Column: Evangelical follies are no laughing matter

  • Randall Balmer. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 6/5/2022 6:02:55 AM
Modified: 6/5/2022 6:00:45 AM

Dispatches from three outposts of the evangelical world: Arkansas, Montana and Pennsylvania.

The first item arrived from a friend in Arkansas, where Sarah Huckabee Sanders is running for governor. Sanders is the daughter of former governor, Baptist preacher and sometime candidate for the Republican nomination for president, Mike Huckabee. Sanders herself is probably best known for her role as Donald Trump’s press secretary and her (how to say this delicately?) less-than-truthful briefings.

The Sanders campaign mailing shows the smiling candidate together with the promise that as governor, “Sarah will defend our freedom & empower Arkansans.” The bullet points contain boilerplate right-wing nostrums like saying no to “Joe Biden & the Radical Left,” no mask mandates and supporting law enforcement.

But the bullet point (an appropriate designation, as you’ll see) that caught my attention read: “Protect our God-given Second Amendment rights.”

As a historian, I believe context is crucial. Let’s look first at the Second Amendment. No, no mention of God, but consider the text: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” How curious that in all the news accounts of the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, no one has yet identified the names of the killers’ militias.

I’ve been reading the Bible for most of my life, and somehow I missed the fact that God had bestowed the right to bear arms. O wait, here it is — in pica type following Genesis 1. Turns out that after God created Adam and Eve, the Almighty furnished them with AR-15s.

God-given Second Amendment rights. Who knew?

From Montana comes news that the pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church, someone named J.D. Hall, was arrested on May 11 and charged with DUI and carrying a concealed weapon while intoxicated.

I’d never heard of Hall, but as nearly as I can tell he has carved out a name for himself by decrying liberalism in the Southern Baptist Convention. (Really!) Apparently, some of his posts were so vitriolic that he was banned from Facebook, and he offered a religious liberty exemption letter, available as a PDF, for anyone who did not want the COVID vaccine.

When news of Hall’s arrest surfaced, his advocates rushed to defend him. They insisted he had not been drinking, but rather suffers from a vitamin D deficiency. Hall tendered his resignation to the church, which refused to accept it, instead issuing a long statement, which concluded, “The congregation spoke openly to assure Pastor Hall he should not be ashamed, that we do not care what the world thinks, as that we know the truth.”

Church leaders neglected to address the weapons charge.

Finally, on to Grove City College in Pennsylvania. In October 2020, Jemar Tisby, author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, delivered a chapel address and talked with students at Grove City College, an evangelical school in western Pennsylvania.

Tisby remembers his visit there fondly. He “found the students respectful, engaging, and inquisitive. Although some, it was clear, did not agree with my statements about racism, they did not seem to harbor any animosity while I was present.” (Full disclosure: I was invited to give lectures at Grove City in 2012, and I came away with similar, very favorable impressions.)

More than a year later, a group of students and parents signed a petition, complaining that “a destructive and profoundly unbiblical worldview seems to be asserting itself at GCC.” That worldview was (drumroll, please) the dreaded critical race theory (CRT).

The petitioners demanded that the school’s Council on Diversity be disbanded and that the school reject critical race theory “as unbiblical and inconsistent with the founding principles of the college and that any faculty members promoting it will be directed to stop.”

Several investigatory committees were formed, and the matter found its way to the board of trustees, which issued a statement condemning CRT and quoted (apparently with approval) administrators who said that “inviting Mr. Tisby to speak in chapel was a mistake.” The board disbanded the Council on Diversity and called for the president to exercise greater scrutiny of people invited to appear in chapel.

One of the final passages of the report read: “To the petitioners and outside observers who may have wondered if Grove City College is going ‘woke,’ the answer is emphatically no.”

Jemar Tisby’s response, an open letter to the board of Grove City College, was a model of grace, clarity and understatement.

“I write to you with a heavy heart and with hope,” the letter began. His task, Tisby said, was to address “supposed ‘mission drift’ at the school because of racial justice education.” He noted that the report used the word “conservative” 19 times and the word “Christian” only 10 times.

Tisby summoned board members to what he called “courageous Christianity,” which, he said, “does not compromise with racism, it confronts it.”

But Tisby’s most powerful statement was what he did not say. He simply included a photograph of the school’s trustees. I probably don’t need to tell you that among those 29 smiling faces, not a single one was a person of color.

Randall Balmer is the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and the author of Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right.

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