A historian finds herself nodding along with Tim Alberta’s hopeful vision for American evangelicalism
The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism by Tim Alberta. Harper, 2023. 512 pp., $35.00
The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory opens with a sense of bewilderment. In 2019, the author, journalist Tim Alberta, found himself at odds with people in his old home church—not over the Bible or theology but over Rush Limbaugh. Of all the unlikely times and places, he was at his father’s funeral. He wasn’t alone in his sense of confusion and frustration about how the issue had even come up. The new pastor was also bewildered, unsure how to lead a church with a vocal minority that seemed to value political uniformity more than unity. The culture wars had come to the congregation and were also taking some congregants down the road to another church. When COVID hit, things got worse. Looking around his hometown and across the country at large, Alberta felt he was seeing nothing less than the “crack-up of the American evangelical church.”
Is the American evangelical church experiencing a “crack-up?” In his 1936 essay for Esquire, “The Crack-Up,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote:
Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick—the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.
The American evangelical church genuinely seems to be experiencing some blows from within, which have happened almost without our knowing it. It is easy to argue that Christian values are out of step with the culture and that’s why the word “evangelical” has become undesirable and why Christianity looks unappealing to many people. But that’s not the only thing going on. People are dismayed by public scandals and politicking from the pulpit. COVID disagreements divided rather than strengthened many congregations. Some Christians refuse to be daunted by things like the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) drama, but the truth is, some of us do go to churches that spend more time talking about open carry than about communion. Some Christians seem to see Trump as a messianic figure. Even if you refuse to be worried, that’s quite weird and wasn’t always the case in our lifetimes. Yes, the church has always been full of imperfect and politically active believers, but we have to ignore history to think that American evangelicals were equally as politicized in 1950—the era so many evangelicals claim to love—as they are now.
The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory is a frontline tour of the battlefield within the evangelical church. Alberta is clearly on the side that sees the celebration and obsession with Trump and the radical right in some Christian circles as deeply concerning. He describes people who “had all to some extent been seduced by the cult of Trumpism: convinced of the false choices that accompanied his rise, drained of certain convictions in the name of others, infected with a relativism that rendered once-firm standards suddenly quite malleable.”
If you operate in Christian circles, you too know someone who cared a lot more about politicians’ morality in the Clinton years than they do now. It is not simply a matter of voting Republican regardless of personal displeasure. A troubling number of church members cheer on the “salty sailor” they see as their champion. As Alberta processed his experiences and his observations a few years ago, he realized, “I did see evangelicals divided into two camps—one side faithful to an eternal covenant, the other side seduced by earthly idols of nation and influence of exaltation—but I was too scared to say so.” This was a conclusion he did not want to embrace, especially as someone who often wrote about and represented the Christian community in the secular world.
Despite Alberta’s clearly stated views, The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory is not “gotcha” journalism. Alberta interviewed many prominent figures on both sides of the conflict. There is a chapter built around Alberta’s conversations with Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas, one built around his conversations with Russell Moore of Christianity Today (and formerly of the SBC), and so on. Alberta spoke to David French of The Dispatch and Stephen Strang of Charisma Media. He spoke with pastors embracing the culture wars and pastors concerned by them. Alberta visited churches with very different COVID responses. He lets many people speak for themselves and quotes them at length, refusing to distort their positions. Alberta also stands out as an author who is a Christian himself and does not automatically doubt the faith of others. Though Alberta sometimes questions the sincerity of certain figures’ political views, he sincerely seeks to understand their reasoning.
As Alberta unpacks the evidence and conducts the interviews that make up this book that exceeds four-hundred pages, themes emerge. Fear is prominent among those who bring politicians into the pulpit and those who openly joke about murdering Fauci. Some American Christians believe the government is out to permanently shut down their churches, destroy their life, maybe even replace their race. Some of these sentiments seem to be fed by people who share those fears, some by people who profit from those fears. Some evangelical congregants are very worried that demographic shifts will cause their political positions and values to lose the power to shape current affairs. Some of them are willing to ally with just about anyone to prevent that. Many evangelicals seem to believe that their place in America matters more than almost anything else. Even though the people who openly embrace “Christian nationalism” are a minority, they are a vocal minority that the quiet majority never fully dismisses.
