Professional Historians Don’t Do Religion

That is one way to explain why the editors of the American Historical Review, the flagship journal for professional historians in the United States published by the American Historical Association, let Randall Balmer, a long time student of American evangelicalism, open his book review of Darren E. Grem, The Blessings of Business — when will this sentence end!?! — this way:

On the face of it, the evangelical embrace of capitalism and free enterprise should be a tough sell. Jesus himself warned that rich men face long odds against entering the kingdom of heaven and that it is impossible to serve both God and Mammon. First-century Christians, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, held goods in common, a nascent form of socialism. So how is it that many contemporary evangelicals who trumpet their fidelity to the Bible have become such ardent evangelists for affluence and free-market capitalism? How could Jerry Falwell plausibly argue that “God is in favor of freedom, property, diligence, work, and acquisition”? (AHR, June 2017)

Does this mean that the AHA favors socialism even though it requires members to pay upwards of $200 to attend annual conferences where hotel rooms often go for at least $150 per night? Are we supposed to believe that in a socialist world the workers would unite to underwrite historians gathering annually to hear and present papers, meet with editors, and wine and dine with old colleagues?

Or could it be that Balmer thinks the Bible, which talks about the sin of stealing in pretty big letters, favors “a nascent form of socialism,” one without Gulags or walled cities?

And how is it that Balmer, historian of the United States, is such an expert about religion and society in first-century Palestine? “On the face of it” is not the kind of intellectual muscle needed to master the kinds of research techniques that antiquity requires.

And does Balmer actually believe that Jesus is opposed to property but favors freedom, especially liberty for consenting adults to experience sexual pleasure?

My sense is that the editors understood they had no dog in this hunt — the evangelical left versus the evangelical right — and let Balmer take his swipes.

I do wonder though how Balmer gets up in the morning and goes to lecture in classrooms at Dartmouth College, an institution which boasts an endowment of $4.5 BILLION (according to Google). That, my friends, is a lot of property that resulted from a lot of acquisition. Does Balmer ever trumpet Jesus’ teaching about rich men and serving Mammon with Dartmouth’s administration?

4 thoughts on “Professional Historians Don’t Do Religion

  1. Balmer also apparently missed Matthew 20.15 – “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”


  2. From a Biblical perspective, I don’t understand the questioning of Balmer here. He is simply introducing some perspectives from the Scriptures that would seem to at odds with Capitalism–though it would help if Balmer identified the kind of Capitalism he has in mind. From a tribal perspective, his questions are easily answered. The Church is not the only group we Christians belong to. And some of the groups we belong are divergent enough from what the Scriptures teach that attempts to reconcile the membership of the group with belonging to the Church produces a syncretism. Loyalty to those other groups gives reason for the syncretism and theory of cognitive disonance explains the mechanics of what some Christians employ to rationalize their embrace of Capitalism, especially neoliberal Capitalism.

    Asking whether the AHA favors Socialism because of Balmer’s views shows a binary view of economics.


  3. “My sense is that the editors understood they had no dog in this hunt — the evangelical left versus the evangelical right — and let Balmer take his swipes.”

    Reminds me of the Strange New Respect that The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Daily Beast had for #NeverTrump Evangelicals. Publications that couldn’t care less what Russell Moore, Al Mohler, or Christianity Today had to say about gay marriage, abortion, or religious liberty suddenly became concerned that Evangelicals would lose their moral credibility by supporting Trump. White Evangelical Republican women went from being objects of ridicule (think Sarah Palin) to being solicited to stand up for women by voting against Trump – and their Trump loving white husbands. Jen Hatmaker and Beth Moore suddenly mattered.

    The editors at the American Historical Review sees the evangelical left and evangelical right as the Hatfields and McCoys squabblling over bronze age superstitious stupidity and outdated taboos imposed by lecherous old men with sexual hang-ups. Balmer is given space to promote leftist economics as in line with early Christian teaching. But this would not be true for early Christian sexual ethics.


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