American Evangelicals: torn apart by politics

The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory
By Tim Alberta. Harper. 2023. 506 pages

Evangelical Christians are one of the most numerous religious communities in the United States.

They are a core component of the Republican Party’s base, and the strong support for Donald Trump exhibited by Evangelicals has further irritated many of their critics.

The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremes is an effort to understand what is playing out within inside increasingly divided Evangelical churches

The author, Tim Alberta, is a prominent journalist for The Atlantic. Importantly, he is himself an Evangelical, the son of a conservative preacher.

Unlike some other journalists, he wants to properly understand the people in the pews. He observes the tumultuous developments with a critical eye and a sympathetic heart.

Estimates of how many Americans fit into the Evangelical category vary wildly, being hamstrung by the fissile nature of Protestantism and the vague theological beliefs of so many Americans.

A large swathe of white American Protestants can certainly be categorised thus, including all those within the Southern Baptist Convention — America’s largest Protestant church.

Alberta cites the work of the scholar David Bebbington, who explained that Evangelical Christians were bound together by four main characteristics: their treatment of the Bible as the essential word of God; their emphasis on how Christ’s death made atonement for mankind possible; their belief that sinners must be "born again" and, lastly, their activist approach to sharing the Gospel.

Polarised

Already a successful journalist for his work focusing on President Trump’s ascent to power, Alberta’s interest in the subject matter is a very personal one.

After going home to mourn his father’s death in 2019, Alberta was shocked by how members of his father’s congregation abused the occasion to take him to task for some of his criticism of the 45th president.

He starts his reflections on the state of American Evangelicalism in the church in Michigan where his father had ministered.

There, he finds that his father’s hand-picked successor has experienced considerable difficulty in engaging with a congregation uncomfortable with the toning down of patriotic rhetoric from the pulpit and their new cleric’s emphasis on environmental stewardship and other issues.

According to the author, the election of Donald Trump and the resulting intensification of America’s culture war added to the difficulties being experienced by this and many other Evangelical pastors.

The young preacher’s decision to obey state law by closing the church’s doors in the early stages of Covid led to an exodus in which a considerable portion of the congregation left to attend other churches, including a radical alternative nearby called FloodGate Church.

Alberta visits this place of worship, which was transformed during the pandemic from a small roadside church to something approaching megachurch status. There, he observes the preacher railing against everything from vaccines to the supposed election fraud that delivered the White House to Joe Biden.

Surveying the religious terrain, Alberta identifies rewards that Evangelical leaders can reap as a result of engaging in such questionable activities.

One of his trips takes him to First Baptist Dallas, where attendance numbers boomed during the Trump years and where the clergyman Robert Jeffress became particularly close to Trump during his time in office. Not only did Jeffress become a sort of pastor to the president, he also acquired a prominent media presence on Fox News.

This comes with a cost in lost dignity and propriety though.

Idolatry

Alberta’s examples of what sycophancy has done to churchmen range from the comical (he writes that Jeffress keeps a shrine to Trump in his office consisting of dozens of framed pictures of the two men together) to the grotesque (Alberta describes how one Colorado preacher stood next to two Republican members of Congress and prayed that his state would “be turned red with the blood of Jesus, and politically”).

According to the author, these are not isolated incidents. Church communities are being torn apart by political divisions, with preachers being put under pressure by congregants aggressively seeking to ensure that every word preached is in perfect agreement with their own worldview.

If the preacher does not comply with this wish, attendees know that they can find an alternative option who will. 

He quotes the respected Russell Moore, formerly a leading figure within the Southern Baptist Convention, who says that he does not “know of a single church that’s not affected” by this.

Liberty University — the Christian college founded by the famous Reverend Jerry Falwell — is a focus of particular attention in this book due to its founder’s mixture of piety, patriotism and the quest for political influence.

More recently, the college has been controversial due to Falwell’s son Jerry Junior’s leadership, including his aggressive embrace of Trumpism and his downfall due to a sex scandal which Alberta describes.

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One particularly striking juxtaposition is Falwell Senior’s denunciation of an interview which Jimmy Carter did with Playboy magazine and Falwell Junior’s picture with "The Donald" in Trump Tower, where a framed cover of Trump’s previous appearance on Playboy’s cover can be seen in the background.

The author is puzzled as to what lies behind this embrace of the lecherous and immoral Trump.

It is made clear again and again that Evangelicals feel more marginalised in a secularising America where they anticipate becoming victims of a future persecution.

Alberta is right to be sceptical of such claims, just as he is right to place such fears in the broader international context where American Christians are blessed to be free of the persecution which their co-religionists must endure each day.

At the same time, he places an insufficient emphasis on the low-level anti-Christian bigotry which does exist, and the role of popular culture in making many American Christians feel unwelcome in their own country.

Marginalised

Negative sentiments towards Evangelicals are common, and it is often more socially acceptable to express such sentiments in workplaces or college campuses than it would be to, say, criticise Muslims as a group.

