Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament by Randall Balmer (Basic Books, $19.50, 242 pp.)

In 1925, Dayton’s town fathers saw an opportunity to bring national attention to their little burg in east Tennessee. They met with John Scopes, a supply teacher, to obtain his co-operation in challenging the state law introduced by John Washington Butler that prohibited teaching Darwinism in Tennessee public schools. William Jennings Bryan argued the state’s case in Tennessee v Scopes.

Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential nominee, led or boosted Progressivist causes: populism, temperance, the social Gospel and the new Federal Council of Churches. The quintessential, early 20th-century evangelical, Bryan opposed Darwinism because he was appalled at the implications of social Darwinism (a concern borne out by Progressives’ promotion of eugenically justified sterilization). Bryan won his case and the Butler Act stood till repealed in 1967. Clarence Darrow, however, won over the nation’s opinion and cultural leaders, including the redoubtable newspaper editor and columnist, H. L. Mencken. Evangelicals were split between those who withdrew into enclaves with their own schools and organizations and those who joined the ecumenical movement and “mainline Protestantism.”

Randall Balmer presents himself as a child of both evangelicalism and “1968.” As with so many of his generation, Balmer abandoned Christian faith and later returned to it. But he isn’t happy that evangelicals oppose Darwinism and abortion, support private and home-schooling and the “Religious Right” program of the Republican Party. Taking his cue from Paul Weyrich, a founder of the Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority, Balmer argues that evangelicals entered the fray only when the IRS attempted to withdraw tax-exempt status from Bob Jones University in 1975. Only later did evangelicals come onside with Catholic opposition to Roe v. Wade and abortion.

But there are problems. Balmer argues that the separation of church and state was a product of Baptist theology going back to Rhode Island and Danbury Baptists. Balmer wants 21st-century Baptists to act more like the Baptists of 17th-century Rhode Island or 18th-century Danbury. The Baptist separation doctrine goes back to the anabaptist Schleitheim Confession (1527), especially articles ‘IV’ and ‘VI.’ The articles required anabaptists and their theological heirs to remain separate from “the world” (IV) and from the state (VI). For some, separation even meant abstaining from voting and living in separate communities. Marginalized by the Church of England in Britain and by Puritans in New England, the separation doctrine led Baptists to oppose any established church as in the Danbury, Conn. Baptists’ letter to Jefferson.

Balmer wants Baptists (and all evangelicals) to be “better Baptists” – to recover the separation doctrine. But he also wants evangelicals to advocate against poverty and for the environment. It’s a key, albeit unintended, contradiction and paradox for a child of 1968. Religion in the public square gave birth to the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister, as well as advocacy of “school prayer” and anti-Darwinism.

Not all evangelicals are anabaptists. At least until the 1920s, evangelicals took leading roles in the public square. The Progressivist movement was informed by an evangelical ethos. “Northern” evangelicals led the antebellum campaign in the U.S. against slavery. We could argue that the American Revolution was as much the offspring of the Great Awakening and the Massachusetts evangelical Samuel Adams, as it was born of the Enlightenment ethos of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

A 1500-year tradition of Christian political reflection preceded Schleitheim and informed the 17th-century fathers of modern political theory. This tradition considered the implications of Christ’s “Caesar saying”: “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matt 22:21; Mk 12:17; Luke 20:25). As Oliver and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan show in their From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought, this tradition elaborated a theology of “dual authority” – church and state. The anabaptist separation doctrine is not the only option.

I am more sympathetic to Balmer’s broader concern: that evangelicalism not be synonymous with “the Religious Right” and the Republican Party. As Balmer points out, from January 2001 till publication of this book (July 2006), the Republican Party, its agenda set in large part by the Religious Right, controlled the White House and Congress (till January 2007). They enjoyed an often sympathetic Supreme Court majority. Yet, Congress failed to pass a bill to overturn Roe v Wade. Of course, Congress can’t. But could Congress and the president have done more?

As polemic, Balmer offers a stimulating read. His broader point is important. But this book should be read as it was written: in opposition to the Republican Religious Right. Balmer wants a Democratic Evangelical Left. For a critical view that spans the political spectrum, try instead Redeemer University College Professor David Koyzis’s Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (IVP, 2003). Koyzis offers critiques of “1789,” “1917,” and “1968” … as well as “1925.”

Russ Kuykendall lectures on political theory and political ethics at Laurentian Leadership Centre, an Ottawa-based, semester-long, residential internship program for undergraduate and graduate students administered by Trinity Western University. He is also a senior researcher for the Work Research Foundation.