Author offers close-up look at how American evangelicalism has lost its way
Book review: “The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism” by Tim Alberta, ★★★★★
In one of the many personal anecdotes that make up the heart of Tim Alberta’s The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism, interviewee Brian Zahnd recalls a 2009 conversation that points to the issue that is central the book.
Zahnd was a pastor in St. Joseph, Mo., whose book What To Do on the Worst Day of Your Life had been newly republished by Charisma Media, a Christian book publisher. Charisma had put Zahnd on an intensive promotional interview schedule, sending him to numerous Christian radio and TV shows. But Zahnd and Charisma had reached an impasse over one detail: Zahnd refused to appear on Paula White’s show. At the time, White was one of the best-known prosperity-gospel preachers in the country; she later became better known as a top spiritual adviser to Donald Trump.
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Zahnd tells the story like this:
This turns into a big fight, because I’m refusing to go on her show. So, finally, the president of Charisma Media, the big boss, this guy named Stephen Strang, he calls me up personally and pleads with me to do the show. He tells me how many books it’s going to sell. And I tell him, “Stephen, I don’t care if it sells one million books. You have to understand, Paula White and I do not belong to the same religion.”
In this story, Zahnd becomes a symbol of evangelical Christianity’s tradition of a belief in a Jesus who taught humility and love for all people. Meanwhile, White represents what the most visible part of the evangelical movement in the United States has become — a movement that has become co-opted by Trump and others in the same vein, a movement that seems not to care about traditional Christian virtues.
And the question becomes: Are historic evangelicalism, indeed traditional Christianity itself, and today’s U.S. predominantly white evangelicalism even the same religion?
Alberta, a staff writer for The Atlantic, doesn’t go quite so far as to answer that question directly, but he does note repeatedly the conflicts between Christian nationalism and his own traditional evangelical beliefs (the son of a pastor, he calls the conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church his home denomination). He ties those beliefs to the teachings of Jesus such as those found in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus did the opposite of telling his listeners that they should seek power and glory for themselves.
This is the enduring purpose of the Church: to mold fallen mortals into citizens of a kingdom they have inherited, through the saving power of Jesus Christ, to the everlasting glory of God, so that they might go and make disciples of their own.What I struggled for so long to accept — what I finally was forced to confront during the four years I spent reporting this book — is that not everyone shares this vision for the Church.
During those four years, Alberta interviewed many of the key players in today’s nationalist evangelicalism, such as Robert Jeffress, one of the first evangelical leaders to endorse Trump; pastors who have become either local leaders in the movement or among the critics; and numerous others who have supported, opposed or otherwise been affected by the movement. He also kept a full calendar of attending church services, conferences and religious-political rallies. He also devoted two chapters of the book to the stench found in sexual, financial and managerial bullying scandals at churches and at Liberty University.
Through his captivating journalism, Alberta lets the interviewees tell most of the story about how evangelicalism could become so corrupted. Some of his interview subjects are remarkably candid about their misgivings, while others display how they’ve become so rigid they don’t even see the problem.
Key themes: Fear and the pursuit of power
Two themes surface most often in the interviews. The first is that much of the movement is based on fear. Fear has long been part of the subculture of evangelicalism, but its prominence became far more intense as Trump gained popularity:
Simply put, Trump the elder created a new moral-political framework in which people like [Charlie] Kirk and Eric Metaxas and John Zmirak convince evangelicals to distrust any believer who dares stray from their absolutist ideology. They do so by fomenting fears of a crushing, coordinated assault on Christianity — and by attacking anyone who refuses to adopt a militant posture in response.
The second theme involves the headiness of obtaining fame, money and power. It’s fitting that in the book’s epigraph, Alberta quotes Jesus’ response when Satan tempted him with power: “Get thee behind me, Satan!”
The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory is the most important book to date that has been written about the rise of Christian nationalism and the corresponding fracturing of American evangelicalism. Although in some ways Alberta is writing specifically to evangelicals — in the closing chapters some interviewees offer suggestions for positive change within the evangelical movement — the book is fully accessible to readers unfamiliar with the Christian faith.
The rise in Christian nationalism has given Christianity a bad rap in the United States, and Alberta’s book includes a few stories of those who have been working to make evangelicalism more, well, Christian. So Alberta doesn’t end up seeing the situation of evangelicals as being hopeless — but his book makes clear that plenty of grace and evangelical self-awareness will be needed for evangelicalism to regain what it has lost in recent decades.