Donald Trump might pose problems for established political norms, but he has been a godsend for book publishers. In the years encompassing Trump’s first campaign, election, inauguration, tumultuous term as president, second campaign, and unprecedented response to defeat in 2020, dozens of books have been written about the relationship between white evangelical Christians and Donald Trump’s populist politics.
The latest of these is Tim Alberta’s The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism. A journalist for The Atlantic, Alberta combines memoir and research, drawing on his upbringing in and familiarity with the evangelical tradition to interrogate what historian Thomas Kidd describes as “a movement in crisis.”
This crisis is both political and personal. It is political in that white evangelicals have been the steadiest base of support for the least outwardly faithful president in half a century, at the alleged expense of their prior platitudes about morality and ethics being central to public service. But, as Alberta explains, it is also deeply personal, leading to rifts in families, communities, and congregations.
As the title hints, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory is organized into three sections, each focusing on a different element of the evangelical movement and its evolution over the last decade in response to changing political tides. Alberta crisscrosses the country visiting churches and political rallies, interviewing pastors and activists, and trying to make sense of what he sees as too many evangelicals sacrificing a Christian approach to the political world at the altar of power. The result is a book that is well resourced and eminently readable, providing a perceptive and sympathetic critique of American evangelicalism. Alberta does not have an axe to grind, but rather a community to better understand.
Displeasure, not disdain
Alberta is not an outsider to the world of evangelical Christianity. He was raised and reared in this space, with his father serving as a pastor at an Evangelical Presbyterian Church for decades. He also speaks the language well, not as someone citing Scripture at Christians in order to point out supposed hypocrisy, but as someone attempting to correct what he sees as misapplication or misunderstanding of the right relationship between political engagement and the Christian faith.
Throughout his book, Alberta does not hide his displeasure at his evangelical brothers and sisters captured by Trump’s distinct brand of politics. But displeasure is not disdain, nor is it disgust; instead, he writes with a sense of bewilderment and even sadness, lamenting the marriage of the church to a kind of political engagement he sees as fundamentally incompatible with the words of Jesus.
That said, certain evangelical celebrities are met with what Alberta might identify as righteous anger. Men like David Barton, Eric Metaxas, and Jerry Falwell Jr. bear the brunt of this criticism. Barton is chastised as a huckster and conman, slickly presenting a flawed reading of American history to an audience predisposed to see America as a distinctly Christian nation—and lining his pockets in the process. Metaxas, meanwhile, is described as evolving from a thoughtful cultural commentator to either a grifter or a conspiracy theorist or maybe both. “Corruption and psychosis,” Alberta admits, “are not mutually exclusive.”
But no other figure is pilloried like Falwell. The son of a fundamentalist heavyweight who turned his father’s struggling Liberty University into one of the country’s largest and richest Christian colleges, Falwell’s rise and fall is documented with precision. He is described in megalomaniacal terms, with Alberta speaking to former students, staff, and faculty who paint a picture of a man driven by ego and ambition to the point of moral and political bankruptcy. On his downfall, Alberta pulls no punches: “For Falwell to be embarrassed would have required a capacity for embarrassment.”
While these men are likely recognizable to attentive readers, Alberta also spends time with pastors who have increased their platforms and congregations by preaching a MAGA-centered gospel, fusing Christian civil religion with populist conservative politics. Michigan’s Bill Bolin is emblematic of this trend, fashioning church services that include both Bible teaching and what congregants affectionately call “headline news”—screeds against COVID-era restrictions and mandates, the Internal Revenue Service, and, of course, Democrats.
So too are better known pastors like Tennessee’s Greg Locke and Texas’s Robert Jeffress. Locke, whose viral videos in opposition to pandemic regulations made him a star in evangelical right-wing circles, is described as on “the furthest fringes” of this community. Jeffress, on the other hand, is painted as media savvy and deeply connected to Donald Trump. Not coincidently, the populations of these pastors’ churches are booming, along with their budgets.
Meanwhile, activists like Ralph Reed and Chad Connelly are characterized as justifying damaging rhetoric and behaviors in the name of Republican policy priorities while rejecting Alberta’s narrative of a Christian community in crisis. Reed, who has been involved in turning out conservative Christians to vote since the 1990s, sees the political fervor and engagement among evangelicals today as undeniably good—and if it benefits Republican politics, even better. Connelly, meanwhile, dismisses fringe pastors like Bolin as unrepresentative of evangelical pastors concerned about America’s political decline. He also tells Alberta that divisions among Christians and churches are nothing new, and certainly not a result of increased political engagement. “I’ve had people leave our church,” he says, “over the color of the carpet.”