This book should be very popular in the circles that share these concerns, but what about among the people who disagree about the problems? Some will say that “evangelical” is better understood as a sociological term and has less to do with religion than worriers think. Some will say that there have always been politicized and badly behaving believers in America. So why care so much about the present day? There’s a good chance that someone who shrugs at “Let’s Go Brandon” and “FJB” bumper stickers in the church parking lot won’t pick up a book like this. There’s little to no chance that the person with those stickers would read this book or agree with it. David Barton fans are unlikely to become Tim Alberta readers. And then there are those who think it’s better for people to not be told how wrong David Barton is, even if they know better, because it’s very upsetting for people to learn that they’ve imbibed lies and sometimes those lies are somewhat helpful.
The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory makes a compelling case that the problem is not just within a sociological category but within congregations across America. Alberta doesn’t spend time going to Trump rallies and interviewing Newsmax aficionados and Tucker Carlson interns. He visits churches. He talks to pastors. He talks to parishioners. He investigates God and man at Liberty, not Yale. He reads books published by and for Christians. Alberta doesn’t spend time asking non-Christians what they think about church scandals or terms or what evangelicals are up to. He asks people who belong to churches and call themselves Christians and evangelicals. It is clear these issues are negatively affecting many churches and many believers. There is some genuine confusion among evangelicals about what kingdom comes first, how we should relate to earthly power, and how we glorify God.
For those who minimize the severity of the crisis, the idea of a “crack-up” will seem overblown. Among those who neither join the radical right nor lose sleep over it, it is common to consider those concerned about it all to be somewhat deranged, too. But as we see in recent Pew and Barna studies, young people and the secular world do not shrug off church crazy—they make judgments based on it. Maybe that is their problem, maybe they should know better than to expect more from imperfect people. Maybe they shouldn’t believe everything they hear about Christians from the “liberal media.” But a book like this is a good reminder that many of the most skeptical young people today are not those who haven’t seen the church with their own eyes. A deacon who thinks many news events are secretly performed by “crisis actors” doesn’t make a great witness for the truth of Christ and the veracity of his resurrection. And if that person also puts politics over theology, it’s a real problem. “Evangelical” is still a religious category for many people in it and these kinds of associations are chasing people away from the church.
Some readers may agree the evangelical church has a problem, but still find aspects of this book unappealing. Several people Alberta talks to suggest that evangelicals should get over our declining share of political power and learn to “lose well.” We should set our sights on things above, get our houses in order, model the true Kingdom, and make politics secondary at best. This might be a hard sell for some evangelicals. It’s very possible that many people want better behavior but retain a fondness for some sort of “muscular Christianity” and legislative power. For these people, “losing well” will hold little appeal. For these readers, The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory will seem to offer a diagnosis but no compelling cure.
In reality, all who prefer better behavior might share a solution more than they realize. For someone like Russell Moore or Tim Alberta, the solution is not more political power or better mobilized “values voters.” They would ask us to seek first the Kingdom by building healthier churches and making discipleship a bigger part of the evangelical experience. That would seem to offer very little to those especially concerned about legislation. But there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that healthy churches dramatically impact and improve civil society. Alberta emphasizes how much good churches do in their communities, but the impact goes further. A book like Timothy Carney’s Alienated America shows that among all types of non-familial belonging, religious belonging is the best and a viable solution to the isolation so many Americans feel. Healthy churches offer an indirect route to influence, but they may ultimately achieve some of the effects that the people who ally with Christian nationalists claim to crave. Healthy churches certainly serve evangelicals better.
It’s possible to read The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory primarily as a catalog of the ways we’ve collectively lost our way, by prioritizing the wrong things and seeking power more than we seek Christ. There is plenty of reason for despair when you think of people going to church and being sold things instead of having the gospel shared with them. Yet one thing that makes this book different is the hope it contains. At the end of the book, Alberta revisits his old home church to find that the pastor, after years of struggle, has found his footing and the congregation has changed but has also become much healthier. Many others in the book share similar perspectives. This is not a book for cynics, it contains too much optimism for that—optimism placed in Christ and the church rather than in politics or a new front for the culture wars. This is a thoughtful book that deserves to read.
But I am still waiting for someone to write something great titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Voter.
Elizabeth Stice is Associate Professor of History at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Her essays have appeared at Front Porch Republic, History News Network, and Mere Orthodoxy.
Image courtesy Washington Post