Book Reviews

Spreading the Bad News

Right-wing evangelicalism’s moral and religious descent into Trumpism has been near-total. Is there a way out?

By Soong-Chan Rah

Tagged ChristianityDonald Trump

The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism by Tim Alberta • Harper • 2023 • 512 pages • $35

Several years ago, I answered a phone call from a national newspaper reporter working on a story about evangelical churches in the United States. One of the more intriguing aspects of our conversation was discovering that although the reporter’s primary beat was American evangelical Christianity, she did not identify as a Christian. She had never studied religion, much less American Christianity. Her academic background was in political science, and her knowledge of politics was instrumental in her appointment as a beat reporter covering U.S. evangelicalism. In other words, her editors made the determination that evangelicalism was more identifiable as a political expression than as an ecclesial or religious movement. That identity has been cemented over decades with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Pat Robertson’s presidential aspirations, the religious right’s unwavering support of the Republican Party, and now the rise of Trumpian evangelicalism.

In The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism, journalist and Atlantic staff writer Tim Alberta provides important and fascinating insights into the emergence and establishment of Trumpian evangelicalism over the past several years. Alberta offers snapshots of this world through his eyes as both a participant and an observer—a Christian who has firsthand experience and knowledge of this community, but also a reporter trying to offer objective analysis. Toward that goal, Alberta provides a necessary focus on a particular strain of evangelicalism, namely white American evangelical Christianity, and its complicity in Trumpism. Alberta’s account resonates: Over the last several years, many of us in the evangelical world have encountered “these types” of evangelicals.

If there is an evangelical card, mine is laminated. It was earned after many years of schooling in evangelical educational institutions, ministering in evangelical churches and parachurch organizations, serving on evangelical boards, and now teaching at an evangelical seminary while writing books for evangelicals. My credentials are rock solid to the point that my ministry and career are sequestered in the evangelical world. But I am also an immigrant. I went to Ivy League schools in addition to evangelical ones. I hold more progressive social and political views. Until recently, I had managed to find a home in the larger U.S. evangelical world. But Trumpian evangelicalism changed the equation. The lines of orthodoxy I had learned and embraced had changed—not over actual theological issues, but over politics. My utility and relevance to the current iteration of evangelicalism are under scrutiny, as evidenced by cancellations of speaking engagements and vitriolic e-mails and social media posts. Alberta narrates the change I have experienced on a small scale in the context of the larger U.S. evangelical world, and in the process he demonstrates just how similarly U.S. evangelicalism has been redefined.

In our book Return to Justice, my co-author Gary VanderPol and I distinguished between big “E” Evangelicalism and little “e” evangelicalism. Little “e” evangelicalism has a long tradition and history that trace back to Biblical times, particularly with the incarnation of Jesus and the establishment of the Christian church. Little “e” evangelicals see themselves in the line of theological orthodoxy and as inheritors of sound Christian doctrine and teaching, resulting in a self-perception rooted in a spiritual and religious identity. Big “E” Evangelicalism reflects a network of relationships and connections that define a more sociological category. This sociological identity, which got solidified in the last third of the twentieth century, is the identity that became nearly purely political as Trump rose to power. As U.S. evangelicals in large numbers vote for, support, and become enamored of the Trump narratives, the theological identity rooted in a historic little “e” evangelicalism gets lost.

Big “E” Evangelicalism has trumped little “e” evangelicalism. My theological and ecclesial home, once shaped by historical theological boundaries, is now shaped by a sociological and political identity rooted in Trumpism. I did not remove myself from my evangelical roots; the evangelical world moved in a direction I could neither fathom nor accept. Alberta helps us make sense of the origins and formation of this new American evangelicalism.

The question posed in the opening pages of the book resounds throughout the rest of the text: “What the hell is wrong with these people?” How did a religious movement committed to the authority of the Bible, personal salvation, spiritual piety, and following Jesus become a movement committed to the authority of Fox News (and now QAnon), political power (at all costs), hateful extremism (up to murderous chants and violent outbursts), and absolute devotion to a man such as Donald Trump?

Alberta attempts to narrate this turn through a chronicle of his firsthand interactions with the U.S. evangelical world. His account includes quotes from Trumpian evangelicals that reflect phrases I have heard repeatedly from actual church members over the last several years directed toward me and those whose politics are similar to mine. Those condemnations have ranged from scoffing at our views on racial justice to telling us that there was a special place in hell reserved for us leftists and woke CRT proponents. Conservative political positions trumped all other perspectives, even seemingly Biblical ones. How, indeed, did we get here?

Alberta points to several key factors in the rise of the extreme form of Trumpian evangelicalism. First, he identifies the idolatrous love of America by evangelicals, over even Jesus Christ himself. Not even the founder of the faith, the one who died for their sins, holds a place of favor over their love of the nation. Devotion to their nation leads to the assertion of American exceptionalism—an identity that, to the evangelical, is under siege by outsiders and foreigners. Therefore, a savior is needed to rescue the United States and “Make America Great Again.”

The deeply embedded narrative of American exceptionalism and triumphalism, as well as the fear of losing that identity, compels U.S. evangelicals to become obsessed with its preservation. The emergence of disparate views, lifestyles, and values is understood not as a strength (as would be the case in a democracy) but as a threat to the very heart and soul of the evangelical identity. The preservation of these assumed narratives, therefore, requires the acquisition of power—and a masculine champion to lead the way. Alberta points out that “[M]any evangelicals believe that our country is divinely blessed” and therefore deserving of exceptional status. He quotes an evangelical pastor: “Americans always think they deserve to win. And so, naturally, the Church has become about winning, too.”

