RENEE MONTAGNE host:
At a recent prayer breakfast, President Bush spoke of faith and politics.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: And I'm blessed by the fact that millions of Americans, many of whom I've never seen face to face, pray for me and my family. It's one of the great blessings of America to be president of a land of prayer.
MONTAGNE: President Bush and the Republican Party find strong support among evangelical voters. A new book says that allegiance is misplaced. Thy Kingdom Come was written by Randall Balmer. It is, in the words of the subtitle, An Evangelical's Lament: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America.
Balmer says modern evangelicals have abandoned the 19th century spirit of the movement.
Professor RANDALL BALMER (Author, Thy Kingdom Come): Abolitionists, even the temperance movement which was a progressive cause in the 19th century, the women's movement, universal education, all of those were causes that were supported by evangelicals in the 19th century, and I don't find any correlation in the agenda of the religious right today.
MONTAGNE: You say yourself that you were born into the evangelical movement, the evangelical subculture. What is that?
Prof. BALMER: The evangelical subculture is this vast and interlocking network of congregations, Bible camps, Bible colleges, Bible institutes, seminaries that was really constructed in the early decades of the 20th century. It was a place of refuge and safety for evangelicals from the larger culture that they regarded as both corrupt and corrupting.
MONTAGNE: You point out that people sort of retreated from politics.
Prof. BALMER: That's right, yes.
MONTAGNE: Now, that changed when the religious right, in your word, hijacked this movement.
Prof. BALMER: Well, it begins to change in the mid-1970s and ironically with the presidential campaign of a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, Jimmy Carter, with the support of a good number of evangelicals. You remember in that election he talked about being a born-again Christian, and so I remember myself as well as many other evangelicals saying we recognize this language, this guy is one of us.
One of the ironies and paradoxes of the Carter years is that during his administration the religious right began to coalesce as a political movement in opposition to Jimmy Carter and then move in the direction of the Republican Party under the influence of Ronald Reagan.
MONTAGNE: You make the argument in this book that the religious right hasn't really delivered for people who came into politics, and you even, you stated it very strongly at one point, you suggest that the religious right is preaching a false gospel.
Prof. BALMER: I think it is. One of my quarrels with the religious right is that I think they are insufficiently pro-life. That is, if you want to oppose abortion, which I think you can certainly make a moral case for doing so, you should also be making a case against capital punishment, you should also be making a case certainly against torture. One of the things that was so astounding to me was I contacted eight religious right organizations and asked them in a very straightforward message, not at all querulous, to give me their organization's position on the use of torture. Of those eight organizations, I received a response from only two of them. Both of those organizations defended the use of torture.
I think they have so attached their aspirations to the present administration that they are afraid to register any sort of dissent whatsoever.
MONGTAGNE: Now we're heading into a midterm election in November and the presidential election comes around again in 2008. Do you think that there is any possibility that the strong identification of the religious right with the Republican Party is in any danger, that it might be reconsidered by any sections of the evangelical movement?
Prof. BALMER: I think there's some limited evidence that that might be happening. It think that the Democratic Party, my own party, really does not know how to address these issues of moral concern, and I think until the Democratic Party can make its case, they will have trouble siphoning off these votes.
MONTAGNE: Randall Balmer, thank you so much.
Prof. BALMER: My pleasure, thank you.
MONTAGNE: Randall Balmer is professor of religious history at Barnard College and Columbia University. His new book is called Thy Kingdom Come. An excerpt is at npr.org.