Recent Writings

It was an odd alliance from the beginning. A movement that for decades has touted its devotion to “family values” nevertheless chose to back a self-confessed sexual predator on his third marriage. The folks who brandish their piety with all the subtlety of flashing lights on a squad car threw their support to a man who cannot even fake religious literacy.

A little more than two years into his presidency, Donald Trump has apparently decided that patriotism is really about him. Recall his recent tweet when U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe declared that she had no interest in visiting Trump at the White House should her team win the World Cup. Trump chastised Rapinoe for disrespecting “our Country, the White House or our Flag.”

Amid this train wreck of a presidency, an administration marked by cronyism and incompetence, where compulsive lying has been normalized, it’s easy to miss the damage being done by Donald Trump’s minions beyond the White House.

Twice in the past half-century, in 1976 and again in 2000, Americans have sought a Redeemer President, someone whose election promised to expunge the sins of his predecessor. Next year’s election is shaping up as another such.

I suspect I wasn’t the only American surprised to learn that God chose Donald Trump to be president of the United States. The Almighty’s rooting interest in the 2016 presidential election was so great, apparently, that he was willing to put his thumb on the scale to ensure the outcome (with, perhaps, a little help from the Russians and the vagaries of the electoral college).

Today, as we Americans gather for one of our high holy days – Fourth of July, Election Day, Super Bowl Sunday – it’s a good time to ask whether football has become America’s Game. . . . Although the NFL boasts that concussions were down 23.2 percent this year, football remains a violent game, and the United States is, by any measure, a violent, pugilistic society.

As Robert Mueller’s investigative noose begins to tighten around members of Trump's administration, his family and Trump himself, it’s time to reopen the conversation about congressional checks on presidential pardons. (The president has already claimed the power to pardon himself.)

When Donald Trump said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot somebody and not lose any voters, he might have had white evangelicals in mind. And he might have added to the sins he could get away with: an affair with a porn star, boasting of sexually predatory behavior, two divorces and three marriages, separating families at the border and more.

If there’s a better antidote to the madness emanating from Washington than a choral festival in the medieval chapels of Oxford, England, I can’t imagine what it might be. . . . Here was sacred music for a secular age, carefully curated from centuries past and meticulously performed. A music museum for the discerning aesthete.

In these dark days, with our future in the precarious hands of a mercurial megalomaniac, it’s important to look for glimmers of light anywhere we can find them — which is why I traveled to rural western North Carolina one weekend last month.

The recent Bible lesson from Attorney General (and theologian wannabe) Jeff Sessions exposes the perils of engaging in what I call the ruse of selective literalism in approaching the Scriptures. If Sessions and other Trump supporters want to engage in dueling proof-texts, bring it on.

The collateral damage of Graham’s political intrigues was that evangelicalism came to be identified with a political movement largely at odds with the New Testament teachings of Jesus and with the noble tradition of 19th-century evangelicalism. Graham was not solely responsible, but he played a role, a not insignificant role.

An originalist approach to the Second Amendment – one concerned about “the political and intellectual atmosphere of the time” – would surely strain to justify a constitutional right to semi-automatic weapons.

The religious right’s wholesale embrace of the Republican party and of Donald J. Trump, both as candidate and as president, has necessitated a rewriting of evangelical ethics. Here’s a summary, with annotations.

When I was growing up in the evangelical subculture in the 1960s and 1970s, I heard a lot of warnings about slippery slopes, especially relating to the Bible. If you dared to interpret the many-headed beasts or the vials of judgment in the Book of Revelation as allegory, then pretty soon you’d read the creation accounts at the beginning of Genesis not as history but as stories. Slippery slope.

I first encountered Roy Moore in 2002 in a Montgomery, Ala., courtroom, where I was an expert witness on the separation of church and state in what came to be known as the Alabama Ten Commandments case. Moore, then the state’s chief justice , was the defendant.

Evangelicals Take a Stand

Valley News, September 17, 2017

From time to time, the confluence of current events engenders a moral outrage so overwhelming that people of conscience feel obliged to respond, to strike out against injustice or in defense of those on the margins of society. We stand in need of such a declaration today.

Under Trump, Evangelicals Show their True Racist Colors

The statistics tell one story: 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. The deafening silence from leaders of the religious right in the wake of the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Va., points to an even larger one, which places racism at the very heart of the movement.

