Randall Balmer teaches religion at Columbia University in New York, not exactly a bastion of conservative Protestantism. He writes a weekly column for Religious News Service in which he is frequently critical of the Religious Right.
But in a three-part series to be aired on PBS starting Tuesday, Balmer comes out of the closet. He walks us through the heart of American evangelicalism with narration and commentary of an insider. He explains his perspective this way: "American evangelicalism has shaped me in important ways, and although I often stumble when I try to reconcile evangelical beliefs with my own intellectual doubts, something deep within me demands that I make the effort."
The series is based on his book, "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," which also serves as the title for the programs continuing on May 18 and 25. It's the stuff of television, with colorful footage from a black Pentecostal church in Natchez, Miss., and mass baptisms by a fundamentalist church in Costa Mesa that started as a ministry to hippies. Balmer's point is that evangelicalism, which is estimated to be the belief system of 50 million to 80 million Americans, comes in many shapes and sizes.
Part two of the series must have been Balmer's greatest challenge to orchestrate. He explains that American evangelicalism began with the First Great Awakening, a series of revivals early in the 18th Century. Balmer defines "pre-millenarianism" and explains the passions of "dispensationalists," who look forward to Christ's Second Coming as the next stage of God's work in the world.
This is not the stuff of television, but Balmer quickly moves on to the Scopes Trial of 1925, the great Bible-based debate over modern scientific theories of evolution. He is probably back in territory familiar to many viewers by that point.
Balmer insists that the drubbing that fundamentalists took during the Scopes "monkey trial" in Dayton, Tenn., sent them underground for the next 50 years. In the subculture that developed, prohibitions against dancing, drinking and card playing augmented belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible in defining the faithful. As time went on, Balmer points out, elements of the culture were adapted to conservative religious ends. Rock concerts and summer camps give evangelical teen-agers a little fun among their own kind in a safe context.
Part three of the series takes up with the 1970s, when Balmer says evangelicals "came of age." They plunged into politics, helping to elect Jimmy Carter, then Ronald Reagan. They helped shape the culture by putting an emphasis on the family and fighting abortion.
In this final show, Balmer offers a few "lingering concerns" about the evangelical bent to racism, sexism, fixation with the end of the world, identification of the New Testament with material prosperity and political self-righteousness.
His commentary falls strangely short of his own critical eye in his column about the excesses of television evangelists, Pat Robertson's finances, the ugly turn abortion protests often take, the hypocrisy of some evangelical claims around "family values" and the like.
But the series, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia, is clearly PBS at its best--that is, a crack above the lowest common denominator approach of network television, where religion as a force in the culture is all but invisible.
The first part airs locally Tuesday at 9 p.m. on KPBS-TV Channel 15 and 10 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28, and Friday at 8 p.m. on KVCR-TV Channel 24.