Randall Balmer: Wrestling With the Faith We Love - Kate Bowler

Randall Balmer: Wrestling With the Faith We Love

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podcast banner Randall Balmer: Wrestling With the Faith We Love

Randall Balmer: Wrestling With the Faith We Love

Many of us miss the churches of our childhood and are trying to figure out what pieces of our faith to keep and which to leave behind. My guest today knows that better than anyone. Randall Balmer is a historian of American religion at Dartmouth College, THE expert of American evangelicalism, and a pastor’s kid (PK!) of a fundamentalist preacher.  In this conversation, Kate and Randy talk about: 
  • How to reconcile the evangelism of today with its progressive past
  • The cost of a more manufactured worship experience
  • Why we both value those stray moments of faith
  • What (if any) hope is there for evangelicalism 
  • Maintaining faith when you’ve been hurt by the church

Guest

Randall Balmer

A prize-winning historian and Emmy Award nominee, Randall Balmer holds the John Phillips Chair in Religion at Dartmouth, the oldest endowed professorship at Dartmouth College. He earned a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1985 and taught as Professor of American Religious History at Columbia University for twenty-seven years before coming to Dartmouth in 2012. He has been a visiting professor at Princeton, Yale, Northwestern, and Emory universities and in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, now in its fifth edition, and Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. His most recent book is, Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right.

Show Notes

Watch what Time Magazine called “a Church basement classic,” A Thief in the Night. 

This film, in turn, influenced the popular Left Behind book series and movie spin off. 

If you didn’t grow up in evangelicalism, there may have been some words used in today’s episode you are unfamiliar with. Here are some quick definitions that might be helpful: 

  • Premillennialism: “the view that Christ’s return will usher in a future millennium of Messianic rule mentioned in Revelation” (as opposed to amillennialism and postmillennialism)
  • Apocalyptic: “forecasting the ultimate destiny of the world”
  • Televangelists: “an evangelist who conducts regularly televised religious programs”
  • Pentecostals: “various Christian religious bodies that emphasize individual experiences of grace, spiritual gifts (such as glossolalia and faith healing), expressive worship, and evangelism”
  • Pietism: “a 17th century religious movement originating in Germany in reaction to formalism and intellectualism and stressing Bible study and personal religious experience.”
  • Fundamentalists: “a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching”

Randy’s groundbreaking book that (sometimes autobiographically) explored evangelical subculture is called Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. It is a must-read. And a must-watch! PBS turned Randy’s research into a mini-series. You can watch it, here.

Fun fact: Randy’s research methodology for Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory influenced my research for Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.

To learn more about how to define evangelicalism, watch this lecture from Randy on the long history of the movement.

Want to learn more about the religious right’s early history? Randy makes a compelling argument that the voting bloc formed not around a reaction to Roe v. Wade, but forced school integration. Watch this clip: 

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Transcript

Kate Bowler:                         School’s back in session everyone. It is September already. I know. Can you believe it? But today I thought we could do something different. Today I hope to take you inside of my classroom. My name is Kate Bowler and this is Everything Happens. I study American religious history and I get to teach do gooders here at Duke Divinity School. Some of us, if we were Christiany, grew up in a culture which really emphasized being separate from the rest of the world. We call that separation a subculture. So maybe we’d have not just music, but Christian music, not just T.V., but shows like VeggieTales and Mickey and Me,bookstores, but also just Christian bookstores, which sell a lot of T-shirts with like faith puns, which, you know, I’m so tempted to give you a couple examples right now. But one of the most dominant American religious subcultures is called evangelicalism. And about 40% of Americans have found themselves in the evangelical tradition at one point or another in their religious lives. Evangelicalism has been really popular in America for centuries. But just humor me as I try a modern definition. Evangelicalism isn’t a denomination. It’s a big umbrella term for someone who could be in any number of different traditions or ministries. But the primary themes are going to be very Bible focused. Often maybe talking about inerrancy or the literal truth of scripture. It’s very conversion focused, so it’s not enough that they’re part of it. They really want you to join and very focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus as salvation for your sins. And so that the most important part of your identity is that, you know, you are saved and perhaps might use the language of like born again. So yeah, evangelicalism is something I’ve studied for a really long time and right now it’s having a pretty significant identity crisis because its leaders have often been closely associated with the presidency of Donald Trump and a whole set of political positions on man, there’s lots but say anti masking, primarily concerns about religious freedom or abortion, sexuality, etc.. So there’s now a pretty significant group of people who grew up evangelical but may not know what to do now with the faith that they were raised in. Even if what I’m describing is not your faith of origin. Sometimes we miss the churches of our childhood and we’re just trying to figure out what pieces to keep and which to let go of. And my guest today knows that better than anyone. So today I want to introduce you to one of my teachers. No, seriously, I was the eager student in the front row of his class in grad school. Here he is.

