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Balmer's lament

Interview | How others see us: An evangelical liberal lashes out at the religious right

Issue: "Red & blue all over," Sept. 23, 2006

In Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical's Lament (Perseus, 2006), Barnard College professor Randall Balmer hurls many darts at conservative Christians-and some are on target.

For example, he writes that "the Bible contains something like 2,000 references to the poor and the believer's responsibility for the poor. Sadly, that obligation seems not to have trickled down into public policy." That's true-although 10 years of welfare reform have improved matters, much more could be done.

Balmer also declares that "those who make it their business to demand high standards of moral rectitude from others ought to be able to approach those standards themselves. My evangelical theology tells me that we are, all of us, sinners and flawed individuals. But it also teaches the importance of confession, restitution, and amendment of behavior." He is right to note that some "putatively Christian power brokers" have put on an air of purity while falling into adultery, theft, and other sins, and have then emphasized cover-up, not confession.

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Other Balmer claims are questionable, but 18th-century poet Robert Burns wrote about the gift to see ourselves as others see us, so occasionally WORLD prints interviews with those who criticize values and actions that we generally praise. Here are some Balmer thoughts, without further editorial comment.

WORLD: You write that "on judicial matters, the religious right demands appointees who would diminish individual rights to privacy with regard to abortion." Is there a right to abortion in the Constitution? If so, where is it found?

BALMER: The judicial precedent cited in the Roe decision was the 1965 Griswold ruling, which ensured a right to privacy. I'll let the judicial scholars (which I am not) sort out whether or not privacy is warranted by the Constitution-though I do think it is at the very least implicit in the constitutional protections against search and seizure.

I have little regard for the so-called "originalist" scheme of constitutional interpretation propagated by Antonin Scalia and others. Originalism is a mechanistic approach that limits the protections of the Constitution to the supposed "original intent" of its framers. Originalism has been used, for example, by Roy Moore, former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, to argue that only Christianity is protected under the First Amendment because the founders had no knowledge of, say, Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism.

The silliness of originalism becomes apparent, however, when you apply it to the second clause of the First Amendment: freedom of the press. Hewing to the absurd logic of the originalists, magazine editors, radio commentators, documentary filmmakers and television journalists are excluded from constitutional protections because the only "press" the founders knew was the newspaper.

I view the Constitution as a living, breathing, organic document, not one to be approached mechanistically. The originalists are disingenuous and, frankly, intellectually lazy.

WORLD: You criticize a proposed "rejiggering of Social Security, the effect of which, most observers agree, would be to fray the social-safety net for the poorest among us." Don't most observers expect that, as the proportion of workers to retirees decreases, that net will fray and probably break unless Social Security is rejiggered in some way? What rejiggering would you support?

BALMER: The best way to restore the Social Security system to solvency is for the federal government to exercise fiscal discipline and, more directly to the point of your question, to stop borrowing from Social Security. (Remember Al Gore's "lockbox" during the 2000 presidential campaign?) The deficits in federal spending over the past six years have been ruinous; our children will be paying for our irresponsibility for decades to come. On fiscal matters, I'm far more conservative than George W. Bush or the Republican majorities in Congress.

WORLD: You write that those who believe in creation seek "to replace science curricula with theology, thereby transforming students into catechumens?" What do you think about the rather modest proposals from the intelligent design side that stress teaching the objections that some scientists raise to macro-evolution, rather than catechizing kids in Darwinism?

BALMER: I believe in "creation" in the sense that I acknowledge, on faith, the divine origins of the created order. The problem with intelligent design, as George Will wrote, is "not that it is false but that it is not falsifiable. Not being susceptible to contradicting evidence, it is not a testable hypothesis. Hence it is not scientific but a creedal test."

As a person of faith, I believe in intelligent design (or something close to it). I believe that an intelligent designer was responsible, in ways I cannot explain, for the created order. But my warrant is the canon of Scripture, not the canons of scientific inquiry. I resent, moreover, the inference behind the intelligent design movement that faith needs validation from science. I refuse to allow the canons of Enlightenment rationalism to be the final arbiter of truth. I elect to live in an enchanted universe where there are forces at play beyond my understanding and control-and where faith, not empiricism or tortured apologetic proofs for the existence of God, serves ultimately as my guide. I wouldn't live anywhere else.

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