Sorting by

×
Skip to main content

The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism

Tim Alberta
Published by Harper in 2023

The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory is a sequel of sorts to Tim Alberta’s 2019 book American Carnage: the first covered the Trumpian takeover of the Republican Party after 2016; this new book details the Trumpian takeover of parts of white evangelicalism. Some stories might be familiar because of Alberta’s work as a staff writer for the Atlantic, including the bookending story about his father’s church and its new pastor, Chris Winans, who took over after Alberta’s father passed away in 2019. Alberta wrote a powerful article about politics poisoning churches in Michigan back in 2022 and recently published an excerpt of this book

While The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory joins a growing post-2016 shelf populated with books like Kristin Kobes DuMez’s Jesus and John Wayne, Jon Ward’s Testimony, and Russell Moore’s Losing Our Religion, Alberta brings a distinctive and necessary voice to the conversation about white evangelicals in the age of Trump, thanks in no small part to skillfully merging his journalism background with his insider status as an evangelical preacher’s kid. These two angles means that Alberta can interview evangelical subjects well, using questions that stretch without alienating or antagonizing—he includes most of his political and scriptural commentary in the book rather than within his interviews —while also writing with a nuance that eschews the conflation of evangelicals or conservative Christians with MAGA supporters or Christian Nationalists. 

Alberta travels the United States interviewing various religious leaders, seeking to explain why evangelicalism is “divid[ing] into two camps—one side faithful to an eternal covenant, the other side seduced by earthly idols of nation and influence and exaltation” (3). Put another way, the book is Alberta’s quest to figure out what would cause a fellow Christian to excoriate him for his political beliefs on the day of his father’s funeral, causing his wife to ask, “What the hell is wrong with these people?” Alberta wants to find out why some of his fellow Christians “worship America” instead of the God of the Bible (9, 23). Alberta’s book furthers the conversation for modern Christians, giving examples to emulate and counterexamples to avoid through its clear prose and powerful stories, all with a heart for the true gospel of Jesus Christ. 

In Alberta’s telling, the evangelicalism of today is lamentably more market-driven than Bible-driven, and more concerned with exerting political influence than being faithful witnesses. Alberta’s voice is necessary. He includes the well-known history of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority seeking political influence in the late 20th century, and also tells the story of contemporary hucksters who propagate “Let’s Go Brandon” stickers. Some of Alberta’s interviewees are true believers in the MAGA movement; some are economic opportunists who know better as they fleece the sheep in the pews; some are calculating agnostics who cynically seek to use Christianese to win votes and political power.

Alberta’s book contains plenty of nuance within its interviews. He criticizes the MAGA-aligned evangelical movement as a whole for “becom[ing] captive to a cultural religion: they have self-selected into theological milieus that either reaffirm their existing dogmas or leave them undefiled,” and that allow for a “by-any-means necessary approach to the ends” (444, 403). To his credit, he emphasizes that there are plenty of healthy churches in the US today that “have their gospel priorities straight and lean into the tradition of discipline with hard truths” (444). However, he does not let this praise lull Christian readers into a sense of false equivalency: the numbers and interviews still tell a disturbing story of how large segments of the American evangelical movement have sold their live-like-Jesus birthrights for messes of political pottage. Yet Christian Nationalism, while concerning, is not the whole of white evangelicalism. Nor is orthodox Christianity theology or the message of Jesus to blame: Alberta interviews plenty of theological and politically conservative Christians in the book who are deeply uncomfortable with the trends in post-2016 evangelicalism. 

Reformed Journal readers will appreciate several of this book’s themes. Much like other books that explore similar themes, Alberta notices a current of fear throughout his interviews–some talk about Flight 93 Elections, a sense of Christianity under siege or “in the crosshairs,” or even “America at the abyss.” Many evangelicals sense an American culture that is shifting away from Christian values and see themselves under attack, thus justifying all sorts of tactics (25). Alberta points out how these tactics come at the expense of the church’s witness. Chapter 3, for example, is a deep dive into Liberty University and the ways its origins, leadership failures, and political involvement have hurt the witness of one of the US’s largest Christian universities. Alberta interviews or profiles some usual suspects on the religious right like John MacArthur, Robert Jeffress, Ralph Reed, Charlie Kirk, and Greg Locke, yet those conversations are always aimed at improving the church or its witness, not simply sniping at it from afar. The book suggests that if we hope to improve the witness of the Christian church today, we need to be less fearful: God is in control, and those who adopt a “by-any-means-necessary approach” betray their lack of faith in God’s sovereignty (403).

Perhaps it is cold comfort, but part of the utility in reading this book is gaining a sense of solidarity. As has been documented in other posts on the Reformed Journal and in a variety of places, many churches have faced post-2016 problems. Pastors have lost jobs and congregations have lost parishioners—and sometimes their very existence—because they have refused to compromise their long-held principles in the face of COVID conspiracy theories, January 6th insurrections, anti-BLM/CRT/DEI protests, and other events of the past decade. Pastors, Christian school professionals, and other leaders who continue to struggle in an age of denominational shrinkage and “church shopping” will find common cause—and perhaps inspiration—in stories from pastors and church leaders like Chris Winans and John Torres.

