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Blind Faith

Blind Faith

Tim Alberta's timely new book warns that American evangelicals might be losing sight of the "unseen kingdom" in their effort to tie Republican politics to faith.

Nicholas Misukanis
The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism
by Tim Alberta (Harper, 506 pp., $31.50)

Tim Alberta’s latest book, The Kingdom, The Power, and The Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremismargues that contemporary American evangelicals have shifted their focus to the political and visible world around them, and that they risk both losing sight of the unseen eternal kingdom and alienating future generations of potential Christians if they continue in this vein. Alberta’s work tells a personal story of understanding the development of his own faith. It also tells the story of how, after the election of President Jimmy Carter in 1976, evangelicals were slowly mobilized into the most reliable voting base for Republicans, eventually proving to be a key factor in Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential election.

Since Trump’s electoral upset, emboldened pastors and leaders previously on the fringe of Republican and Christian spectrums have successfully pressured moderate members of the church to resign or cease their critiques. Now, according to Alberta, far-right theology has become gradually mainstream. In his well-written analysis, Alberta contends that there is a need for Christianity in American society, but that because of their emphasis on political activism and identity, evangelicals have arrived at a crucial crossroads. The term “evangelical” risks becoming synonymous with Republican today. This is potentially driving away Christians eager to put Jesus and his teachings before politics.

Alberta begins The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory by asking how and why evangelicals arrived at this crossroads. In the aftermath of Jimmy Carter’s election to the presidency, Republicans were eager to galvanize their voter base and so revaluated strategies to attract new voters after Richard Nixon’s Watergate debacle. The man with the answer, according to Alberta, was Jerry Falwell Sr., and the new voting base was American evangelicals. As a successful businessman and televangelist, Falwell linked American patriotism with evangelicalism. He marketed the idea to voters that the United States was anointed by God, and that evangelical voters had an obligation to get politically active. Falwell’s vision of joining these two ideologies together emerged with the creation of Lynchburg Baptist College. Lynchburg Baptist College was promptly renamed Liberty Baptist College. Today, it is known as Liberty University. Falwell’s efforts also proved successful in politics: He founded the Moral Majority political organization in 1979 and mobilized evangelicals in droves for Republican candidate Ronald Reagan’s 1980 electoral win over President Carter. Falwell and other prominent evangelicals became determined to cement this new political alliance between the Republican Party and evangelical voters.

Over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, evangelical voters saw their influence grow in determining the Republican Party’s policies, with actions like impeaching President Bill Clinton and issues like abortion becoming centerpiece Republican talking points. But for Alberta, this marriage between political party and theology was developing into a problem that would explode into a full-blown crisis of faith for Republican voters with the 2008 presidential election of Barack Obama. If Republican politicians claimed to be advancing Christian agendas, and that their election was representative of God’s will for the direction of the country, what were evangelicals to do when their candidates lost? Alberta demonstrates that one way forward after 2008 was a doubling down on their political alliance.

Conservative media, pastors, and politicians intertwined their messaging, arguing that Christians and their way of life were now “under siege” from their political opponents. It was this emphasis of fear and of Christian life slipping away, laced with apocalyptic undertones from political figures and media outlets, that drove evangelicals to the most unlikely of candidates in 2016, Donald Trump. Trump’s stunning victory only affirmed the fringe voices who had championed both him and also extreme ideas about the necessity to enforce a Christian agenda for the nation. Furthermore, political and religious actors, such as Charlie Kirk and Eric Metaxas, linked evangelizing and Christian calls for action with political voting and campaigning for Republican politicians. Thus, by 2020, evangelical identity in the United States had become so intertwined with the Republican voter that for many American evangelicals, to be Christian one had to vote Republican. For Alberta and many other evangelical leaders, this new political and religious identity was a far mutation from Jesus’ original teachings about separating one’s identity from politics. It also risked alienating millennials and newer generations of prospective Christians.

Not all Evangelicals were happy with these developments. Alberta dedicates the latter half of his book to understanding another major response to the crisis of faith that has developed in the aftermath of the politicization of evangelicals: depoliticization. One group, The After Party—currently led by Russell Moore, David French, and Curtis Chang—is eagerly trying to lead seminars for new pastors to refocus on the basics of the Gospels and to decouple God’s blessings from American electoral narratives. In interviewing these pastors and their followers, Alberta recounts how many younger Christians express their frustration with simply being seen and used as political pawns of the Republican Party, and of their desire to break away from an “us vs. them” mentality to evangelize their faith. Alberta also examines the reform efforts of Rachel Denhollander and similar evangelical women to bring light and justice to the rampant sexual abuse crises within American evangelical churches. These figures show that there is a small but enthusiastic wave of reformers eager to usher in a new generation of evangelical leaders, who emphasize their belief in conservative principles but also their desire to move the evangelical voters away from being subservient to any political party.

Alberta’s book is a timely and well-researched analysis of how American evangelicals have found themselves amid an identity crisis. At times, however, it can be difficult to keep track of all the political, religious, and cultural figures whom Alberta interviews to tell this story. Similarly, “evangelical” encompasses so many different groups within American Christianity, but Alberta’s section about reform efforts focuses mainly on the Southern Baptist Convention. As a reader, it would have been useful to see an analysis of another large sect and its discussion of reform. Furthermore, it would have been interesting to see if there are any larger cross-denominational conversations taking place: Is Pope Francis’ recent decision to dismiss Bishop Joseph Strickland in answer to a growing right-wing politicization that American Catholics are also experiencing, for instance? Nevertheless, this does not detract from the important questions that Alberta is raising in order to create a conversation with evangelicals, about what political allegiances, if any, they should have in their efforts to live out the teachings of the Gospels.

The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory comes at an important moment as Americans brace for what will be without a doubt a tense leadup to the 2024 election. Alberta concludes that the problem facing Christianity in America for many people both within and without Christianity in the United States, is that the term “’evangelical’ has become an impediment to evangelizing. The people to whom we are witnessing… are completely repelled by that word. They sense it has nothing to do with the teachings of Christ and everything to do with social and political power,” (Alberta’s words). 

Alberta’s work and personal reflections throughout the book combine for an insightful history of American evangelicalism. He pleads for a return to focusing on the unseen kingdom and efforts Jesus praised, rather than punishing those outside the faith or the party and the politics of the moment. Most importantly, Alberta reminds the reader that Jesus rejected and rebuked Satan when he was offered all the kingdoms of the world; that Jesus also calls his followers to do the same.

Nicholas Misukanis is a Ph.D. Candidate in the history of twentieth century politics and foreign policy at the University of Maryland – College Park. 

Image: A man holds Christian evangelical tracts. (Unsplash: Nico Smit)

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