Kate:                           My guest today is Randall Balmer, a prize winning historian and Emmy Award nominee. Randy Balmer is one of the most important interpreters of American evangelicalism and frankly, has been a role model of mine since I met him 20 years ago. He is a scholar scholar. He earned a Ph.D. from Princeton University, taught at Columbia University for 27 years, and now holds an endowed chair in American religion at Dartmouth College. He is a spectacular lecturer, so he’s always in demand as a visiting professor at Princeton and Northwestern and Emory and Yale, which is where he met a young Canadian with a lot of questions about why her Mennonite relatives can ruin any food by adding more Jell-O. He has published more than a dozen books and written and produced award winning documentaries about modern American religious life and politics. He has been a genuine inspiration to me and the way that I think and write. I would never have imagined that a historian is also allowed to be personal and honest when a faith you love also breaks your heart. Professor Balmer hello. Thank you so much for doing this with me today.

Randall Balmer:                  Hey, you’re wonderful. And I am overwhelmed by the introduction and the the honor is mine to be associated with you. And I do mean that.

Kate:                                       Well, take me back to the beginning. Tell me about the faith tradition that you grew up in.

Randall Balmer:               Oh, my goodness. I grew up in what I came in later in life to call the evangelical subculture, which, as you know, is this vast and interlocking network of Bible camps and Sunday schools and churches and denominations, seminaries, missionary societies, publishing houses that was constructed in earnest in the middle decades of the 20th century as a place of refuge for evangelicals who regarded the larger world as both corrupt and corrupting, and their particular particularly worried about shielding their children from those corrosive influences in the larger culture. And so I’ve often said that it was possible in the middle decades of the 20th century to grow up in within that subculture and have very little commerce with anyone or anything outside of that world. And I that’s that’s my life as my story of life. That’s where I grew up. My father was a minister for 40 years in the Evangelical Free Church. And as I’ve said, often, I honor both his ministry and his memory, even though my appropriation of the faith is probably a bit different from his.

Kate:                        So you’re the oldest boy with a father preacher. I imagine there was a lot of expectation of who you might be.

Randall Balmer:       Do you think? Yes. Yes, I was. I was slated to follow my father’s footsteps into the ministry. And my Christmas present when I was five or six years old was a miniature replica of my father’s pulpit, which fit my size at the time, you know? Yes, I still actually I have it I have it right here in my office.

Kate:                  Do you really?

Randall Balmer:             I have it. You can probably see the corner of it right there.

Kate:                    Oh, my gosh. Yeah. No, you got the full lectern. You didn’t even just get, like, the the shoddy, single, single pedestal.

Randall Balmer:              Oh, no, it was spot on. And so that that was, I suppose, in many ways, the burden I carried with me through adolescence, young adulthood. And so I had to go my own way as children do. And I think that probably was a formative moment for me in many ways. And yet I haven’t strayed too far, let’s put it that way.

Kate:               I will never forget the moment in your class when you showed us a movie, a classic like the movie that used to scare the crap out of all evangelical kids growing up. And you pop the movie in. And then I realized that your dad was a Christian movie star. For an important moment, I wondered if you would tell me about that movie A Thief in the Night? 