Additionally, Alberta features several other prominent Christians who, although orthodox (often conservative) in their beliefs, have been cast out of certain evangelical circles because of their heart for racial justice, their refusal to kowtow to Donald Trump, or their loving their neighbors through scientific best practices during COVID. These folks come across as deeply admirable for their convictions and for the personal price they pay for their integrity. Alberta’s book does not leave readers with a sense of hopelessness: his profiling of David French, Russell Moore, Rachel Denhollander, Curtis Chang, and Julie Roys, especially in the last third of the book, provides refreshing optimism and several concrete paths forward for the Christian church in the United States. 

One critique worth mentioning, as Soong-Chan Rah does in his review, is Alberta’s focus on white evangelicals to the exclusion of immigrant or BIPOC evangelicals. Since his book is answering the question of why so many white evangelicals are making idols out of Trumpism and America, perhaps this oversight is warranted. Yet if one reads the book with a more theological lens rather than a political or social lens, adding in non-white evangelical voices such as Jemar Tisby or Justin Giboney would bring more hope to the story, emphasizing parts of the evangelical church that are still robust in their orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the age of Trump. 

Finally, in a theme that should make Reformed readers rejoice the world over, Alberta emphasizes the need for the American church to embrace an almost Kuyperian calling in the pluralistic world of the 21st century. Alberta never mentions Kuyper or the proverbial “square inch,” but I found traces of it throughout the book (is it too sputten to call this “common grace”?) in his calls for “convincing” rather than “compelling” (i.e., Alberta firmly stands against a Christian Nationalism that seeks to legislate Christian morality while alienating non-believers and neglecting the Good News of Jesus). Transforming the world for Jesus Christ via faithful presence and engaged persuasion occupies a tricky middle ground as it rejects approaches that cede culture to the world via withdrawal a la the Benedict option. It avoids the milquetoast acquiescence of an assimilated Christian who “become[s] so well-adjusted to [their] culture that [they] fit into it without even thinking” (Romans 12:2, MSG), while also avoiding another dangerous extreme of Seven Mountains Dominionism and the like that seek Christian domination over culture. If this middle way position seems difficult, that’s because it is! Part of the beauty of the Reformed tradition is its emphasis on discernment that walks a fine line between extremes. Therein lies a tricky part of our witness and walk as faithful disciples of Jesus: we are not called to win or to necessarily be in power, but to be faithful. Alberta’s book is a useful tool in that quest.

Caleb Lagerwey

Caleb Lagerwey teaches history classes at Holland Christian High School and adjuncts at Calvin University in History and Education. His scholarship focuses on history teaching techniques, race in US history, and the Spanish-American War era. When not reading books, he enjoys spending time with his wonderful family, biking around West Michigan, and various racket/paddle sports.

11 Comments

  • David Landegent says:

    Sounds like the kind of voice I’ve been looking for. Thanks for calling it to my attention.

  • James Vanden Bosch says:

    Excellent essay, Caleb—clear, direct, and nuanced. Thanks.

  • Mark Dykstra says:

    Thank you Caleb, walking that middle path is never easy. Well said and thanks for the reminder that there are some hopeful voices out there.

  • Deb V says:

    Loved this review of Tim’s book. Thank you for spreading the word.

  • RW says:

    A teaching colleague of mine, Vern Boerman, introduced me to the word verisimilitude. As you point out, Tim Alberta brings verisimilitude to his assessment of evangelicalism. Because of that, both his criticisms and his hopes are more poignant. If only more of your and my former students would embrace the Kuyperian vision of pluralism and common grace, our nation and our churches would be more reflective of the nature of Christ’s kingdom.

  • Tim Huizenga says:

    Christians on the progressive left seem to have an insatiable appetite for books that delineate the failings of “those people” who have strayed from the true message of Jesus. Bookstores are also full of books that condemn the liberal Left. These partisan books generally shed very little light and only exacerbate the polarization in our country. We need more books written by progressives which acknowledge that the other side has some valid points and that there are flaws in progressive ideology. Liberals do not have a corner on the truth — and neither do conservatives.

    • Caleb Lagerwey says:

      Agreed. I’d read that book.
      While the book isn’t out yet and isn’t specifically what you’re looking for, Paul D. Miller is writing a book that critiques the illiberal left. It’s a sequel of sorts to his excellent “The Religion of American Greatness” that critiques Christian Nationalism on the illiberal right. While he’s conservative, it’s a great reminder of what you said about neither side having a monopoly on truth, a sentiment Alberta would heartily agree with.
      I also recommend Daniel K. William’s “The Politics of the Cross: A Christian Alternative to Partisanship.” He is an orthodox Christian historian who presents 1) the history of Christians working through both political parties and 2) four hot-button issues through the eyes of faith (abortion, sexuality, poverty, and racism). I think you’d particularly appreciate the issues chapters: at the end, he praises and critiques each party for what they do well and then urges voters to make up for each sides’ deficiencies through other actions. Lots of excellent analysis and nuance.

  • Jodi M says:

    Thank you for this review. The book is sitting on my side table, yet unopened, lest it be just another depressing slog. Thank you for emphasizing that Alberta offers hope, shares some voices that don’t conflate all Christian conservatism with MAGA and Trumpism, and the opportunity to look for solidarity. I will now dive in!

  • Daniel Miller says:

    Great review Caleb!

  • Twila Finkelstein says:

    Excellent and needed book. Many of us, too many of us, relate to family and friends separating themselves from us. I too had a sad occurrence at my mother’s funeral. Keep up the work, Tim and Caleb.

Leave a Reply