During a recent visit with an old friend, we reflected on the sorry state of evangelicalism today. The crass politicization of white evangelicals, beginning with the 1980 presidential election, has pushed a once proud and distinguished movement to the far-right precincts of the Republican Party and into the arms of a thrice-married, self-professed sexual predator who can’t even fake religious literacy.

We talked about our fathers, both deceased, and wondered what they would think about the current state of evangelicalism. 

Doug’s father was a pastor and a missionary, and mine was a pastor for four decades. Although the theology that animated their lives and ministries could fairly be called fundamentalism, both were irenic. Neither was shrill or strident, which seems to be the preferred style these days. 

Because I know my father’s story better, let me introduce you.

Clarence Balmer was born on the eve of the Great Depression. His twin brother died of whooping cough before their first birthday. My father grew up trying, with his mother and sisters, to coax a living out of the reluctant soil of southeastern Nebraska. 

While listening to Charles Fuller’s “Old Fashioned Revival Hour” one Sunday evening, he heard about a new church in nearby Columbus. He drove into town with his sister and found Jesus, an encounter that changed the direction of his life. Not long after that, he boarded a train for Chicago to enroll at Trinity Seminary and Bible College. 

Though he never earned a degree from Trinity, his preaching and pastoral skills served him well. He advanced from a rural congregation in southern Minnesota to Bay City, Michigan. There, out of concern that more young people in Michigan needed to give their lives to Jesus, he founded Spring Hill Camps, now one of the largest camps in the nation. 

From there, my father moved to Des Moines, Iowa, and took a small congregation to near-megachurch status.

Because my father was doggedly loyal to his denomination, the Evangelical Free Church of America, his reputation didn’t extend much beyond those circles—although some evangelicals might remember him as the “good” preacher in “A Thief in the Night,” which depicts life on earth during the rapture and the tribulation predicted in the book of Revelation. The film inspired the “Left Behind” series. 

“A Thief in the Night” was produced and directed by Donald W. Thompson, one of my father’s congregants (and my Sunday school teacher). Thompson’s film, which “Time” magazine described as a church-basement classic, was inspired by my father’s Sunday evening sermons on the book of Revelation.

My father read and studied his Bible daily, taking it almost everywhere he went. He carried a copy of the “Four Spiritual Laws” in his shirt pocket to be prepared to “witness” at a moment’s notice. I remember he wept more than once when he prayed for those who were lost without Jesus. His untimely death within months of his retirement thwarted his aspiration to do short-term mission work.

 As a dedicated premillennialist, my father was adamantly opposed to social activism; at best, it was a distraction from the true business of the believer. Besides, as Billy Graham often said, the only way truly to reform society was to “change men’s hearts,” meaning that only the aggregate of transformed individuals would bring about meaningful social change.

So how did we get to this point—where 81 percent of white evangelicals purportedly concerned about “family values” voted for Donald Trump in 2016, a higher percentage four years later and who knows what will happen in 2024?

A part of the answer lies with the eclipse of premillennialism among evangelicals, many of whom still claim to be premillennialists but who act otherwise. When I was growing up within the evangelical subculture in the 1950s and 1960s, the mantra was, “Lord, come quickly.” 

I have written elsewhere about evangelicals’ descent into “worldliness” after 1980—their quest for political influence and material affluence. After all, the popularity of the so-called prosperity gospel in the 1980s was little more than spiritualized Reaganomics.

The mantra among white evangelicals today, whether acknowledged or not, is, “Hey, take your time. We’re doing well. My 401k is healthy. We just moved to a new house in the suburbs and the kids attend good colleges. Despite our protestations, we are winning the culture wars.”

The sense of marginalization, however, has endured. My father regarded both himself and his faith as culturally marginal, something that suited him just fine. That was the way of the gospel, he believed, to be persecuted, even reviled, for following the way of Jesus.

White evangelicals today are no longer marginal, although they recognize the advantages of portraying themselves that way. The rhetoric of victimization follows from that, and I suspect that one of the reasons they are drawn to Trump is that he speaks the language of victimization better than anyone I’ve heard. It’s always about him, of course. He’s the victim. But evangelicals understand and identify with that vocabulary.

There’s no way to know these many years after his death, but my father, I suspect, would be uneasy about the direction of contemporary evangelicalism. In their quest for both influence and affluence, white evangelicals have lost sight of the gospel, stumbling mindlessly after a godless demagogue.

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