Mark of the Beast?

Des Moines Register, August 2, 2017

In 1972, Mark IV Pictures, the Iowa-based production company, released a motion picture that quickly attained cult status among evangelicals and became, in the words of Time magazine, a “church basement classic.”

History and Its Lessons

Valley News, May 21, 2017

Imagine my surprise last week to learn that Donald Trump invented that phrase. “I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good,” Trump told a reporter for The Economist in an interview published on May 11.

Los Angeles Times, February 2, 2017

Donald Trump’s promise to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, delivered at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, is a colossally bad idea, one that compromises the 1st Amendment.

The Countercultural Liberal Arts

Valley News, September 25, 2016

Although I attended a small liberal arts college, it wasn’t until the summer between my junior and senior years that I began to appreciate the importance of the liberal arts. I was working as an intern that summer on Capitol Hill. My aspiration at that juncture in my life was to become a professional photographer, so I made an appointment with the assistant head of photography at National Geographic.

The death this week of Phyllis Schlafly, the arch-anti-feminist and antigay activist, calls to mind a harrowing episode buried deep in the archives of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

The narrative of declension has a long pedigree in American history. Things are not as good as they used to be in some half-forgotten halcyon past. Puritan ministers in the latter half of the 17th century decried the spiritual decline in colonial Massachusetts. These jeremiads (recalling the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah) lamented that the Puritans had fallen away from the faith of the founders, and they called New England to repentance.

Color Me Skeptical about 'Baby Christian' Trump

If it weren't so tragic, it would be hilarious. Following a meeting between Donald Trump and evangelical leaders last month, James Dobson, a leader of the Religious Right, declared that the presumptive Republican nominee had recently decided “to accept a relationship with Christ” and was now “a baby Christian.”

The religious right was never about the advancement of biblical values. The modern, politically conservative evangelical movement we know is a movement rooted in the perpetuation of racial segregation, and its affiliation with the hard-right fringes of the conservative movement in the late 1970s produced a mutant form of evangelicalism inconsistent with the best traditions of evangelicalism itself.

Religion & Politics, April 19, 2016

By almost any reckoning, Ted Cruz’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination presents voters with a paradox—several paradoxes, actually. The senator from Texas styles himself a populist, and yet nearly everyone who knows him well detests him. At this writing, only two of his fifty-three fellow Republicans in the Senate have endorsed his candidacy, and his first-year roommate at Princeton famously declared that he would rather pick a presidential name at random in the White Pages than have Cruz be leader of the United States.

Los Angeles Times, March 3, 2016

As pundits scratch their heads over evangelical support for Donald Trump — he pulls a greater percentage of evangelical voters than any other candidate — they overlook one important fact: Evangelicals are secular now. Over the last several decades, they have devolved from theological guardians to political operatives.

It’s come to my attention that you’ve been assailing the liberal arts on the campaign trail. During one of the Republican debates, you declared — falsely, it appears — that welders earned more than philosophers. “We need more welders and less philosophers,” you said, although I suspect you meant to say “fewer philosophers” (a good liberal arts education helps with grammar, too).

Des Moines Register, January 5, 2016

Taking a page from Jerry Falwell’s playbook, Franklin Graham embarks this week on a tour of all 50 state capitals in an effort to encourage evangelicals to be politically active; he opens in Des Moines on Tuesday. In the run up to the 1980 presidential election, Falwell conducted rallies at state capitals throughout the nation in what emerged as the first public rumblings of the Religious Right.

Des Moines Register, December 22, 2015

When Bob Vander Plaats, perhaps the most influential leader of the Religious Right in Iowa, announced his endorsement for the Iowa precinct caucuses, he heralded the candidate’s strict exclusion policy on immigration (even though his chosen candidate was himself born outside of the United States).

The Story of Christmas Makes It Clear: Welcome the Refugee

Los Angeles Times, December 21, 2015

The newborn child was a refugee. His parents had traveled a great distance from one jurisdiction to another in obedience to a political mandate they did not fully understand. Exhausted from a long day's journey, they sought lodging but were turned away, so they took shelter in a stable. Amid farm animals, the labor pains began and the woman gave birth.

