Indicting the Church

Gregory Boyd

Gregory Boyd's new book isn't going to make him many friends. The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church (Zondervan, May) is the pastor's harsh assessment of how evangelicals have forgotten the true meaning of the kingdom of God in their quest for political influence.

"I believe a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry," he writes in the introduction. Working to outlaw abortion, justify wars and fight the "homosexual agenda," he continues, has made too many Christians more concerned with legislating Christianity than with living it.

Making friends isn't really on Boyd's to-do list. In fact, before the 2004 presidential election, when he launched the six-week sermon series this book is based on, 20% of his congregation—about 1,000 people—got up and walked out the door of his St. Paul, Minn., church.

But after the service, other congregants came to Boyd with tears in their eyes, thanking him for verbalizing what so many said they had felt for a long time—how their failure to toe the conservative party line made them feel out of place in the evangelical movement. Others thanked him for helping them see how politics had influenced their vision of the kingdom of God.

Such a fusion of the kingdom of the world with the kingdom of God, he says, is contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, whom Boyd describes as a radical revolutionary opposed to any government. He explains that if Christians are "power over" people—seeking to control politics and legislation—they cannot be "power under" people—whose self-sacrificial love is more Christ-like.

Even more surprising, Boyd says, was the level of anger he encountered when he called the notion of America as "a Christian nation" a myth. "The norm has been to fuse the cross and the sword," he says. "People do not even notice the contradiction between this and the teachings of Jesus. So the book was written to help people wake up and see the water they are swimming in."

Some of that water is murky. Boyd damns all wars as unjust and calls on Christians not to support them—a position that may not be very welcome in circles where President Bush has traditionally drawn support.

To ignore his warnings could be disastrous for the church, says Boyd. "My main concern is that when the church fails to maintain a prophetic stance toward political and nationalistic agendas, we end up being used by these agendas. Nothing is more dangerous than when political and nationalistic agendas take on a religious zeal. When the kingdom of God is fused with the sword, it invariably defames the name of Christ. People can't see the beauty of this unique kingdom Jesus came to build." —Kimberly Winston

Disappointed Evangelical

Randall Balmer

American religion historian Randall Balmer's new book, Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America—An Evangelical's Lament (Basic, July), was born on Nov. 3, 2004. Awakening to find that President George Bush had been reelected, Balmer sent a one-word (of four letters) e-mail of lament to a fellow evangelical. Adding electoral injury to insult, Balmer had just lost his own race for state representative in the Connecticut area where he then lived. The Barnard College and Columbia University professor channeled his frustration into this, his 11th book, which he describes as "a full-throated lamentation." He minces no words, writing on the first page of the preface that the religious right has poisoned public discourse and distorted faith.

Balmer's is among a salvo of books newly published or forthcoming that criticize conservative evangelicals and their use of religion in politics. Yet Balmer is one of them—that is, an evangelical who takes the Bible seriously and believes in the transformative power of Jesus. "What I want this book to do is call evangelicals to their birthright as people of the book," the historian says.

With both scholarly credibility and popular stature as an expert, his professional success allows him to write a polemical book that takes some risks. Balmer was an expert witness in the case over Alabama's Ten Commandments display. He has also written three documentaries for PBS. One of them, based on his book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, was nominated for an Emmy.

Balmer, 51 and the married father of three, said his main motivation for writing the book was his family. He was inspired by his sons, one of whom voluteered in Ohio during the 2004 presidential campaign, and the other, who spent a year in that state as an AmeriCorps volunteer. "I wrote the book largely because of their example," says Balmer, an Iowa native who has taught at Ivy League schools since he got his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1985. He chairs the religion department at Barnard College.

While alarmed about the state of affairs in the country, Blamer finds reason for optimism in the form of his children. "The decision to become a parent is the expression of faith in the future," he says. "I have to work for a better world." —Marcia Z. Nelson

Jesus at Face Value

Garry Wills

Last year Garry Wills retired as professor of history at Northwestern University. But the bestselling author could just as easily have earned his emeritus status in the religious studies department. Wills, author of the Pulitzer Prize—winning Lincoln at Gettysburg (Simon & Schuster, 1992) and a former Catholic seminarian, has written almost as many books about religion as he has about history.

