The Challenge of Christian Citizenship

Randall Balmer

In the fall of 2003, I accepted my party’s request that I stand for election to the school board in the small Connecticut town where I then lived. Apparently, someone had the crazy idea that twenty-some years of teaching at Columbia made me qualified to say something about education.

I lost by four votes, out of more than eight thousand cast.

My study of American religious history convinces me that religion always functions best at the margins of society, not in the councils of power, for when religion hankers after power it loses its prophetic voice.

The following year I succumbed to yet another entreaty, this time to run for a seat in the Connecticut state legislature. I spent a good part of my summer knocking on doors. A dog took a bite out of my left hand. My opponent, a three-term incumbent, tapped into special-interest money and outspent me ten to one.

The day after the election, my wife suggested that we start looking at real estate in a different zip code.

I woke up that morning after the election with a hangover—and I hadn’t been drinking. My own electoral fate quickly paled against what had happened on a national level, and for the ensuing several weeks I debated what I should do. Should I retreat into what could be a very comfortable, insular life as a tenured professor? Or should I do something to try to alter what I considered to be this country’s ruinous course?

I vacillated for weeks. It was the example, finally, of my older son, then a sophomore at Columbia, that determined my direction. During the final weekend of that campaign, he had boarded a bus in New York City to campaign in Ohio. If he could do that, I decided, then retreat was not an option for me.

The Christian’s responsibility of citizenship remains one of the most vexing issues facing individual believers. Jesus tells us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but what exactly does that mean? Taxes? Voting? Military conscription? Holding political office?

Christians have disagreed, often vigorously, about these matters over the centuries. And the finest taxonomy for understanding these positions, in my opinion, is still Christ and Culture, written by Yale’s own H. Richard Niebuhr. Martin Luther understood the purpose of government as restraining evil so that the gospel could flourish, whereas John Calvin saw government in a more positive light—an opportunity to reform society through the agency of what he called the “lesser magistrates.” Groups like the Mennonites—“Christ against culture”—hold that a believer should shun worldly engagement, whereas theological liberals have often—perhaps too often—identified Christ with the culture.

My own thinking on this matter has evolved over the years. I remember trying to encourage my classmates at the evangelical college I attended in the fall of 1972 to become involved in politics, confident that as they did so, they would embrace an agenda similar to that of nineteenth-century evangelicals: opposition to war, equal rights for women, and care for those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” My classmates, however, expressed little or no interest in politics.

When the Religious Right emerged at the end of the 1970s, in response to the government’s attempts to proscribe racial discrimination at Bob Jones University and other “segregation academies,” evangelicals awakened suddenly, and their politics almost immediately skewed toward the far right. Even as politically conservative evangelicals propagated the “abortion myth,” the fiction that the Religious Right came into being as a direct response to Roe v. Wade, I was not too concerned. I was sure that their ruse would be exposed soon enough and that the Religious Right would collapse beneath the weight of its own contradictions.

How could those who claimed to adhere to the teachings of Jesus, the one who called his followers to be peacemakers and invited them to love their enemies, so blithely approve the deployment of military force? How could the lineal descendants of the abolitionists be so callous toward the poor? Even the Religious Right’s opposition to abortion seemed inconsistent and oddly acontextual. It clearly did not emerge from any abstract commitment to the “sanctity of life,” for (unlike Catholics) many of the same evangelicals who opposed abortion registered no objection to capital punishment or, more recently, to the government’s systematic use of torture.

Second Coming of William Jennings Bryan?

The leaders of the Religious Right had utterly forsaken the legacy of nineteenth-century evangelical activists, who invariably took the part of those on the margins of society. William Jennings Bryan, probably the most identifiable evangelical in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, would be considered a political liberal by almost any standard today. Bryan, three-time Democratic nominee for president and Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state, advocated a broad array of liberal and progressive causes.

Bryan, however, had suffered a brutal character assassination at the hands of H. L. Mencken during the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tenn. in July 1925. Bryan died in Dayton several days after the trial, and evangelicals thereafter retreated into a subculture of their own making. Evangelicals (at least those in the North) had been largely inactive in political matters during those years, until the emergence of Jimmy Carter as a national figure in the mid-1970s. During this half-century of political quiescence, there was a good bit of Cold War rhetoric in evangelical circles, and this had the effect of nudging evangelicals toward the right. That tendency was abetted also by the very public friendship between Billy Graham and Richard Nixon, who had formed a bond in the 1950s when they were both coming of age as anti-communist crusaders.