Randall Balmer:              Sure. The person who wrote and directed the film was my Sunday schoolteacher. His name is Donald Thompson, and he just died a couple of years ago. But we maintained a friendship through the years. And the movie was really based on my father’s Sunday evening sermons, which were more often than not were based on the book of Revelation and the prophecies and so forth. Now, my father, of course, was a pre millennialist, as were most evangelicals in those days. And Don, the director decided to try to turn his cinematic skills on that topic. And he did you know, it was a low budget film, as anybody who has seen it will attest. Time magazine called it a church basement classic, but it, as you said, it scared the bejesus out of generations of evangelical adolescents because I probably should explain for people who are listening that it it depicts life on Earth during what evangelicals call the rapture and the tribulation. That is when Jesus comes to collect the faithful from this earth and then bringing them up to heaven and then unleash this terrible judgment against those who are left behind. And by the way, the Left Behind series, the Tim LaHaye series was based on a Thief in the Night. So the movie has had quite a quite an influence. And my father played the so-called good preacher in that film. And, in fact, when he delivers the sermon, he does so extemporaneously. It wasn’t he wasn’t reading from a script. It wasn’t written for him. He was just preaching extemporaneously.

Kate:                 Oh, wow. Wow. The apocalyptic urgency of that kind of faith is something that you and I have both been around a lot, and it has an intensity and a sincerity. It’s so easy to feel like it sort of just that you can hear the clock ticking kind of spiritually. At all times. And then, you know, you and I became historians, which is a very sort of sluggish form of truth telling. You know, we’re like, oh, give us eight years. You know, let us let us get into the sources. You know, let me let me get into the archives. The sort of role of preacher versus historian, I imagine, drew a line between the kind of truth telling that you both felt called to. When did you realize that preaching and that sort of like tick, tick, tick feeling wasn’t going to be your path?

Randall Balmer:                 It’s when I was finishing up my undergraduate studies at Trinity College in Deerfield, Illinois, and my parents put a good deal of pressure on me to go directly to seminary, and it just didn’t seem like that’s what I wanted to do at that point. And I think part of it was a reaction against the sort of expectations in the evangelical world. I remember one time saying, well, you know, if I if I’m in this to please my parents, which of course, is a bad reason for doing almost anything, but if I’m in it to do that, it won’t be good enough simply to become a minister. Then I would be expected to kind of climb the ladder and be more successful. Have bigger churches and bigger congregations, bigger ministries and that sort of thing, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. Quite improbably at the time, I decided to try to if I could do anything in graduate school. And I was fortunate to be the beneficiary of a clerical error on the part of my advisers at Princeton University. They let me in to the program. And I was so overmatched that I became an overachiever, I suppose.

Kate:                But you wrote a book that became I mean, that was a real classic. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory named after that beautiful hymn. And I just want to pause there for a second, because I. It’s not a normal book. It’s a book that is I mean, normal, I’m saying because it’s highly readable. And for academic prose, that is not always the the dream. But it was obviously a very personal book, one in which you’re you’re a character in it. And I remember, too, because it came along with that PBS documentary, which we all thought was so cool. You had like very cool clothes, you know, like acid washed jeans. I believe you were hip with a jive. And I wanted to know where the jive was. But I remember it being a much more personal project than I thought historians would be allowed to sign on to and that made a tremendous impression on me that it was personal, reflective, and we would say like ethnographic, but you’re you’re there in it. And it sounded like you had something. Well, I didn’t realize, honestly, until I read your memoir about your dad that there was kind of more at stake in writing that book than I knew at the time. So tell me, like, what was the moment in which you wrote it and what was what felt like it was, why did you need to write it?

