had divorced and remarried. In 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan, the vocal evangelical opposition to divorce seemed to disappear. As evangelical leaders led their flock in the direction of hard-right conservatism, people like Falwell were so enamored by their own access to the White House and the presidency that they lost their prophetic voice. Hence, when Reagan came into office and announced these huge tax cuts for the wealthy and propounded the myth of “trickle-down” economics, evangelicals said not a word. When George W. Bush came into office and almost immediately ignored centuries of Just War thinking about when it is appropriate, when it is morally sound, to engage in military action, evangelicals said not a word.

Thus, I see the 1980s as a turning point. Evangelicals turned against one of their own, Jimmy Carter, in favor of someone whose grasp of the faith was less nuanced than was Carter’s. That initiated a whole slippery slope that led to the 2016 election, and to the support for someone who had been credibly accused of being a pedophile in the Alabama Senate election of 2017.

Q: Can evangelicalism as a movement be saved?

A: In some ways I’ve staked my whole career on the optimism that the movement can be saved. I do not flatter myself to think I have any huge influence within the evangelical community, but much of my scholarship has been directed toward demonstrating that evangelicalism has a long and noble history of activism and concern for those Jesus would call the least of these. My fondest hope has been throughout all these decades that evangelicals would somehow reclaim that legacy. I have to say that I was reasonably hopeful that that would occur until November 2016. To see a movement that has shaped me, that defines who I am, that I love, abandon its better self to support a twice-divorced, thrice-married casino operator who boasts about his marital infidelity and sexual predations . . . I am no longer optimistic. I think that evangelicalism surrendered its moral authority on November 8, 2016.

So, there are a few of us left who did not vote that way, who did not define ourselves as supporting those policies. What do we do? I suppose the gimmick would be to try and find a new name to identify ourselves, and I’m open to that possibility. Nobody has proposed anything I find congenial. I guess the closest is “follower of Jesus,” which is a pretty broad, yet specific, term. I do claim that label for myself. But in terms of any sort of widespread reclamation of evangelicalism, I simply don’t see that on the horizon. Part of the reason I don’t see that is because I don’t yet see any repentance for the 2016 election, nor do I see any repentance in the exit polls from the Alabama special Senate election of December 2017. Where are the moral leaders of evangelicalism? Where is Tony Perkins, who always brays about morality and family values? Where is James Dobson or Richard Land? Why the radio silence from evangelical leaders who have media megaphones which they have used throughout their entire careers? The people I look to are friends—Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren. The problem is that they do not have media empires behind them like other folks do. You are catching me in a moment of genuine despair. I am not that kind of person by nature. I have often said that anyone who is a parent does not have the luxury of despair, and I believe that. So that is why I am fighting through that despair right now.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,