Boomer Memory and the Religious Right
David Heddendorf

Randall Balmer’s recent biography of Jimmy Carter (Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter, Basic Books, 2014) patiently and thoroughly tells a story he has told before: how progressive evangelicalism was eclipsed by the Religious Right. At the heart of Balmer’s account are Carter’s presidential campaigns of 1976 and 1980, the first of which confirmed evangelicals’ concern for equal rights and the poor, the second of which signaled the emergence of a new evangelical coalition opposed to abortion, homosexuality, and other threats to morality. Poor Carter almost disappears from his own biography as Balmer documents the rise of religious conservatives, but the focus on cultural factors in the Reagan landslide, rather than on the candidates themselves, makes the book unique and valuable. The late 1970s, Balmer shows, witnessed a revolution in the way Americans perceive Christianity and politics.

coverThe results, of course, remain with us today. As Balmer complains, “Leaders of the Religious Right have managed to persuade many of my fellow evangelical Christians that it is something akin to sin to vote for anyone who is not a Republican” (2006, ix–x). This notion prevails not only among Baptists, Pentecostals, and the like. In his earlier book, Thy Kingdom Come (Basic Books, 2006), Balmer visits a school run by Missouri Synod Lutherans as he illustrates conservative opposition to public education. LCMS Christians, in my experience at least, prefer not to call themselves evangelicals. Yet in the LCMS congregation where I have worshipped for twenty years, I am a lonely, if not quite only, non-Republican. At the men’s Bible study, the regulars politely acknowledge the environment and economic justice as worthy issues, but you get the feeling these matters are considered distractions at best. Nationally, pockets of evangelical and other theologically conservative progressives can be found at places like Sojourners magazine, but these voices constitute a minority alternative to the reigning political conservatism.

Balmer explains how this state of affairs came about in the 1970s, tracing the complex and often hidden connections linking activists, party strategists, financial contributors, media organizations, and voters. Thoughtful conservatives, reading Balmer’s historical analysis, might be compelled to stop and wonder to what extent their priorities have been shaped by Jerry Falwell and similar fundamentalists. For all his conscientious thoroughness as a historian and his sharp, sometimes caustic reporting, Balmer is most persuasive when he tells his own story. A heartfelt personal narrative runs through many of his books (the preface of his Carter biography is called “Jimmy Carter and Me”), lending his commentary the emotional impact of an insider’s narrative. When he mourns the progressive evangelicalism he knew as a youth during the 1960s and 1970s, before the triumph of the Religious Right, he draws on a deep, affecting reservoir of memory.

Balmer tells of coming to faith when he was three or four years old, of “rededicating his life” numerous times, and of “witnessing” to a childhood friend, all formative experiences for the typical American evangelical, regardless of political persuasion. But also, not quite as typically, he remembers attending public schools, which, he says, “taught me about people different from myself,” and allowed an “encounter with ideas and individuals outside of my own insular world” (2006, 86). In 1972, he traveled from Trinity College in Deerfield, Illinois, to hear George McGovern speak at Wheaton College and was dismayed when students demonstrating for Nixon disrupted McGovern’s speech. A history major, he admired the nineteenth-­century evangelical reformers who crusaded against slavery and championed women’s rights. He developed a lifelong concern for the environment. After a congressional internship in Washington, DC, he handed out fliers for Carter’s 1976 campaign.

Balmer draws on memories of growing up in another time when he criticizes the Religious Right and calls for a progressive evangelicalism. Before the 1980s, he insists repeatedly, evangelicals offered an alternative; they had a sense of being different. As a subculture, evangelicalism could be stiflingly “insular,” but it also stood as a counterculture against the dominant shapers of opinion. Comparing today’s religious landscape with that of his youth, Balmer misses this sense of a counterculture that, as he wrote in Thy Kingdom Come, “can provide a critique of the powerful because it is utterly disinterested—it has no investment in the power structure itself” (2006, 189).

