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Making Up Evangelical History

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Randall Balmer is Professor of American Religious History at Barnard College, Columbia University. He has written several books which explore the development of political activism by people of faith, specifically conservative evangelicals.

His most recent foray into this effort is “The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond” (2010: Baylor University Press) in which he asserts that what has come to be known as the “Religious Right” did not have its beginnings as a response to the Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion on demand in 1973 (Roe v. Wade). Rather Dr. Balmer puts forward a radically different motivation for the formation of conservative evangelical political engagement in the mid to late 1970s: the Green v. Connally decision by the District Court of the District of Columbia on June 30, 1971 which threatened the tax exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policy denying admission to students of color.

Balmer’s conclusion that the Roe v. Wade decision was not a precipitating factor in the formation of conservative evangelical political engagement serves as a classic example of historic revisionism. Of the response of evangelicals in 1973 to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion on demand Balmer writes: “While a few evangelical voices, including Christianity Today magazine, mildly questioned the ruling, the overwhelming response on the part of evangelicals was silence, even approval.”

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Indeed, Balmer’s thesis is that the abortion issue was only “cobbled into the agenda of the Religious Right” as a political maneuver by Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the so-called Religious Right,” who knew (according to Balmer’s characterization) that the sterile subject of tax exemption would not rally evangelicals to political action, engendering the kind of emotional response that “protecting those poor, defenseless babies” would create. Randall seems to be asserting that the abortion issue was only a front for the real cause of standing against the IRS for threatening the tax exempt status of evangelical schools. In Balmer’s history money, not morals, was the precipitating cause of the Religious Right.

To support his revisionism, Balmer quotes Dr. Edward Dobson who was “formerly Falwell’s assistant at Moral Majority”:

The Religious New Right did not start because of a concern about abortion. I sat in the non-smoke-filled back room with the Moral Majority, and I frankly do not remember abortion being mentioned as a reason why we ought to do something.

Balmer offers no footnote to cite the source of the above quote, only stating that the comment was made in 1999, and offering no details about the context. So I picked up the phone and called Dr. Dobson, who is now living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

When I asked if he recalled making such a statement he replied that while he has no doubt that he may have made such a statement, the way in which Dr. Balmer was using it seemed to be out of context. Dr. Dobson told me, “I have always argued that while abortion was not the major issue in the formation of the Moral Majority, it was certainly one of the issues.”

When I asked Dr. Dobson if he agreed with Randall’s assertion that the Religious Right was formed more as a response to Bob Jones University losing its tax exempt status rather than as a reaction to the Roe v. Wade decision, Dr. Dobson told me that such an assertion was “absolutely false. The subject of Bob Jones University never came up in any conversations as a reason for forming the Moral Majority. In fact, Bob Jones, Jr. once called Jerry Falwell ‘the most dangerous man in America,’ so the notion that these men would be concerned with defending Bob Jones University lacks merit.”

What kind of history is this? On what basis does Balmer reach the conclusion that money and racism were the motivating factors that precipitated conservative political activism and not the moral issues of abortion, marriage and homosexuality?

Dr. Balmer is firmly in the camp of those who see the purpose of the Gospel as primarily about reforming the ills of society through social action. He’s part of the new “Religious Left,” a category of evangelicals he denied exists during a recent radio interview with me. While his bias is implicit in his conclusions, it’s also explicitly stated. Not until you get to the end of Balmer’s 84-page revisionism does he show his hand: “For too many years I offered an exasperated defense, arguing that the Bible I read enjoins me to act with justice and points me toward the left of the political spectrum.”

“The Making of Evangelicalism” is a distortion of facts in support of biased characterizations of conservative evangelicals. In addition to the absurd notion that a defense of the sanctity of life was not the precipitating cause of the formation of the Religious Right, Balmer asserts that conservative Christians opposed women’s rights, supported torture, care more about abortion than divorce, support the destruction of the environment, and favor the affluent more than poor, without once offering a shred of objective balance from those he accuses. This sounds more like Keith Olbermann than a respected historian.

What kind of historian produces a history that presents facts in evidence supporting only half the history?  Balmer has not written a history of the making of evangelicalism. The reality is Balmer is “making up” evangelicalism by reading into history a conclusion influenced by his own progressive bias against conservative evangelical political engagement. He has written history as he would like it to have been, not as it was.

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