His latest, What Jesus Meant (Viking, Mar.), attempts to rescue the image of Jesus from that of the sanitized savior. How? By taking what Jesus said and did at face value. Says Wills, "It's only complicated when people are trying to explain the gospels away. They don't want to believe that he said, 'Turn the other cheek' or 'It is easier for a camel to get through a needle's eye than for a rich man to enter into God's reign.' They think, 'He couldn't have meant that!' "

Wills contends Jesus was a radical who spoke to the lower, working class and clearly repudiated wealth, power and even religion itself. He eschewed the political sphere, which Wills believes Americans—on the left as well as the right—should remember before co-opting him for their causes. "Jesus didn't found any church or institution, nor did he bring any political institution or program. So a nation that claims to be Christian is clearly against the gospels," he says.

Since even contemporary translations of the New Testament can obscure Jesus' message, Wills prefers to read the gospels in the original Greek and to use his own translation. "Translations tend to be churchy," he says, citing as an example the translation of ecclesia as "church" rather than the more accurate "gathering." Wills also spent nearly a decade translating Augustine's Confessions (Penguin Classics, 2006) and writing a biography of the saint for the Penguin Lives series.

From the exorbitant wealth of huge cathedrals to vicious antigay rhetoric, Wills finds plenty of examples of contemporary Christians straying from what Jesus meant, but he's not surprised. "From the very onset people have tried to get away from what Jesus said. It's too dark, too demanding," he says. But Wills also sees many who get it right, treating "the least" as if they were Jesus, which he believes is the essential call of Jesus, despite the risks. "The gospels are scary, because if you follow them, you just might become a Christian, and that's a tough road."—Heidi Schlumpf

A Nuanced Portrait

Mark Pinsky

The evangelical support that helped George W. Bush win reelection in 2004 shocked many people who followed the campaign, including Jews, mainline Protestants and journalists who questioned how they missed the central role evangelical Christians played. This drew the curiosity of Mark Pinsky, religion reporter for the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel, who has covered evangelicals there since 1995. He saw he could explain to his colleagues, fellow Jews and Democrats why evangelicals won and who they are.

The result is A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed (Westminster John Knox, Aug.). He's also published The Gospel According to the Simpsons (2001) and The Gospel According to Disney (2004) with WJK.

"I'm a suburban Jersey kid by origin, a Jew and a left-wing Democrat, by any definition a blue-stater," Pinsky says. His outsider status and reputation for fair reporting made him the best person to write a book explaining evangelicals to nonevangelicals, says David Dobson, his WJK editor.

Pinsky began covering evangelicals at the Los Angeles Times, which he joined in 1984. When he moved to the Florida Sunbelt, he found himself in "the political heart and soul of the evangelical movement in America today," he says. For many years, Pinsky mostly covered evangelical institutions rather than the people themselves. Seeking balance for his stories, he would often quote an evangelical perspective, a mainline Protestant for a more "rational" view and an academic.

Over time, Pinsky realized this approach elicited few nuances. When he began writing about evangelicals as a "discrete universe," he sought several evangelical perspectives in one story, and varied opinions on issues like the war in Iraq and the environment. He doesn't believe there are as many left-wing evangelicals as there are conservatives, but "on any political or theological issue you can find articulate evangelicals on both sides, and that's the conversation that interests me."

Pinsky learned that evangelicals are much like him. While they may differ from others in the source of their values, those values are similar. Pinsky notes that most people want a good education for their children, to protect their children from a "toxic popular culture" and to nurture and sustain a healthy marriage.

After 40 years as a journalist, Pinsky says, realizing he had much in common with his evangelical neighbors should not have surprised him. "These are not people who are angry all the time like the TV evangelicals. Religion is really a comfort to a lot of people, not in a way that's delusional, but in a way that helps them get by." —Joanna Corman