These sections are among the book’s most insightful. These pastors and activists do not regret combining partisan politics with Christianity or stoking people’s fears as a call to political action. Alberta does, however, capture moments of self-reflection. Locke told him that he sometimes worries people are attending his services “for the wrong reasons.” Jeffress admitted that some in his church had wrong ideas about the “synthesizing of the Constitution and the Bible,” and called evangelicals who stormed the US Capitol “nutcases.” Even if these moments do not lead to wholesale changes in behavior, they are at least evidence of internal tensions.
Rays of hope
If the book’s first two sections offer a pessimistic portrayal of the state of evangelical political engagement, then the book’s final section takes on a more hopeful tone. Alberta profiles individuals and groups dissatisfied with the prevailing status quo and who seek to offer alternatives to fellow evangelicals also disappointed by their community’s recent political behavior.
Some of these figures are pastors, people who refuse to let recent divisions and congregational breakups drive them to despair. Consider Brian Zahnd, a Missouri pastor whose “gigantic” church parking lot now houses “a fraction” of the vehicles it once had. Alberta writes of Zahnd’s slow but steady conviction to disentangle partisan proclivities from the pulpit, eventually leading to an exodus of parishioners who found this new posture unsuitable for the crises of the moment. Those who remained, though, made for a healthier church overall, protecting it “from the turmoil of the Trump era.”
Alberta also profiles figures in “Big Eva,” evangelical leaders with large platforms who have recently gone through very messy—and very public—breaks with their communities. Christianity Today’s Russell Moore is one such leader, whose tenure as head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission sputtered amid controversies over Moore’s criticism of Donald Trump and outspokenness against alleged abuse cover-ups in the denomination. Another such leader is Daniel Darling, who was fired from his position at the National Religious Broadcasters after a media appearance where he defended the COVID-19 vaccine.
Moore, Darling, and others are portrayed simultaneously as casualties of evangelical infighting and as hopeful voices for healthier political engagement. Alberta points to the work of organizations like Redeeming Babel and its new curriculum, “The After Party,” as intentional efforts to inoculate Christians against the dangers of toxic polarization. He highlights writers and speakers like David French as modeling a better sort of political engagement for evangelicals, even while acknowledging that French himself is persona non grata to many pro-Trump evangelicals because of his early “never Trump” status.
Importantly, Alberta cites a major source of Moore’s newfound optimism in the future of evangelical politics: “the resilience of the young generation of believers.” Moore is encouraged, Alberta writes, by younger Christians and their concern for politics that goes beyond partisanship, trading the noisy brashness of carnival barkers for the deeper and richer humility of Jesus. Alberta agrees with this assessment, claiming that the loudest voices preaching MAGA to evangelical masses are not doing so in confidence, but in desperation. Eric Metaxas and Charlie Kirk, he writes, are “not men beholding a great victory that was within reach,” but rather are “bracing for further losses.”
Accountability without self-righteousness
“What the hell is wrong with these people?”
This question comes from Alberta’s wife in the book’s first few pages, directed toward churchgoers who sought out and chastised Alberta during his father’s memorial service (they were upset with Alberta’s reporting critically of Donald Trump). But Alberta directs the question at far too many American evangelicals who have seemingly disregarded multiple aspects of the fruit of the Spirit—such as kindness, gentleness, and peace—in exchange for political power to better meet our difficult moment.
Alberta’s sadness and frustration are evident. Notably, he does not present rank-and-file evangelicals as simpletons or would-be authoritarians. These are the people with whom he once worshipped, only to have a polarized political environment and an unprecedented pandemic tear Christian communities asunder. But he also does not let them off the hook, believing that these Christians, shepherded by misguided or misleading voices, have shed essential elements of their convictions before donning harmful political attire.
And yet, there is a danger in asking, “What the hell is wrong with these people?” It risks downplaying or ignoring our own faults, making ourselves the heroes of the story instead of trying to comprehend the posture and motivations of those with whom we disagree. There is a tendency, a temptation, to believe that any Christian with whom we have political differences must be mired in faithlessness, error, or even sin. “Woe to you, partisans, because you do not vote like me,” is a sneakily enticing posture to adopt.
To be clear, I do not believe The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory does this. I do think Alberta’s words come from a place of lament, not judgment. But these kinds of reflections do open the door for readers to impose their prejudices onto believers unlike them, just as related books in this same spirit might do. Christians should read Alberta’s book in a right mindset, seeking to better understand our political moment and the motivations of our neighbors, not to justify looking down on political opponents with whom we also might share a pew.
Christians must be able to criticize and correct our brothers and sisters in the spirit of charity and love. Accountability is essential to sanctification. But this cannot come from a posture of superiority or self-righteousness, believing we have the right way of doing politics in our complex, fallen society. The latter is certainly easier in this day and age, but it isn’t what Jesus asks of us.
Daniel Bennett is an associate professor of political science at John Brown University and assistant director at the Center for Faith and Flourishing. His forthcoming book is Uneasy Citizenship: Embracing the Tension in Faith and Politics.