Randall Balmer:                 Great question. There is quite a story behind this. I was hired out of graduate school at Columbia and I was simultaneously told, informed in no uncertain terms that I would never be tenured at Columbia University. And so I settled in and I was busy doing reverse revisions to my dissertation to have that published in the late 1980s when all of this was going on, was when the televangelist scandals were breaking. And I was, believe it or not, at the time in New York, I was the only person in a university, college, university setting who studied American religious history. And so I kept getting all these media calls to try to explain what was going on. And, of course, coming out of that world, I knew what was going on. I was reasonably well informed about this. But at the same time, I grew rather impatient with the media assumptions that evangelicals, all evangelicals, were either extremely gullible or the moral equivalent of Jim Baker and Jimmy Swaggart. And having grown up in that world, I knew better. But I was also reading travel literature at the time. And I love the genre of American travel, travel, literature. And particularly I was reading a book by William Least Heat-Moon called Blue Highway’s A Journey into America. I finished reading this book and I thought, I’ve got to find a way to do that. That is to do a travel narrative. So I cooked up this crazy idea, and it doesn’t sound as crazy today as it did at the time, because, as you said, this was a new form of expression for somebody who was a historian. So over the next year or so, I took long weekends and spring breaks and summer vacations and traveled all over and tried to try to write a narrative that depicted evangelicalism not as some sort of monolithic movement, which we both know it’s not. But as an extraordinarily variegated patchwork quilt, which is the image I use in the book that has a great deal of diversity and also a great deal of sincerity on the part of those who are part of that movement. Actually, that book came out three weeks after my first book, which was the revision of the dissertation. So 1989 was a big publishing year for me.

Kate:                      And just for the sake of contrast, Randy tell me the name of your dissertation versus the name of the hot topic.

Randall Balmer:              It’s called A Perfect Babel of Confusion, Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies.

Kate:                      That’s right.

Randall Balmer:              Isn’t that what it is?

Kate:                No, it’s not that. It’s not a good book. It’s just there’s a there is a kind of thing we are nudged into. Rereading your work for this interview was a lovely opportunity to remember when I read Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory and I thought, Oh, then maybe I could try a dissertation like that. And then and it was also in response to the televangelistic scandals in which I thought, well, surely there’s a story about people who believe that God wants to make them healthy and wealthy that isn’t about caricatures. And maybe and maybe I could travel. So then I went to the Holy Land with Bennie Hinn. I still need to go back because I didn’t really get the experience that I think most tourists got. But I but it opened up a way of thinking and believing alongside of the questions that I had. So I. Anyway, I just want to say thanks for that too.

Randall Balmer:               Well, all of our scholarship is in some way autobiographical. I think we probably need to acknowledge that. 

Kate:                        Yes. Yes. Yeah. I didn’t know at the time that it would be so much about whether it’s reasonable to expect miracles and that my own sort of life would precipitate that as more of a theological crisis than I hoped for. But in the end, I. I think I just wanted to know whether it’s possible to have that feeling that that you can still be surprised by God, that God isn’t just sort of a structured set of beliefs you have that kind of lay the, that like draw the map for you and point you in the right direction. But just that you could be, I don’t know, shocked by feeling love or. Swept into a kind of certainty or knowing about something or just the feeling like even if you fall all the way down, it won’t quite be all the way down. I couldn’t quite have hoped for that, but I think that is what I got.

Randall Balmer:                  Yes you did. And I think both of us, I’m presuming to speak a little bit for you as well. I think both of us have a sense of living in an enchanted universe. Where there are forces at play that neither of us can fully explain. Or even understand, for that matter. And, I think that’s what, you know, not to you know, this is not an apologetic sort of conversation. I don’t I don’t think so, at least. But I mean, I, I think that people who who who bracket that possibility out of their lives. They’re missing out on a great deal of life. The joy of discovery that we’re living in an enchanted universe is in allowing for the possibility of being bewitched by that universe is really quite a satisfying way to live. And you know that better than I.

Kate:                    You and I care a great deal about all of the sort of threads that have gone in to weave this sort of evangelical tapestry of beliefs, and there’s little threads of it that I honestly really love. Since, you know, one nerd to another, I just sort of wanted to ask you, honestly, I just wanted to ask you a little bit about a couple of those pieces that still feel really precious to me, especially we’re in a very strange time in which, you know, evangelicalism is on the rocks. And a lot of people who grew up in the tradition now associate it with a host of really negative associations. And before we talk about that piece, I wondered if we could talk about a couple of the bits that we I think we both probably appreciate in a deep way.

