Righting America

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The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism: A Review | Righting America

By Andrew J. McNeely

Andrew McNeely is a Ph.D. student in Theology at the University of Dayton. McNeely’s research interests include 19th and 20th century fundamentalism and evangelicalism at the intersections of theology, education, history, politics, and American culture. His dissertation research focuses on the 20th century Christian Day School movement and its contributions to contemporary American evangelicalism and the formation of the Christian Right.

Book cover of Tim Alberta’s The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory. Image via Amazon.

In his recent book, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory, Tim Alberta apprises his readers of the characteristic evangelical he discovered on his journey into the bloated underbelly of American evangelicalism:

“Whether it was a big urban church or a small rural church, a mainstream event with respected headliners or a sideshow circus featuring professional grifters, I kept running into people like Jim Wright” (p. 174). 

Who is Jim Wright? He is just one among a multitude of evangelical-turned-Trump-fanatics that have betrayed the truth of the Gospel for the perpetuation of myth telling in the age of conspiracy and political extremism. Chronicling the evangelical ecosystem that has nurtured folks like Jim Wright into believing that Covid-19 vaccines carry “baby parts,” Alberta illustrates what evangelicalism actually looks like on the other side of total depravity. The once great Billy Graham crusades to save souls have now been replaced by crusades to slay imaginary beasts lurking in the deep state. Zealous alter calls for the beleaguered and downtrodden no longer hold sway over radical calls to “drain the swamp” of an evil cabal of politicians. What Alberta renders is a monstrous-like evangelicalism akin to Nietzsche’s famous dictum: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” 

In Alberta’s telling, evangelicalism has not only fallen into Nietzsche’s abyss, but it’s emerged a monster.

The son of an evangelical pastor, an established journalist, and the author of a critical book about Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the Oval Office, Alberta knows firsthand what it’s like to encounter the monster. After the unexpected passing of his father, Alberta was met with cold stares and angry confrontations at the viewing held in his hometown church of Brighton, Michigan (the very church his father pastored for twenty-six years) – “All while [his] Dad was in a box a hundred feet away” (p. 7). The reason? Rush Limbaugh had recently lampooned Alberta on his talk show for the critical remarks made in his first book regarding Trump. 

Jarring as it was bizarre, the experience precipitated Alberta’s descent into the wild inferno of the politico-evangelical machine that has, in recent years, become an incubation station for the cult of Trump. Sojourning nationwide events at churches, conferences, and rallies, including the fundamentalist empire of Liberty University, Alberta documents the slapdash quackery and slipshod antics of bad faith actors exploiting the eccentric dynamics of contemporary evangelicalism. Starting his account with an investigation of his father’s church–having recently transitioned to a new senior pastor–Alberta maps what might be considered a blueprint model of underlying fault lines that countless churches experienced in the rupture of pandemic church attendance fallout. 

Distress during the pandemic seldom occasioned concern over a contagion that took the lives of manifold people, ushering in, instead, a new wave of paranoia over government power. In an effort to mitigate Covid-19 spread, limitations exercised by state authorities over in-person church services harkened back to a Cold War evangelical pastime: fighting government elites who are out to get you. The tools in this fight, conspiracy and panic, are familiar. “Some in [the] congregation swore that the virus was a hoax cooked up by globalist elites who wanted to control the population,” Alberta tells us, while others demanded that the church staff speak out against Black Lives Matter and the fake election results of Joe Biden. After one staff member was fired for QAnon proselytizing, many longstanding members were fed up, leading a mass exodus out of the church.

But Alberta doesn’t allow his readers to brush this single occurrence off as an oddity unique to Paula White’s holy roller Christianity or to Rushdoony buffoonery: “This belief wasn’t limited to Pentecostals and their so-called charismatic spiritual practices, or to fringe fundamentalists, or to Dominionists, the nascent hardliners who seek to merge church and state under biblical law.” To the contrary, “this was accepted dogma for conservative Christians of every tribe and affiliation” (p. 20).

It’s here that Alberta stakes the major claim of his book that “what these groups shared was a prophetic certainty, promulgated by the evangelical movement for decades, that godless Democrats would one day launch a frontal assault on Christianity in America” (p. 20). However, an uneasy tension sits at the center of Alberta’s analysis. It remains unclear whether or not what Alberta depicts throughout his account represents an evangelicalism that chiefly shares a continuity with the past or a discontinuity activated by the recent turn toward Trumpian allegiance. On the one hand, as just quoted above, Alberta recognizes the current trends as having historical precedence, but, on the other hand, he refers to new impulses within the movement: “Something was happening on the religious right, something more menacing and extreme than anything that preceded it. This was no longer about winning elections and preserving culture. This was about destroying enemies and dominating the country by any means necessary” (p. 258). Alberta never fully untangles this knot, but those who have studied the history of 20th century fundamentalism know that there is ample continuity, for example, between the theology and politics of early fundamentalists such as William Bell Riley and contemporary evangelical preachers such as Greg Locke. 

This aside, Alberta does make clear that what is currently being witnessed isn’t fringe, nor is it a one-off. Rather, it’s the outworking of an evangelical framework that evinces a Manichean vision of a contested cosmos between good and evil, primarily manifested in the cultural and political spheres. What’s so fascinating in Alberta’s telling of these current dynamics is how his subjects transpose spiritual struggle against the “cosmic powers of this present darkness” into the fantasizing of subversion and violence against “flesh and blood.” Again, Jim Wright: “The Bible says we don’t wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the powers of the air. But those powers of the air are becoming more physical, more flesh and blood…We’re seeing it every day” (p. 173). Not only does this counter Paul’s teaching, but it would likely make Frank Peretti blush. 

