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Brian Solomon’s Guide To The Stars: Religion Professor Randall Balmer

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Randall Balmer.jpgRandall Balmer is the John Phillips Professor of Religion and the Chair of the Religion Department at the College. An Episcopal priest and prolific writer and scholar, Balmer explores the history of American religion, especially the Christian evangelical movement.

Born in Chicago, Balmer grew up all over the Midwest as the oldest of five boys and the son of a minister. His father wanted Randall to join the clergy, too, but he moved toward history as an undergrad at Trinity College in Deerfield, IL. Balmer earned his Masters from the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, then his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1985, where he wrote his dissertation on the combination of English culture and Dutch religion in New York and New Jersey during the Colonial period. He did some teaching at Rutgers while finishing his degree, then moved to New York City to become a professor at Columbia (and later Barnard), where he would stay for 27 years.

Balmer and his family loved their vacation home in Vermont, and in the late 1990s, he wrote to the then-chair of Dartmouth’s Religion department, asking if there might be a job opening for him. That opportunity came in 2008, when Balmer served as a visiting Professor of Religion at the College. He taught five terms on and off as a visiting professor before being hired in 2012 as the Mandel Family Professor in the Arts & Sciences. In 2015, he took over the John Phillips Chair in Religion, Dartmouth’s oldest endowed professorship.

During all this time, Balmer’s work has focused on evangelical history in the U.S. In the late 1980s, he became interested in the rash of televangelist scandals and saw that the media largely portrayed evangelicals as a uniform group. That inspired his first major book, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Into Evangelical Subculture In America. The book took Balmer on a trip around the country, showcasing the movement’s diversity from a revival meeting in Florida to an Indian reservation in the Dakotas. The fifth edition was just released.

Mines Eyes Have Seen the Glory also inspired an Emmy-nominated three-part PBS documentary of the same name, which Balmer wrote and hosted. He continues to be active in the television world, producing a two-part series on creationism and a documentary on Billy Graham. Balmer is currently filming and fundraising for a new TV project documenting the Russian Orthodox movement’s legacy of protecting and working with native populations in Alaska.

Balmer continues to write, penning more than a dozen books so far. In 2014, he published Redeemer, a biography of Jimmy Carter that focuses on his faith and how Carter’s rise and fall reflected the change in American religious politics during the late 70s and early 80s. The transformation of evangelicals into a political force for the Republican party is an angle Balmer has addressed in multiple books, including Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America.

Balmer argues throughout that the movement we have come to know as the Religious Right is a tragic aberration in the tradition of evangelical activism on poverty, slavery, and other issues. He has debunked the widely-held notion that evangelicals began to vote as a bloc in response to Roe v. Wade, instead pointing to the defense of segregation in evangelical institutions, which led to a Faustian bargain with the Republican party. Balmer has written multiple op-eds for papers like the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post about how Donald Trump is the inevitable outcome of that history.

You can watch Balmer in numerous videos online, including appearances on both The Colbert Report and The Daily Show:

Back on campus, Balmer is currently teaching REL 65: Sports, Culture, and Religion. Next spring he’ll teach REL 64: Evangelicalism. Balmer also serves as the inaugural director of the Society of Fellows, a new program to attract select postdocs to Hanover that President Hanlon started. The program received 1,750 applications for the first five openings.


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