Carter’s declaration that he was a “born again” Christian lured many evangelicals (Southerners especially) back into the political arena after an absence of half a century. His concern for racial equality and human rights comported nicely with the emphases of evangelicalism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But the leaders of the newly emergent Religious Right, who had been recruited into politics by Paul Weyrich and other conservative activists, wanted to take evangelicals in a different political direction.

Propagated in large measure by the televangelists, the agenda of the Religious Right began to take root, especially among America’s evangelicals. Although most of this hard-right political ideology, I insist, was foreign to the teachings of Jesus and inconsistent with the noble legacy of nineteenth-century evangelical activism, the leaders of the Religious Right were able to peddle their politics almost unimpeded for the better part of three decades. Other people of faith, notably mainstream Protestants, raised barely a whimper of protest, or so it seemed.

I too was complicit in this conspiracy of silence. To be sure, many Christians with less conservative political views were speaking their conscience, but those voices were overwhelmed by the Religious Right’s masterful use of media. Leaders of the Religious Right also claimed that the absence of more liberal political voices in the public square was the consequence of a lack of theological definition.

Perhaps so, but I think the larger issue was neglect or apathy, and here I point the finger of blame directly at myself. I treated the Religious Right like a nagging cough or a bad cold. I thought it would simply go away.

The 2004 election convinced me otherwise.

The place of the believer in political discourse is both controverted and complicated, as H. Richard Niebuhr recognized more than half a century ago. Some take the words of Jesus to mean that Christians should shun politics altogether, a perfectly respectable and theologically defensible position. But to abandon the public square to ideologues of any stripe invites trouble, especially in a pluralistic society.

Precisely because the United States is a pluralistic society, religiously informed voices—from all parts of the religious and political spectrum—should be represented. I happen to believe that public discourse would be impoverished without voices of faith. But believers also need to recognize the dangers of political engagement. My study of American religious history convinces me that religion always functions best at the margins of society, not in the councils of power, for when religion hankers after power it loses its prophetic voice.

The history of the Religious Right illustrates this copiously. The Religious Right has become the Republican Party’s most reliable constituency, much the way that organized labor once supplied the backbone of the Democratic Party. But the leaders of the Religious Right have tempered their criticism of Republican policies. Where are the voices of conscience calling the powerful to account for this government’s persistent, systematic use of torture, for instance, or the justice of the war in Iraq? Christians can draw on centuries of thinking and writing on what constitutes a “just war”: Is it a defensive war? Is the use of military force the last resort? Is the military deployment proportional to the provocation? Is there a reasonable chance of success? Have provisions been made, as much as possible, to shield civilians from “collateral damage”? The invasion of Iraq meets none of these criteria.

Not only has the Religious Right been silent on such matters, but its silence constitutes complicity in policies that, by almost any reckoning, are immoral.

Politically liberal believers, however, also need to guard against the same danger of seduction by power. In the 1950s, for instance, mainstream Protestantism was virtually indistinguishable from a kind of cult of white, middle-class, American respectability. Any concerted engagement of politically liberal Christians must be wary of compromising the faith for political ends.

For me, the 2004 election was a long overdue wake-up call. Having failed decisively in elective politics, I have turned my attention to writing and lecturing on matters of, I believe, great consequence. I refuse to allow the leaders of the Religious Right to speak for the faith that I cherish—to distort the faith that I cherish. I call my fellow believers back to the teachings of Jesus, the one who expressed concern for the tiniest sparrow and who invited his followers to be peacemakers. Somehow, I suspect that when Jesus asked us to love our enemies he probably didn’t mean that we should torture or kill them. And I wonder how the words of Jesus imploring us to welcome the stranger might inform our immigration policies.

I also commend to my fellow believers the example of Christian activists throughout American history. Their motives were not always perfect, nor were their actions entirely praiseworthy, but those who struggled against the scourge of slavery or who fought for the rights of women or who sought to protect others against the excesses of predatory capitalism saw themselves advancing the kingdom of God on earth. Vernon Johns and Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis waged heroic, prophetic battles against evil—and managed in so doing to illuminate, rather than to compromise the faith.

Not every believer is called to elective politics— and I have new respect for those who are and yet manage to retain the integrity of their faith in the rough-and-tumble of the political arena. Others of us seek to exercise responsible Christian citizenship in other venues. One thing, however, is certain: The political history of the last several decades, which saw the virtually unchallenged ascendance of the Religious Right, demonstrates the perils of apathy and silence.

Randall Balmer, a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School and an Episcopal priest, is professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is the author of a dozen books, including Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America. (New York: Basic Books, 2006) His newest book, God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, will be published by HarperOne in January 2008.