Randall Balmer:                  Mm hmm. Yeah. This is one of the things that I learned far too late when I was growing up in that world, I came to realize that evangelicalism has a distinguished past. Evangelicals that, particularly in the 19th and early 20th century, would be considered political liberals, or at least to the left of center by today’s political spectrum. They cared for those that Jesus called the least of these. They were involved in prison reform. They were involved in peace movements. They were involved in public education because they and they supported it rather vigorously, because they realized that was the way to advance the fortunes of those who were on the lower rungs of society. They supported women’s rights, women’s equality, which, of course, was a radical idea in the 19th century. And the other thing that I’ve run across more recently, and this is just in the last few years, is that many evangelicals, including prominently Charles Grandison Finney, by any measure, the most prominent and important evangelical of the 19th century were unapologetic critics of free market capitalism. And he said, and these are my words, not his, but this is his argument. He said that a Christian businessman was an oxymoron because business or economics necessarily elevates avarice over altruism. He was scathing in his denunciations of capitalism, and I think that’s one of the great and noble and neglected legacies of evangelicalism that we need desperately to recover.

Kate:                  There was another strand of what now kind of has become a really common feature of modern evangelicalism and Pentecostalism. It has a really old history called patriotism. I wondered. If you could define that for a minute. And I wanted to ask if it’s still a kind of a vital part of how you know and talk about God.

Randall Balmer:                Hmm. Very good question. Well, pietiesm, I mean, do my historians thing first.

Kate:                    Love it, but I love that you could do both. It makes me so happy.

Randall Balmer:                  Pietism, early as part of a much larger kind of trans religious movement that comes out of the 17th and 18th centuries includes quietism among Roman Catholics, certainly the Methodist movement within the Church of England, but also in addition to continental pieties. And you’ve got the Hasidic movement within Judaism, and all of them are reactions against the kind of arid scholasticism that had become rather prominent in various religious traditions. And so pietism moving toward a definition, I’m not sure I have a technical definition for it, but I always describe it as an emphasis on a warm hearted affective piety. Pietest insist it’s not enough simply to have the right theology or the right intellectual disposition toward the faith. But you have to feel it somehow inside of you. And of course, you know, the probably the most radical manifestations of that come with the Pentecostal movement and other in the folks that you’ve studied. Yes. So, pietism I think is very important. And. I’m not a Pentecostal, although I certainly admire people who are. And there’s a part of me that is jealous of that. Sort of abandon that sort of freedom that is expressed in those circles. And I, you know, I’m too much of an Episcopalian these days to let myself fully abandon myself in that sort of context. But the it is important to me in the sense that I think in many ways, and this is true with a lot of evangelicals, particularly fundamentalists, that faith has become too intellectualized. You know, outsiders who don’t understand evangelism talk about evangelicalism as being anti-intellectual. It’s it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Evangelicals, particularly fundamentalists, are hyper rationalist. And I think that, to a degree, is the tradition in which I was reared. And so I have I do find myself kind of yearning for a more affective faith. How does that come about? I mean, it comes about in these kind of blessed stray moments. Music is very often a catalyst for me, whether it’s the old gospel hymns or or, you know, Mozart’s Requiem or whatever it might be that very often is is is a catalyst for that sort of affective experience. But I treasure that. And it doesn’t happen in enough.

Kate:                    I think I because I spent a lot of time on the more emotional side of evangelicalism, sort of like Bible camp soft music playing underneath every prayer. I think I just felt very suspicious of the that sort of that deep pietistic belief that feelings can tell us something true and sometimes truer about God than our minds assent. And I. So, yeah, I and I and I think I really missed that about the intensity of my kind of evangelical teenage years.

Randall Balmer:               Well, the I mean, you know this as well as I is that in those contexts that’s often very manipulative and it’s contrived. It’s contrived. And and that to me, robs a lot of the meaning from it. And and, you know, I think the Holy Spirit works various ways and again, you see this now, I mean, the ubiquitous praise music now and evangelicals. I mean, I, I don’t even have to go to these places anymore. Not that I’m inclined to do it because. But you know, I just know what it’s going to be. It’s going to be this, you know, four or five people up on the stage. And about the third song in, they’re going to they’re going to.

Kate:                     Bring It down, bring it in.

Randall Balmer:             Close their eyes and have one hand in the air, the other hand holding the microphone. And, you know, that’s the time when everybody is supposed to get this sort of warm, fuzzy feeling. And yeah, I find it. I find it cruelly manipulative.

