Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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A brave attempt to address extremism: Alberta, 2023. The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism

Posted: Feb 14, 2024 11:02;
Last Modified: Feb 14, 2024 11:02


Alberta, Tim. 2023. The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism. First edition. New York: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

This is a brave book.

Tim Alberta is a journalist and Evangelical Christian who writes about American politics in the Age of Trump (most recently for The Atlantic). The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory is an attempt to understand, and find a way out from, the increasing politicisation of the American Evangelical church. As such, it has a lot to say to everybody who is concerned with the polarisation of today’s public discourse, whether you are inside the church or fundamentally opposed to the tenets of its Social Conservatism. This is a book about understanding how polarisation happens and how it can be addressed. While it is focussed on the problems specifically within the Evangelical Church, it provides a model for understanding and addressing the way misinformation and cult-like behaviour can take over any organisation.

The prompt for the book, Alberta tells us, was the death and funeral of the author’s father, Richard J. Alberta, a New York Financier-turned-Presbyterian preacher. When his son Tim, who remains a committed member of the church, attended the service, he was attacked repeatedly by long-standing members — his father’s friends and people who had watched Tim growing up — for his “betrayal”: as a reporter for Politico in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2016 U.S. election he had written articles critical of Trump and the Republican party. “What the hell is wrong with these people,” Alberta’s equally-evangelical wife asked when they returned to their hotel, shocked at the inability of the congregants to separate the human and religious imperatives of a community funeral from cable-news political combat.

The rest of the book is Alberta’s attempt to find an answer to his wife’s question. Divided into three parts, the book examines how conservative Christians in the U.S. came, in his view, to be seduced by the idea of political power in a country they understand as a “new Israel.” In the late sixties, Alberta reports, political operatives began to see the potential organising power of Evangelical churches, recognising in them potential pools of engaged voters, donors, and volunteers and seeing in their pastors the religious equivalent of ward bosses. As organisations such as the “Moral Majority” and later “Focus on the Family,” created by super-star preachers and religious leaders , began to amass more influence, their leaders — perhaps particularly Jerry Falwell and his sons — became convinced that the true fight for true believers was in the here and now, rather than the afterlife: building on the prosperity gospel (which argues that worldly success is evidence of God’s favour) and using issues such as abortion, LGBTQ+ and women’s rights, these men worked with Republican party operatives such as Ralph Reed to build a network in which church-goers’ faith was measured primarily through their identification with the Republican party.

As with so many things, this process came to a head with the political arrival of Donald Trump. While evangelical leaders were initially suspicious of the notoriously sinful television personality — they had, after all, mobilised their members outrage at Bill Clinton’s moral failings — their misgiving began to melt away as it became more and more clear that Trump was going to win the 2016 nomination battle. If the worldly mission of Evangelical Christianity is to support the work of the Republican party, the thinking went, then the fact that Trump won the Republican primaries must mean that his candidacy was part of God’s plan: a new David to serve as the Church’s champion despite — or indeed, perhaps through — his worldly failings.

From this point, Alberta argues, it was a small step from assuming that Trump was part of God’s plan, to assuming that Trump simply was God’s plan: that disagreement with Trump or his political allies was the same as disagreement with God, and that any actions that could conceivably undermine Trump and his works had to be confronted as a direct threat to the orthodoxy of His church. Including at the funerals of popular pastors whose sons happened to work in the Main Stream Media.

Alberta’s lesson for the rest of us to be aware of how easy it is, especially in these days of algorithmically driven conflict and dissension, to lose sight of the larger purpose of our civic participation. Throughout his book, Alberta keeps returning to what he understands to be the purpose of the Church: to glorify Christ and prepare its members for a kingdom that, as Jesus said during his trial, is not of this world. Alberta is by no means opposed to the conservatism (social or political) of his co-religionists (in this book, calling somebody a “Social Conservative” is an indication of praise, not condemnation). But he is opposed to what he sees as the repurposing of his church for the relatively trivial (and indeed counter-productive, since it alienates the people you should be trying to convert) purposes of simply “owning the libs.”

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?” (Mark 8:36). This is ultimately the question Alberta asks about his Church. His answer is a model for all who wonder if their politics does not sometimes sacrifice the nobility of long-term aspirations to the fleeting pleasure of short-term means.





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