Puerto Escondido Some Americans are dumbstruck by the rise of so-called Christian Nationalism in America, though we see a similar phenomenon of religious nationalism in many countries around the world. The efforts by Narendra Modi’s BJP to reengineer India around Hindu nationalism is certainly near the top of the list. The religious strife that dominated Iraqi politics between two schools of Islam, the extremist positions in Israeli settlers, efforts by Russia’s Putin to rebrand that country by taking ideological control of the Russian Orthodox church, many countries in the Middle East from Iran to Saudi Arabia, and the list goes on and on, including Catholicism in some countries historically, though that is not the Church’s position now. This extreme group of evangelists has certainly been a critical part of former President Trump’s base and have become activist Republicans who are kowtowed to by all of the pretenders in the Republican primaries as well. How many parts religion and how many parts politics make up this scary and combustible combination, and how do we understand it? To try to get a better grip on it, I have been finishing the year with a close reading of Tim Alberta’s The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism in order to try to understand what’s going on all around me.
Alberta has an interesting perspective. He’s a stonecold Christian and a preacher’s kid to boot with his own collection of Bible verses. His quest starts as he tries to understand his father’s church and the disillusionment faced by his successor, and then found that there were pastors all over the country struggling with politics, extremism, conspiracies, and fake news that had taken over and sometimes decimated their congregations. He talks at length to the preachers that drank the Kool-Aid and stirred the pot to survive, was well as the ones he likes best who stayed the course and kept their churches and sermons Bible and Christ-centered and took a beating. He paints a picture of American evangelism as in crisis and in an internal struggle for its soul.
There’s a whole thing about Christians being the “salt and light,” which was new to me, but was a through line in the book, because it determined whether the theology placed the Christian project as essentially heavenly or earthly. Alberta’s argument is that these extreme political efforts to remake the body politic with a Christian imprint are just dead wrong and antithetical to the Bible and its teaching. Fellowship, humility, and charity largely disappear as too many evangelists have gone on wartime footing with everyone outside their tribe a sworn enemy.
His book tries to raise up men and women who are trying to bring their churches and evangelism back to the old-time religion. His takedowns of Roy Reed, Rev. Falwell, Liberty College, the revolutionists within the Southern Baptist Convention, and a handful of hucksters and Elmer Gantry-types leaves no doubt about where he stands. For a non-churchgoer looking through the window at the conflict and crisis within this part of the American church, this is an education in a completely different culture than what many of us remembered from our youth, like visiting a foreign country.
Conflating church and state has been part of the Republican project long before Trump weaponized the whole shebang. The bunker mentality of these same preachers and congregants who ignore their overall membership plummeting and support from the public disappearing in this radicalization, he drops with a thud at their doorway. Whether this is really a last stand, as he hopes, or a winning hand, as many fear in their nightmares, is a harder call. Nonetheless, it explains a lot about this hardcore segment of the Republican base and how it is nurtured in churches, inflamed by social media, and exploited by politicians.
I learned a lot from the book. I kind of know which team to root for now, I guess, but most of us are at best bystanders, powerless and unable to affect the outcome. It’s also feels uncomfortable when the so-called “good guys” are still, in the main, anti-choice, pro-gun, anti-poor, and conservative Republicans to the core. There’s no indication that most Americans want to join their team, even if they come out ahead in this internecine fight within the church and evangelism. The only comfort might be that isolating the extremists and elevating the moderates might make it easy for the rest of us to live most of the time in peace with our neighbors and countrymen and hope that things might get better in the future. That’s not much, but I guess it’s something. At the bottom line, until we get religion completely out of politics, it’s still a rough road ahead.