2009 Randall Balmer

Balmer speaks on Baptists, belief and bamboozling

2009 Shurden Lectures

By Cherilyn Crowe, Baptist Joint Committee

Like our Baptist forebears, Randall Balmer worries that the integrity of the faith is diminished by its entanglement with the state. Balmer explained why during this year’s Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State. Over the course of two days at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., Balmer examined religion and the presidency, explained the rise of the religious right, and warned that when religion looks for sanction from the state, religion is diminished and “faith is reduced to fetish.”

Balmer is a familiar face to many. He is a professor of American religious history at Barnard College at Columbia University, and he has written several books, the latest being God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. Balmer was also one of the expert witnesses in the Alabama Ten Commandments monument trial, and he is the first Shurden lecturer to have been a guest on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.

In his first lecture, Balmer gave a history of the relationship between presidential politics and faith over the past 50 years. He traced the evolution of candidates’ religious confessions from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech declaring his faith would not substantially affect his conduct as president to George W. Bush’s 2000 statement that Jesus was his favorite political philosopher. In between, Americans saw Jimmy Carter’s 1976 watershed campaign that propelled the born-again Baptist to the highest office in the land, the rise of the moral majority, the Reagan revolution, and the first all-Southern Baptist ticket in 1992 (Clinton/Gore).

Balmer told his audience that candidates’ claims of faith tend to serve as a “proxy for morality.” In other words, when the public wants to know if a candidate can be trusted, the only way they seem to know how to frame the question is by asking if the candidate is a “person of faith.” Balmer reminded the audience that, when a candidate talks about his or her faith, it is the voters’ responsibility to follow up and find out how the proclaimed faith will affect the candidate’s conduct as president. In the past half century, Balmer feels the voters have been repeatedly bamboozled by presidential candidates’ claims of faith — with the possible exception of Jimmy Carter. Unlike other presidents, Balmer said Carter made morality one of his guiding principles in some explicit ways. Examples arose in his renegotiation of the Panama Canal treaty and his vocal concern for human rights.

In another lecture, Balmer traced the history of the formation of the religious right and debunked some popular myths about the group’s original motivation. Instead of rising as a response to Roe v. Wade, Balmer argued that the religious right sought involvement in the political process as part of their fight to keep a religious school’s tax-exempt status in the face of racial discrimination.

Balmer left his audiences with warnings for the future. The great lesson of history, he said, is that “once religion hankers after temporal influence, faith loses its prophetic edge.” Balmer encouraged people of faith to participate in the political process with voices uncompromised by unsavory political entanglements. He said we must remain free of the ritualistic “piety of patriotism.” The Baptist ideal found in the provisions of the First Amendment has worked for centuries, and he said anyone who wants to undermine either clause of the First Amendment may not be a true Baptist. Balmer said he can spot a Baptist based on their belief in believer’s baptism and liberty of individual conscience. True Baptists also understand that any attempt to Baptize faith in public life does nothing but diminish the integrity of the faith itself.

Balmer’s lectures can be viewed online (see below), and you can click here to watch his appearance on The Daily Show.

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