The same elegy for an abandoned counterculture, and the same potent tonic of memory, pervade Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God (Carroll and Graf, 2007), a memoir about his parents Francis and Edith Schaeffer. Frank grew up at the Swiss study center L’Abri, where Francis and Edith, highly regarded evangelical writers in the 1960s and 1970s, ministered to backpacking, soul-searching youth. Compared to Balmer’s middle-class Midwestern upbringing, Schaeffer’s teenage years were turbulent and exotic, but he ends up telling a similar story of a subculture hijacked by politics. After an insulated evangelical childhood—described with considerably less affection than Balmer’s—Frank watches his father begin making anti-abortion films in the mid-1970s. “Frankie” even lends his budding directorial talents to the cause. Soon the Schaeffers are caught up, without quite realizing what is happening, in the crowd of preachers, activists, fundraisers, and donors that would eventually help unseat Carter.

When he describes his parents’ ministry and theology, Frank Schaeffer affects a cocky, sneering superiority; he is still the bad boy feeling up girls while his dad lectures in the next room. But Schaeffer can also write with surprising generosity and affection, especially when he recalls his father’s earlier work, before its transformation by conservative politics: “Dad liked art better than theology and people better than rules and was most comfortable in a room full of hippies” (256). When Francis Schaeffer’s early books made him an evangelical hero, he fiercely maintained his countercultural stance, confronting materialism, defending the environment, even becoming a Jefferson Airplane fan. “He was the coolest dad anyone I knew had, and the only one who knew the words to ‘White Rabbit’” (2007, 211). A hint of irony lingers, but Schaeffer clearly admires his father’s liberal values, many of which would be included in Balmer’s vision of “progressive evangelicalism.” Looking back from the culture warrior his father became, Schaeffer sees an independent, intellectually adventurous man who preached from the margins of society.


History can explain the rise and fall of a movement, and social scientists can analyze its merits and defects. But memory—living, personal memory—engages the emotions, helping us to relive what was and to believe in what could be again. When Baby Boomers like Balmer and Schaeffer reminisce about what it felt like to be an evangelical in the 1970s, they offer a means of seeing beyond the present, when so many Christians see abortion and homosexuality as the central problems, while poverty and the environment are widely forgotten. Thanks to memory, we can do better than just imagine a future; we can remember a more balanced, ideologically diverse past, and try to revive it. We can remember when Christians from many theological camps held views across the political spectrum, including views many now disparage or ignore as “liberal.”

In his increasingly influential book The True and Only Heaven (1991), Christopher Lasch contrasts the idea of memory with the modern tendency toward nostalgia. Memory looks to the past for restorative beliefs and practices, while nostalgia mourns a sepia-toned lost world. Nostalgia smiles fondly at pictures of horse-drawn hay wagons. Memory employs crop rotation on small organic farms. As prescribed by Lasch, memory would presumably learn from the past by reading history, or through watching documentaries, taking courses, or listening to our elders. It is a collective calling to mind of a period before we were born, and thus “memory” only in a figurative sense, a social equivalent to the psychological faculty. No one today “remembers” the nineteenth-century populism Lasch describes or an economy of small farmers and artisans.

But people like Balmer and Schaeffer—and people like me—who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s do remember an era that challenges our current stale divisions. Because we experienced real openness and diversity of opinion, we know what vigorous debate and live options feel like. Because our memories are more than just snapshots, slogans, and manifestoes, they convey a sense of daily life that is startling and energizing. We know things can be different because we have been there. We have seen it.

