After listening to George Lakey’s webinar, What to Do if There is a Coup?, I found myself checking out some of his other videos and his books. I wrote about this in my last blog “Suspension” and shared a couple of other brief videos. In looking over the books he has written or contributed to, one in particular caught my attention because it speaks to the nature of my work today.
Grassroots and Nonprofit Leadership: A Guide for Organizations in Changing Times was co-authored by Lakey with Berit Lakey, Rod Napier, and Janet Robinson in 1995. It was published a second time in 2016. Though the book is 25 years old at this point, the content is timeless and particularly meaningful in the moment in American history. In the book the authors made this point about social movements:
Before there is a social movement around a certain injustice, the body politic seems to be asleep.Lakey, Lakey, Napier, & Robinson, 1995, p. 17
Social movements require an awakening. There has been a lot happening in the past week that should be shaking us from our slumber. So I’m wondering…are we awake yet?
The White Evangelical and Trump Puzzle
To be clear, I am still in the midst of exploring the oddest of couples – White Evangelicals and Donald Trump. However, I thought I would invite you into that exploration with me by sharing some of the sources I am using.
Recently I have been digesting Michael Gerson’s article, The Last Temptation, in The Atlantic from April 2018. Gerson writes very thoughtfully about the mismatch from the perspective of one who has deep roots and credentials in evangelicalism and politics. Michael Gerson grew up as an evangelical, even attending Wheaton College, which is sometimes know as “the Harvard of evangelical Protestantism.” He was recruited by Karl Rove to work on the George W. Bush campaign and before that he was a senior policy advisor at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, DC. If you have not read the piece by Gerson (now a columnist for the Washington Post), I highly recommend it.
This afternoon, while taking my five mile power walk around the neighborhood, I found myself listening to an intriguing podcast on the history of evangelicalism. The podcast is Throughline a weekly history podcast and the episode I listened to was The Evangelical Vote. It is an hour and four minutes in length – well, not quite, because the last few minutes is a promo for a new limited series NPR podcast.
At the risk of giving away too much, I will simply repeat something the hosts of the show use as a teaser: evangelicals entered American politics in the 1970’s because of a court ruling…but it was not the court decision you think it was. That was a enough to hook me into the show…and I was not disappointed!
In the podcast you will frequently hear the voice of Randall Balmer. He has spent most of his career studying evangelicalism, writing about it, and even having some of his work turned into PBS documentaries. Today he continues to research and teach but he is also a priest in the Episcopal Church (United States). For some, these facts may not qualify Balmer as an expert on evangelicalism but I have no doubt. I got to know and spend time with Randall Balmer in the early 1990s and I know we share a common religious heritage in evangelicalism.
Though he was born in Chicago, Illinois, Balmer was a preacher’s kid in Des Moines, Iowa. His father was the pastor of the Westchester Evangelical Free Church, just across the street from Hoover High School. Balmer, who is about 6 months younger than me, went directly to college from high school, attending Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (an Evangelical Free seminary), Princeton University, and Union Theological Seminary – completing all of his degrees and his first documentary before I was able to finish my undergraduate degree.
When I met Balmer in the early 1990s, his first documentary series, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, had already aired on PBS. I was part of a bi-partisan group of Democrats and Republicans who had come together as “Iowans for Democracy” in Des Moines. One of those taking an interest in our efforts was a prominent Republican, Mary Louise Smith, who was also a social worker, feminist, and staunch advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment. What made her so prominent as a Republican with those credentials, you may wonder? In 1976 Gerald Ford named her the be the first female chair of the Republican National Committee. As Iowans for Democracy, we were drawn together by our mutual concern that the Republican party in Iowa was in danger of being taken over by evangelical fundamentalists and dominionists with strong leanings toward theocracy. That sounded a bit crazy in the early 1990s; it does not seem as far fetched today.
Iowans for Democracy wanted to deepen its understanding of the evangelical movement in the United States and its growing affinity for the Republican party. We learned that a local boy (Randall Balmer) was rising as an authority on evangelicalism and we wondered if we could convince him to come home and meet with us. He did. At the time, Balmer was teaching at Barnard College.
Ballmer met with Iowans for Democracy and it was my responsibility to host him. His presentation to the group was compelling, personal, and powerful. In the time we spent together in personal conversation I came to appreciate the depth of his knowledge. We also talked about being in the evangelical movement as youth. I came to understand how deeply we shared a similar evangelical experience.
We stayed in touch very briefly after that but then life happened and we went our separate ways. Our connection was enough, though, that I can say with confidence you need to hear what Randall Ballmer has to say on this podcast.