Kate:                 Yes. Yes, no totally. I mean, it’s part of the sort of terrible genius of what megachurches did when they institutionalized. They sort of ritualized the arc of experience in revivals where they know exactly how to shape a feeling. And now that they have these fabulously bajillion dollar sound systems and unbelievably attractive people at the front in perfect lighting, everyone looks and everyone’s skin looks fantastic in that lighting. They just it has become like a very a very, uh, meant to constantly push you toward a single feeling outcome. I mean, but I and I sometimes I miss the intensity of that, especially when I’m sitting in a service that has gone on too long and someone’s on their 12th point. And they really want me to know the greek meaning of something. But I, I think what’s funny, after my faith has taken a it’s been somewhere. I mean. It’s been it’s been down a long road. And then it really had to matter when I thought that I was going to die. It just hit a point in which I had to decide what really felt, not just intellectually true, but what felt even like what does the presence of God feel like? And I think when you said you get these stray moments, I think that’s such a perfect phrase because I that’s when the that deep pietistic thing where my heart can tell me something really true and contrary to the evidence and the evidence would be my body is disposable, I’m stuck in a medical system that will not likely save me, etc., etc. that when things looked really, truly terrible, feeling intense love or feeling the feeling like remade by other people’s love with their hands on my head it kind of. Yeah, it was it’s it was comforting in a way that I. I was like, Yeah, I think I’m a pietist in this way. Also. Yeah. When you mention Charles Feeney, he has that description of his conversion about like waves of liquid love. I think that’s right.

Randall Balmer:               Changed his Life.

Kate:                      It’s a revelation when you get a minute. But then it goes.

Randall Balmer:                        It does. And, you know, it’s very difficult to sustain a religious fervor or or certainly frenzy over a period of time. And you know, that to me is, is what, again, I find sort of objectionable about a lot of these contexts, these these churches, these megachurches in particular, is that they’re they’re trying to conjure it up, trying to gen it up somehow. And.

Kate:                 Yeah that’s right.

Randall Balmer:                     And than it dies down, you know. And then and then next week you come and there you go again. And  I understand that the yearning to have that experience because it is euphoric. I mean, it’s  transformative. It’s an out of body thing, which, you know, again, better than I. But there seems something kind of engineered about it and for that reason, inauthentic, at least it seems that. And I guess the other element for me is that, you know, as an Episcopal priest, I really come to I become sacramentalest. Jesus is there in the consecrated wafer and wine in the body and blood and that is for me has become, for me a real mystical moment in many times, again, I’m not trying to conjure it every time I do the consecration, but for me that it is so important and I’m very, very intentional about this. I preach and I, I love preaching. And I, you know, I think I’m a reasonably good preacher. But the sermon is not the main event. The sermon is a waystation on the way to the Eucharist, which is the climax, the culmination, the climax of the sermon. And so I’m very, very careful not to overshadow that.

Kate:                       Yeah. I love how intense you are about this, because that is because that was that’s after I met you, that you went the way that you went to the way of the priesthood. Tell me how you made that decision, because that’s another full I mean, it’s a strange step forward and then sort of step back into the same shoes, I imagine, but with a different collar. 

Randall Balmer:                    It is a different one. I mean part of the catalyst of course was, you know, my parent’s wishes and and I did tell my father on his deathbed, which is probably not a good thing to do. But I, I did say that I was going to pursue ordination. I told him that and that he was pretty much gone by then. So I don’t know if he’d heard that or not, but he knows now and I love it. I see it as a complement to my identity as a scholar. I can say things in the pulpit that I know I can’t say or or would be inappropriate to say in a class. It has allowed me, a fuller expression of who I am. And so it’s been deeply, deeply satisfying.

Kate:                     The Trump presidency was extremely polarizing for evangelicalism. I have a lot of friends who were the public face of the movement, especially for women, until 2016. And now basically none of them would call themselves evangelical. You have been the most astute, close observer of this sort of shocking, emptying out of the middle. Why is it so hard to be to see anything good right now in evangelicalism?