Washington Post, August 20, 2015

Forty-one years ago, Jimmy Carter, then governor of Georgia, delivered an extemperaneous address that established his credentials as a politician who was willing to tell the truth, even to powerful and moneyed interests—a speech that, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, might never again be heard in American politics.

What Would Jesus Say about Same-sex Marriage?

Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2015

Amid all of the overheated rhetoric surrounding the Supreme Court's decision legalizing same-sex marriages across the nation, evangelicals have alternated between defiance and a kind of martyrdom."It's time to be a light in these dark times," Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, said. Franklin Graham declared that the court was "endorsing sin" and that God's "decisions are not subject to review or revision by any man-made court."

Valley News, July 5. 2015

Having crippled Wisconsin’s public employee unions and survived a recall effort, Scott Walker, the state’s governor and a presumptive presidential candidate, has now set his eyes on curtailing tenure at the state’s universities. Because it is so widely misunderstood, tenure is a broad and tempting target, one ripe for the kind of demagoguery that has made Walker a darling of the far right and, reportedly, a favorite of the Koch brothers. Doing away with academic tenure, however, is a colossally bad idea..

What the Bible Says about Immigrants

Des Moines Register, August 24, 2014

The images are searing, the stories nothing short of tragic. Thousands of women and children have been detained at the border between Texas and Mexico. They tell harrowing stories of harassment by gangs, of family members killed or simply "missing." Assault. Grinding poverty. The conditions in such places as El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are so unbearable that these immigrants, including unaccompanied children, many of them orphans, have left everything behind for a perilous journey north across Mexico to the United States.

Remembering Freedom Summer

Valley News, July 20, 2014

In 1987 I happened to be in Jackson the day the Mississippi Legislature finally passed a bill authorizing a state holiday to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. The Legislature decided, in its infinite wisdom, that the day would also honor Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general. In Mississippi, especially in race relations, when one hand giveth, the other taketh away.

The Real Origins of the Religious Right

Politico, May 28, 2014

One of the most durable myths in recent history is that the religious right, the coalition of conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, emerged as a political movement in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion. The tale goes something like this: Evangelicals, who had been politically quiescent for decades, were so morally outraged by Roe that they resolved to organize in order to overturn it.

 

Des Moines Register, May 11, 2014

In October 1975 a dispatch from Ames rocked the political world. "Jimmy Carter of Georgia appears to have taken a surprising but solid lead in the contest for Iowa's 47 delegates to the Democratic National Convention next year," an article on the front page of the New York Times read. "Iowans like courtesy and the personal touch," the story continued, and they found Carter's low-key style winsome.

Commentary for Vermont Public Radio: Least Religious State

VPR, February 12, 2014

It’s official. Vermont is the least religious state in the nation. According to a recent Gallup Poll, only 22 percent of Vermonters attend religious worship at least once a week; New Hampshire is the second least religious state at 24 percent.

Tonight, America Worships in the Church of Football

Valley News, February 2, 2014

When thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers witness the Super Bowl kickoff at 6:30 this evening at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., they will be participating in a ritual that has become every bit as entrenched in American life as religious worship once was — or the singing of the national anthem prior to, well, sporting events. They will also witness a demonstration of America’s fascination with violence.

Valley News, June 23, 2013

Southwest Georgia is Baptist country. The back roads heading south out of Columbus are bracketed by red soil, scruffy pines and clapboard buildings sporting names like Shiloh Marion Baptist Church, Zion Hill Baptist Church, Piney Grove Missionary Baptist Church and Greater Good Hope Baptist Church. “Love Jesus No Matter What,” one roadside sign reads, and another: “Only Jesus Saves.” Outside of Preston, still another sign implores, “Take Jesus for your Saviour.”

Valley News, April 28, 2013

The scene at the Church of the Reformation in Washington last week, just a couple of blocks from the U.S. Capitol, was a mixture of resolve and celebration, equal parts political rally and family reunion. People milling about on the front steps posed for photographs, greeting old friends and making new acquaintances.

Please reload

Plains, Georgia, June 2, 2013
Randall Balmer with Mr. & Mrs. Carter in Plains, Georgia, June 2, 2013
Randall Balmer's book, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter, was released by Basic Books on May 13, 2014. This is the first biography of the thirty-ninth president to take his faith seriously as a way of understanding Carter's career and the religious context in which he lived.
The Life of Jimmy Carter
Books