Nowhere was the evangelical grassroots mania more palpable than the ReAwaken America Tour in Branson, Missouri. Alberta uncovers a plethora of zany “hucksters and spin doctors and straight-up sociopaths,” each, in turn, “preying on the anxious masses of Missouri.” Shopping booths were organized in rows under a wide tent, selling knick-knacks, books, paintings, apparel, and other oddities sold by countless swindlers. “Here, people panicked about Big Pharma’s trickery were toting around boxes of unregulated vitamins” (p. 265). This was “the hottest ticket in the underworld of right-wing evangelicalism” (p. 263). Opening speakers espoused conspiracies that landed somewhere between New Age mysticism and Hal Lindsey’s apocalypticism. The two architects of the Tour, Michael Flynn and Clay Clark, warned “that globalists had weaponized the Covid-19 pandemic to push lockdowns that would give them control of the world population.” Flynn and Clark further whipped up panic by indicating that the “World Economic Forum” sought to conduct a “Great Reset,” which purportedly “would result in a secular, tyrannical one-world government.” Seeing through the enemy’s schemes, the two informed the audience that their mission was to resurrect a “Christian supremacy” in addition to an “American sovereignty” in their restoring of a Christian America (p. 264). 

Alberta balances his account of the populist persuasion and grassroots politicking by also investigating evangelical related institutions and institutional figureheads who refuse to bow out. Equally spoiling for a fight, social media influencers like Charlie Kirk, political activists like Ralph Reed, conservative authors like Eric Metaxas, and pseudo-historians like David Barton, repeatedly exploit the fears and anxieties of an evangelical movement that has, for decades, operated under the assumption that their traditional conservative values are being seized and taken captive. Liberty University, under the leadership of Jerry Falwell Jr., teamed up with Kirk in establishing the “Falkirk Center”–a right-wing think tank–to counter leftist subterfuge. Throughout his presidency, Falwell dissolved the philosophy department, censored student newspapers critical of Trump’s politics, and “turned the school into a satellite location for the Conservative Political Action Conference, disseminating ad hominem insults and deranged conspiracy theories throughout campus” (p. 80). Liberty quickly became a bastion of Trumpian craze.

And in case Alberta’s readers consider Falwell’s charlatanry low hanging fruit, then consider Robert Jeffress, lead Pastor of First Baptist Dallas, once a church home to Billy Graham, and a current influential force in the Southern Baptist Convention. Jeffress’ starstruck admiration for Trump is well documented, but what Alberta exposes is a pastor who has betrayed the Gospel for the golden calf of political power and powerful connections. “Jeffress never allowed one beam of daylight between himself and the forty-fifth president”: 

“It paid off…Attendance at First Baptist Dallas boomed during Trump’s four years. Money poured into the church. Jeffress’ salary jumped. Fox News gave him more and more airtime. His phone book bulged with A-list Republicans. He became a regular at the White House. 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” (p. 108). 

Dissenters of extremist evangelicalism also feature prominently in Alberta’s account. Russell Moore, while president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, traded in his SBC credentials after years of witnessing all kinds of cover-ups from the denomination’s leadership. Moore’s personal story and resignation attests to how deep Alberta’s account of extremist evangelicalism has insinuated itself in the interstices of the SBC. Attorney and sexual abuse survivor, Rachel Denhollander, has proven effective in exposing sexual abuse cover-ups in the SBC and challenging the denomination to implement preventative structures and stronger protocols for sex abuse, despite pushback from extremist evangelicals both in the denomination and beyond. If there is a bright spot in Alberta’s account, it’s the courage and strength of dissenter evangelicals like Moore and Denhollander. 

Inclusion of dissenting voices strengthens Alberta’s overall account, signaling a pocket of resistance from within extremist evangelicalism. Yet, on one level, it can also be misleading insofar as it depicts a dichotomy at play in evangelicalism between radical right-wingers and non-right wingers. But this is far from the case. The dissenters acknowledged in Alberta’s account are nevertheless firmly set within a broader, albeit tamer, political and theological conservative evangelicalism. What’s actually on display in Alberta’s telling is radical evangelical right-wingers versus evangelical right-wingers. Moderate and Progressive evangelicals, increasingly becoming marginal in today’s political and religious climate, remain absent from Alberta’s account. What hope do these voices, in addition to Moore’s and Denhollander’s, offer for the future of evangelicalism?

Yet, one can’t help but feel a deep ambivalence toward the question of whether there is any hope for the movement’s future. In one conversation Alberta shared with Yale theologian, Miroslav Volf, the latter worried that evangelicalism had been so “captured by nationalist ideals” that Christian Nationalism was now “the predominant form of evangelical Christianity.” Even more concerning, when pressed on what ought to be done, Volf exclaimed that he “‘frankly had no idea’ what to do about it” (p. 240). 

This is now the urgent theological task of those who claim the dissenting evangelical moniker. But can these dissenters embody what has been otherwise unintuitive for the movement as a whole while flourishing as evangelicals? Can they decenter their voices, make progress toward racial and gender equality, accompany wayward seekers, reject biblicism, repudiate partisan politics, and eschew economic systems that continually crush the underserved? The negation of these commitments have made the conditions possible for the cross-fertilization between a broader cultural conservatism and the making of extremist American evangelicalism. 

To move in a positive trajectory by integrating these into an ecclesial way of life would go a long way in undermining all that is wrong with the evangelical monster. Time will tell–but I won’t hold my breath.