Randall Balmer:                    One of the credos by which I try to live is that it is imperative to be hopeful. I was asked to write something recently on the theological virtue of hope, faith, hope and love. And it occurred to me in the course of writing this that first of all, we neglect hope. We talk about faith, we talk about love. We don’t talk about hope very often. It also occurred to me that hope is the one theological virtue that is volitional. That is to say, I can choose to be hopeful. For the most part, we don’t choose who we love particularly intimate, intimate relationships. It just comes over us in some way or another. Faith is not really a choice, you know, particularly if you’re a Calvinist. But even for other folks. But hope is something that’s volitional. And so I chose I choose to be hopeful. And some of that, as it’s in the past few years, it means hoping against hope because I don’t see much sign of hopefulness or much reason to hope within evangelicalism these days if there is a path forward and I’ve been advocating for this for this for years, and you can see how successful I’ve been. Evangelicals, I think, need, first of all, to reaffiliate with the words of Jesus. Imagine that the the suffering servant who instructed us to care for the least of these to visit orphans and prisoners, to care for those who are less fortunate than we are. But also to reaffiliate with their own history, which we talked about earlier, their own past, and to take lessons from that history. Now, again, you can see how successful I’ve been in my campaign to remind evangelicals of who they should be rather than who they are these days. But I think it’s also possible that the movement has become so corrupted and so tarnished by its political associations, not just in the past four years, but over the past 40 years, that we may have to look at something else, try to try to imagine a different future for those of us who are inclined in the direction of evangelicalism.

Kate:                      I’ve heard you argue that evangelicalism has a hard time passing down the faith tradition, you know, generation to generation. I know we have both wrestled with in some form or another. Your a parent and I’m a parent now of a little eight year old who is mostly eyeballs and a lot of very specific questions about piracy. How do we do this right now? How do we speak honestly about the the parts, especially about the evangelical tradition that we we want so much to decry. Racism, its failure to name structural sin, its shirking of some of the the the big work of justice in favor of smaller solutions. And yet there’s a beautifully vibrant faith and the person of Jesus that has defined us. Tell me what to do, Randy. How do we, what’s our best hope of passing down a faith with maybe a little bit less of the baggage that we we may have inherited?

Randall Balmer:               It’s a great question. I wish I could point to the success in my own family with that, and I’m afraid I can’t. But I think you you pointed to the answer in your own question. That is to keep our eyes on Jesus and. And to see Jesus. Not as this sort of triumphant A rnold Schwarzenegger conquerer. But as the suffering servant, the man of sorrows with death. And if we understand him and you Kate understand that better than most. I think we will come away with a different attitude toward others. Not seeking to vanquish them as political enemies, for example.

Kate:                  Yeah.

Randall Balmer:                 But as people suffering. And you know, boy, I need that lesson myself. And and I’m talking about members of my own family, and I struggle with it. How do I see Jesus in them when they are, in my view, so benighted and dangerous? I mean, it’s not a matter of only being wrong, which I think they are. How can I see Jesus in them? How can I treat them with compassion? How can even sustain a conversation with people who are just so wrong. And I struggle with that Kate.

Kate:                   Because we’re moving between all three, right? The faith and the hope and the love. The love sometimes I suppose we just have to pray for that.

Randall Balmer:                 Yeah. We do.

Kate:                    And the faith is something I think we keep, It’s almost like shifting weight between each foot of the of head and heart. But your very, very long commitment to telling this story and to struggling with it and to love it enough that it keeps you up and drives you to write beautiful op eds and books. Randy, I’m grateful for it. Thank you for loving this faith and teaching me to love it, too.

Randall Balmer:               I’m humbled by that Kate. You are, you don’t need my help. You are an inspiration in your own right.

Kate:                  One of the lovely parts about doing a podcast is that we often go over time and sometimes we have material that didn’t make it into the podcast that you might still be interested in. So Randy and I talked for about a million years, and one of the things that was really on our mind when we were taping this was the overturn of Roe v Wade and the history of the religious right. He was the very first person to make the argument about what ignited the religious right into a voting block, and that it wasn’t abortion, it was, in fact, something to do with desegregating schools. So that’s about like a seven minute clip that if that’s interesting to you and you want to learn more, go to KateBowler.com slash podcast and you can find it in the show notes for today’s episode. So yeah, if you want to be extra nerdy with us, go find it there.