The insightful Evangelical lawyer and political writer David French describes in his conversation with the author how the desire of secularists to control major cultural institutions and their legislative victories when it comes to same-sex marriage and other issues have encouraged Evangelicals to retreat into their own echo chambers.

A similar tendency can surely be seen among Catholics and other religious groups.

While those who abandon the public square are responsible for their own actions, some blame needs to be apportioned to those alleged "progressives" whose actions leave broad portions of their own societies feeling that they need the protection of bad political actors.

Also, it is worth remembering that there is much in Alberta’s critique about the ill effects of mixing religion and politics which could equally be said of other communities.

In their detailed examination of religion in America (American Grace), Robert Putnam and David Campbell actually found that the places of worship where political activity was most common was in black churches and synagogues: both associated with left-of-centre politics.

Insular

What makes Alberta’s account particularly valuable is the personal nature of this project. The author’s reverence for his father’s memory is balanced with an acknowledgement of failings that were emblematic of the wider problems plaguing Evangelicals.

One example of this was how his father would ask uniformed military personnel in his congregation to stand up and be acknowledged with rapturous applause during church services: a practice discontinued by the successor, who has faced such resistance. Trump did not create this problem, and nor is it a result of the pandemic.

But when diagnosing the ultimate source of these problems, the unhealthy synthesis of American nationalism and American Evangelicalism is nowhere near as important as the nature of Protestantism itself.

On numerous occasions, Alberta or his interlocutors point out that white Evangelicals often have not been exposed to other worldviews or life experiences.

Alberta contrasts the extensive charitable infrastructure operated by the Catholic Church with the relative disinterest in such activities on the part of Evangelical churches, including extravagantly wealthy ones.

He connects this to Protestant theology on salvation by grace alone, which downgrades the role of good works. While showing the author his quarter-billion-dollar church building, the aforementioned Trump adjacent pastor Robert Jeffress appears uncomfortable when asked about charity work, saying abruptly that First Baptist Dallas is “not a sanctified social agency”.

Much of the bad behaviour Alberta observes is exhibited by preachers: the shepherds, rather than the sheep.

This may surprise the reader, but should it? In contrast to the Catholic priesthood, the role of Evangelical preacher is performative to a large extent, with the possession of personal charisma being the main quality necessary to fulfil the role.

In American Protestantism, churchgoers often choose a place of worship according to market-type considerations. Among these is the basic question: where will I be most entertained?

This presents obvious risks, particularly given the hyper-individualised nature of American Protestantism and the absence of a system of clerical authority to stamp out abuses.

This book tells readers a lot about the problems in Evangelical Protestantism in election year America, but reading between the lines, it tells us far more about the basic problems within Protestantism itself.


What do you think of Tim Alberta's observations? Leave a comment below. 


James Bradshaw writes from Ireland on topics including politics, history, culture, film and literature.

Image credit: Pexels


 

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  • mrscracker
    The Atlantic is a secular publication Mr. Steven. I wouldn’t expect it to be a bastion of any sort of faith community.
    I don’t read The Atlantic but it’s regarded by some in the States in a similar way The Guardian is in the UK. It’s a free country, (mostly), & one can write for any media outlet they choose. But Christians of a conservative point of view don’t often write for publications like The Atlantic. And working class folks who vote for Trump are less likely to be readers . That’s all.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-05-16 08:36:48 +1000 Flag
    Most American “Christians” long ago abandoned the teachings of the one they purport to worship for Republican Party agitprop and extreme nationalism.

    mrscracker writes:

    “And The Atlantic is not a bastion of conservatism”

    Note that she does not write: “And The Atlantic is not a bastion of Christianity” or “The Atlantic does not spread the Gospel message”.

    She seems to, conflate Christianity with “conservatism” (Whatever “conservative” in the contemporary US context means).

    “Negative sentiments towards Evangelicals are common, and it is often more socially acceptable to express such sentiments in workplaces or college campuses than it would be to, say, criticise Muslims as a group.”

    Muslims in the United States are a powerless minority. Evangelicals, through the Republican Party, have enormous power. They must expect a backlash.

    “At the same time, he places an insufficient emphasis on the low-level anti-Christian bigotry…”

    What does this mean? If Christians don’t like secularism are they “anti-secular bigots”?

    If you don’t like my beliefs you are a “bigot”?

    And, by the way, is there anyone here who wants to defend the “prosperity” Gospel rife among so-called “Evangelicals”?

    Evangelicals? Evangelists for what exactly?

    Certainly not for the teachings of Jesus.
  • David Page
    commented 2024-05-13 10:58:39 +1000 Flag
    The hat in the picture, by the way, was made in China.
  • David Page
    commented 2024-05-13 02:02:35 +1000 Flag
    It was the choice of the evangelicals to politicize religion. What goes around comes around.
  • mrscracker
    “The author, Tim Alberta, is a prominent journalist for The Atlantic. "
    *********
    And The Atlantic is not a bastion of conservatism, nor much read by working class Americans.
  • James Bradshaw
    published this page in The Latest 2024-05-10 11:39:33 +1000
  • Michael Cook
    followed this page 2024-05-10 11:38:30 +1000