My own memory of being an evangelical teenager in the 1970s corroborates Balmer’s and Schaeffer’s to a remarkable degree. Reading their books returned me to my western Pennsylvania youth of bell bottoms, terrible hair, and gas rationing, of waiting in the dark for the school bus during expanded daylight-saving hours. Like Balmer, I remember admiring George McGovern, thinking vaguely that he represented the little guy’s best hope. My parents said nothing to discourage my enthusiasm. With my fellow evangelicals, I knew the name of Republican US Senator Mark Hatfield, one of our own, who opposed the Vietnam War. In 1976, I joined an excited crowd in a mall to see born-again presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. I remember the “Jesus people,” whose language, music, and anti-establishment ways filtered into our Presbyterian youth groups. The term “counterculture” came up frequently in those days among evangelicals, even as I attended public school and considered myself one of the guys. I felt the tension between church and my “non-Christian friends.” We were different—sometimes painfully so with our quaint customs and wariness of those we considered unbelievers—but we neither removed ourselves from the secular world nor tried to overcome its dominance. We took our strangeness for granted, perhaps intuiting that, as Balmer says, our outsider status gave us strength.

One of my favorite memories from the 1970s is my father’s passion for recycling. Rinsing milk jugs, baling newspapers, flattening tin cans, he had us doing all of this before the days of curbside pickup. Then he drove our loaded station wagon to a noisy parking garage where the volunteers from GRIP—Group for Recycling in Pennsylvania—sorted and processed our stuff. My dad believed in being a steward of the environment. It was one more thing we did for God, along with hymn sings, covered-dish dinners, and prayer meetings.

In my recollection of those years, evangelicals generally were good at rendering to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s. Like Jesus sparring with the Roman Empire, we had no illusions about the government. It was an instrument at best, a source of services for the common good. Christians like Hatfield and Carter could be faithful public servants, but to us they seemed like innocents in an alien realm, a hostile territory where we weren’t at home. Evangelicals felt toward government a healthy indifference that stopped just short of contempt: “Here you go, Caesar. Here’s my 1974 tax check. Now excuse me while I get back to my Bible study.” Caesar needed our money. Caesar did some good things. We might as well coexist with Caesar. The last thing that would have crossed anyone’s mind was to try to become Caesar, to confuse our identity with that of the state, or to imitate its coercive power.

Unlike Balmer, who can sound at times like a Bible-quoting Jon Stewart or a Baptist Bill Maher, I am not arguing that Christian conservatism should be replaced with Christian liberalism. I would settle for a little reshuffling of categories and a freshening of the conversation. I think Balmer is right that, for some of us at least, political discussion seems cramped by preset boundaries and hardened battle lines. For example, if evangelicals wish to reclaim the environmental zeal that moved my father, it would require, according to Balmer, “summoning the courage to refute the babble about New Age or neopagan entanglements” (2006, 161–2). Speaking for myself, I have never been called a neopagan for worrying about dirty water or climate change, but I am familiar with a reluctance to emit more than a bashful environmentalist peep. It is easier to keep quiet and avoid the funny looks. Deep inside, maybe some of us do think it’s a sin not to vote Republican. These are hazy, inarticulate, long-entrenched feelings that have settled over the country for three and a half decades.

To replace a feeling, you need a different feeling, and that is what memory provides. Personal memory reminds us of a time when denominations did not come with political slogans, and when it was acceptable to vote for either major party. Reading memoirs like Schaeffer’s can help recall that time, restoring a sense of wider possibilities. Better yet, for Boomers who remember a more expansive era, would be a do-it-yourself, on-the-fly kind of “memoir,” an ongoing inner cultivation of a world that might be mostly past but isn’t altogether lost. In that world, people—the same people—went to Bible study, lobbied for clean air, opposed abortion, questioned military intervention, demanded justice for the poor, sang “The Old Rugged Cross,” promoted racial equality. Remember?


David Heddendorf lives in Ames, Iowa. His writing has appeared frequently in The Southern Review and Sewanee Review.



Works Cited

Balmer, Randall. Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter. New York: Basic, 2014.

_____. Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America, An Evangelical’s Lament. New York: Basic, 2006.

_____. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Lasch, Christopher. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. New York: Norton, 1991.

Schaeffer, Frank. Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Carroll and Graf, 2007.

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