After covering the “crack-up” of the Republican Party in American Carnage, award-winning journalist Tim Alberta explores “the crack-up of the American evangelical church” in The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism.
Four years in the making and more than 150,000 words long, the book shows how conservative Christian leaders have been “seduced by earthly idols of nation and influence and exaltation,” traded biblical principles for “blood-and-soil nationalism,” and turned churches into circuses of partisan politicking, MAGA symbolism, jeers against Anthony Fauci, and cries of “F*** Joe Biden.”
“Rather than being challenged and transformed by the gospel, (people) were now coming to church to have their worst impulses confirmed,” Alberta writes.
Many bookshelves already groan under the weight of books examining contemporary evangelicalism and the Religious Right, but Alberta breaks new ground by combining deep-dive reporting (he visited hundreds of churches, ministries, Christian colleges and advocacy groups) with a theological critique rooted in his own Christian faith and his experience growing up the son of an evangelical pastor.
In-depth interviews with national figures — Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Ralph Reed, Stephen Strang, Greg Locke — are juxtaposed with interviews with small-town pastors struggling to adapt to evangelicalism’s new culture and creed.
In addition to observing a parade of badly behaving men, Alberta shines a light on two brave women: Rachael Denhollander, the gymnast and attorney who challenged both the Southern Baptist Convention and Michigan State University to confront sexual abuse in their ranks; and Julie Roys, the journalist who has exposed the hidden sins of Ravi Zacharias, James MacDonald and others in The Roys Report.
The Baptist leaders profiled in The Kingdom seem ignorant of their faith tradition’s historical aversion to the marriage of church and state.
Jeffress is interviewed in his palatial office at First Baptist Church in Dallas, which features a “shrine” (his secretary’s term) to Trump, who has spoken at the church and inspired the church’s new hymn, “Make America Great Again.”
Embracing the so-called “orange Jesus” pays earthly dividends: Jeffress has enjoyed regular White House visits, plenty of airtime on Fox News, numerous book contracts, a bigger salary and even a bigger congregation.
“Yet all the while, Jeffress was laying his spiritual authority on the line, his service to Jesus Christ largely indistinguishable from his servitude to Donald Trump,” writes Alberta, a staff writer for The Atlantic who previously covered politics for Politico.
“Jeffress was laying his spiritual authority on the line, his service to Jesus Christ largely indistinguishable from his servitude to Donald Trump.”
Jeffress formerly opposed Mitt Romney, the Mormon presidential candidate, over “biblical issues” but went all-in on Trump, saying, “I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation.”
Alberta talks to many evangelical leaders who have modeled similar “Trump conversion experiences” — “having once been certain of his darkness, suddenly awakening to see his light.”
He concludes: “The result is not merely a willingness to act with desperation and embrace what is wrong; it can be a belief, bordering on a certainty, that what is wrong is actually right.”
Like others, Jeffress “saw the persecution of Christians as sufficient to justify behavior that is antithetical to what Christ taught,” Alberta says.
When asked whether his embrace of Trump may have caused anyone to leave church or faith, Jeffress was dismissive: “I’m not gonna take responsibility for somebody going to hell. If they go to hell, it’s because they’ve rejected God’s invitation of forgiveness.”
Jeffress is far from the only evangelical leader to profit from encouraging his flock to buy into “the idols of this world.”
“If the Trump presidency was a gold rush for right-wing grifters, (Greg) Locke positively struck it rich,” writes Alberta of the once “small-time” Tennessee preacher who first hit it big with a 2016 viral video criticizing Target for its gender policies.
Alberta’s interview shows Locke to be both confused and self-contradictory, but he preaches in a tent that holds 3,000 and reaches 2.2 million Facebook followers. What once would have been considered a “cult” is endorsed by leaders like Franklin Graham.
Locke’s revenue pales in comparison to that of Liberty University, formerly led by Jerry Falwell Jr. “the Donald Trump of Lynchburg.” A “developer extraordinaire” who expanded the school’s enrollment and campus footprint while growing the school’s assets by 865% in a decade, Falwell acknowledged he wasn’t really much of a disciple or spiritual leader after his own sexual scandals became public.
“He had persuaded the churchgoing masses that it was better to win with vice than to lose with virtue.”
As Alberta explains: “The 45th president had foundationally altered the expectations and incentive structures within American Christendom. He had persuaded the churchgoing masses that it was better to win with vice than to lose with virtue. He had blinded believers to the means and fixed their eyes on the ends. Most significantly, he had shown evangelicals that their movement need not be led by an evangelical.”
Now, “the enemy was people like Mike Pence.” Why? “Not for some biblical heresy or ideological apostasy. But for following the rule of law they loved to acclaim; for obeying the Constitution they so adored.”
Throughout the book, Alberta circles back to Brighton, Mich., where he grew up and his father spent a quarter century as pastor of Cornerstone Church, an Evangelical Presbyterian congregation. His mother led the women’s ministry.
Today, Cornerstone is ailing, hemorrhaging hundreds of members to nearby FloodGate Church, where the leader has “traded his pulpit for a soapbox,” becoming more performer than pastor, and opening services with “rants” that sound like conspiratorial conservative media broadcasts, the author says.
FloodGate’s big break came after it flaunted COVID regulations. Even though its pastor offers only “a tawdry translation of the message of Jesus Christ … people adored him for it,” Alberta says. Attendance has ballooned from around 100 to more than 1,500. The church budget has grown six-fold.
Alberta interrogates Russell Moore, Ed Stetzer, Cal Thomas, theologians and pastors to discern the cause of the evangelical crack-up. Is it biblical illiteracy? Lack of discipleship? Flawed catechesis? Shallow spiritual formation?
There’s plenty of evidence to show shepherds are misleading their sheep, he reports. Meanwhile, many sheep are rejoicing in their newfound identities.
“Instead of seeing ourselves as exiles in a metaphorical Babylon, the way Peter describes the first-century Christians living in Rome, we have embraced our imperial citizenship,” Alberta declares. “Instead of fleeing the temptation to rule all the world, like Jesus did, we have made deals with the devil.”