In evangelicalism’s transition from a spiritual to a corporeal identity, the values of the Kingdom of God have been shirked for the values of the social and political world. Instead of the grace of God and the self-sacrificing example of Jesus, the defensive and bombastic example of Donald Trump leads the way. Further, the electoral defeat of their champion would not be acceptable or even possible in the imagination of Trumpian evangelicals. The only appropriate posture, therefore, would be to fight the demonic powers that have led to this democratic injustice. The potential loss of American greatness through the electoral loss of Donald Trump would be the capstone catastrophe in a string of them going back decades: desegregation, changes in immigration laws, Roe v. Wade, the election of Barack Obama, same-sex marriage, and more. Crisis requires all hands on deck to turn this grim tide. Supporting Trump is now tantamount to saving the Christian faith. One parishioner Alberta meets tells him that, in Alberta’s words, “an attack on Trump…was indeed an attack on Christianity.”

The divergence from traditional thought that culminates in this warped imagination reveals an important theological deficiency. The story Alberta tells exposes a lack of discipleship and formation on behalf of evangelical leaders. Evangelicals value discipleship: Evangelical pastors and Christian leaders are charged with forming and shaping members of the church to be faithful followers of Jesus and his teachings. Preaching, teaching, and mentoring are important parts of how a Christian is spiritually formed to be a faithful disciple of Jesus.

Instead, preaching and teaching in the church devolved into Trump rally-style harangues that stoked the fires of discontent using the belligerent language of the culture wars. Evangelical church members were indoctrinated not into the rich theological heritage of Christian faith, but into the language of partisan politics. Even pastors who steered away from political issues could not compete with the more effective discipleship of Tucker Carlson and Rush Limbaugh. Alberta reveals that the exodus of evangelicals to more extreme right-wing churches was not “for a lack of discipling…they didn’t want to be discipled.” Their preference was for a type of discipleship that affirmed their political leanings. Alberta points to both the lack of Christian discipleship and the aggressive expression of culture war tropes as factors in the transition from a spiritual and religious movement to a political movement.

This rejection of spiritual and religious formation by those who left their more moderate churches, and who found an alluring replacement in the raucous and captivating call to participate in the formation of culture warriors ready to restore American “greatness,” has defined the current era. Ineffective discipleship yielded to a more effective but dysfunctional one. The evangelical narrative of discipleship was co-opted by a political agenda. The passion that evangelicals in previous generations directed toward evangelistic conversion efforts was now redirected toward American greatness, and the narrative stuck. Evangelical identity may have been forever altered.

The main shortcoming of The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory is its overemphasis on the white male perspective. While Alberta captures the story of white U.S. evangelicalism, he does not engage the fuller story of the movement beyond that subset; women, immigrant churches, and BIPOC evangelicals are significantly absent from the storyline. He therefore misses what may be a redemptive thread.

It is true that U.S. evangelicalism has historically privileged the white male gaze and perspective. As Alberta points out, Trumpian evangelicalism finds roots and much of its primary expression in the dominance of the white American Christian nationalist gaze. Understanding the state of white U.S. evangelicalism is therefore important—but by ignoring other groups, Alberta’s book ends up furthering the privilege of that white male perspective. As Alberta describes, it is significant that the extremism of Trumpian evangelicalism has found targets in white evangelicals like Russell Moore and David French, who before Trump were leaders in the politically conservative wing of evangelicalism. Moore and French may have felt rejected by the more conservative arm of evangelicalism, but they landed in decent circumstances. (There are many worse fates than ending up as a New York Times columnist or editor-in-chief of Christianity Today.) While they may have lost the political battle, they and other white evangelicals were able to recover more quickly than their BIPOC counterparts.

Meanwhile, what about Black, Latino, and AAPI families in white churches and denominations who have become alienated from their church families because of the relentless fealty to Trumpism and the persistent specter of racism that haunts U.S. evangelical churches? What about African American associate pastors of white megachurches who are dealing with PTSD from the trauma of anti-Blackness at these churches? Or pastors of color trying to find employment because racism in the white evangelical church shortened their tenure at these institutions?

What about BIPOC faculty, like Jemar Tisby, a professor of history at Simmons College, who have had their theological stance and orthodoxy questioned because of right-wing cancel culture? Or even my personal story of having a speaking engagement at a prominent evangelical Christian college (Westmont) cancelled without any reason being given? Alberta quotes a few BIPOC leaders (fewer than white evangelical leaders) and does recognize that his focus is on white evangelicalism, but he fails to engage the problem of race as an essential aspect of Trumpian Christianity. By understating the racialized reality of Trumpism, the author misses what may be a central element of the narrative.

The long-term damage of evangelicalism’s Trumpian shift is still being felt in many communities. Through good storytelling and insider insight, Tim Alberta offers what stands as one of the better treatments on Trumpian evangelicalism and its dominance over white U.S. evangelicalism. However, his minimal engagement with the issue of race may perpetuate the narrative of white primacy that is one of the central characteristics of this movement. If the narrative of white primacy and supremacy defines this dysfunctional iteration of U.S. evangelicalism, then the counter to that narrative is not more white-centeredness. Instead, the counternarrative requires a deeper narration of the stories of BIPOC evangelicals whose suffering and persecution have yielded not triumphalism, but a profound dependence upon God—whose stories reflect not an exceptionalism, but a humility to seek first the Kingdom of God.

Despite these shortcomings, Alberta offers an important contribution to a more robust understanding of Trumpian evangelicalism. Insider insight drawn from firsthand accounts from within the evangelical world fills out a narrative of how we got here. With journalistic integrity, Alberta’s account, though incomplete, rings true.

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Soong-Chan Rah is the Robert Munger Professor of Evangelism at the Fuller Theological Seminary and author of The Next Evangelicalism. Look for his upcoming publication on African-American evangelicalism from Oxford University Press.

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