Kate:                        Well, my dears, a question I get a lot is how I maintain faith in the face of so much uncertainty and suffering, in the face of well-meaning Christians who might inadvertently or advertently cause harm with the weight of their theology. If that happened to you. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry you’ve had to experience the breaking down of something you held so dear. Of the loss of a community that should have been a source of support and comfort. So if that’s you today, here’s a blessing for you. For when faith sometimes breaks your heart. Blessed are you standing among the ruins of a faith once felt so sturdy now turn to dust under your feet. The certainty you once had gone. The community you loved dissipated. The hope you held dear hard to find. Instead, what’s taken up residence is the very stuff that seems to counter what you imagined a life with God to be. Disappointment. Doubt. Disillusionment. Despair. In this new landscape, may you practice the courage to find others who make space for your questions without easy answers, who celebrate doubt when it made room for more faith. Who searched high and low for a defiant hope born amidst despair. Blessed are you, dear one. You who don’t give up wrestling. Who have eyes to see something new rebuilt on top of what was. Blessed are you who walk away wounded. Yes, but changed. You who demand a blessing from the God who is near to the brokenhearted and from whose love you could never, ever be separated. There is room for you here. Bless you.

Nancy from Detroit:                    Hi, my name is Nancy and I am from the Detroit area. I think that what I miss the most. Is the belief that I had that if I just followed the rules and did the right things, that everything would turn out. Because that’s the way that in my church community, that’s what was believed. And I know that for myself when the first time that that didn’t happen. I lost my church community and my faith all at the same time. That was probably almost 30 years ago. 

Reverend Brittany:                  Hello. My name is Reverend Brittney. I was raised in a small fundamentalist Christian community, and in that just cocoon of Jesus and casseroles. I learned to love God because the people around me loved me. And yet, in that environment, I still experienced real emotional and spiritual harm. And today I am the chaplain of a 550 plus student private school. And I am learning every day what to hold on to from my childhood with Christians and what to let go of just by looking in the eyes of these children. These students are the ones who teach me what to hold on to the love and the joy and the peace, the conviction that people love me and God does too. And yet that I need to let go of a lot of the harms that I received from the misguided adults who were who were raising me. 

Kate:                 Before you go, a very special thank you to our generous partners who make this work possible. Lilly Endowment, The Duke Endowment, Duke Divinity School and Leadership Education. And to my wonderful team, Jessica Richie, Harriet Putman, Gwen Hegginbotham and Keith Weston. Thank you. And come find me online. I’m at KateCBowler and apparently I’m on tik tok now. Or if email is your thing I’ll send out a blessing every week. Sign up for free at Katebowler.com/ Newsletter. Okay. I’ll talk to you soon. This is everything happens with me, Kate Bowler.

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6 thoughts on “Randall Balmer: Wrestling With the Faith We Love

  1. Kate,
    Loved this episode-very informative. Is there a book you can recommend to talk to loved ones in the Evangelical faith who are focused on Jesus the warrior king (power, usually political) more so than Jesus the sacrificial servant? I don’t even know how to start a conversation with them. It seems love of country and power have become idols.

  2. Hi Kate,
    [toward the very close of this insightful conversation]
    You mentioned an additional 7 mintues of Randall Balmer talking about the beginning of the political divide, and that it wasn’t Roe v. Wade but rather about racial issues.
    I’m looking here on the SHOW NOTES and not finding it. Where haven’t I looked? (isn’t that always the question??)
    Thanks.
    Frish

  3. Kate!!!! This entire podcast was so healing for my heart! I receive this blessing with both great sorrow & renewed hope! Thank you dear one!!! 🫶🏽

  4. Hello! I loved the episode with Randall Balmer and you can “nerd out” any ole time. I hang on every nerdy word you say. Near the end of this conversation your guest mentions a piece he recently wrote on the virtue of hope. Any idea where I can find it? I am a hope nerd and I would love, love, love to read what he wrote.

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