How politics corroded the American Evangelical movement
Tim Alberta is one of America’s top political reporters. He’s also the son of an evangelical preacher.
“My entire life was inside the church. It was my home. It was my community,” Alberta said on Fresh Air.
“Even as I grew older and became more aware of some of the ugliness that seemed antithetical to the Christ that I followed and that I read about in Scripture – I sort of always stayed quiet about it.”
But that all changed when his father died.
Today, On Point: Tim Alberta on the politics that he says have cheapened his faith.
Tim Alberta, staff writer at The Atlantic. Author of “The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism.”
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Tim Alberta is one of the country’s best political reporters. He’s currently a staff writer at The Atlantic, and former chief political reporter at POLITICO. Though his expertise teases stories from Washington D.C.’s most powerful politicians, Alberta has his roots in Michigan. He is the son of an evangelical pastor. And it was his experience in the Evangelical Church that powerfully shaped him and has given him unique insights into how politics have shaped, or even mutated, as Alberta might say, the American Evangelical Church. His new book is about just that. It’s called “The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism.” Tim Alberta, welcome back to On Point.
TIM ALBERTA: Meghna, thank you so much for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: I was wondering if you would start by telling us a little bit more about your growing up. Your father, as I mentioned, was the founder and senior pastor of the church you grew up in, the Cornerstone Church in Brighton, Michigan.
What were the ways in which … the church was infused into your life, Tim?
ALBERTA: Yeah, I like to joke that I was raised in the church, physically, literally raised in the church. So my mother was also on the staff there. She was the director of the women’s ministry, and I was the youngest of my siblings, and my entire life, I’m talking from the time I was five years old, until the time I moved away for college, it was playing hide and seek in the church rec areas. It was doing my homework there after school. It was bringing dates there during junior high and high school. I even worked as a janitor at the church for a year while I was attending community college after high school.
CHAKRABARTI: Literally carved your name into the church.
ALBERTA: I did, yeah, I still get grief about this, but yeah, when I was like, I think I was like nine years old. Yeah, I took a pocketknife and I carved my initials into the brickwork of the narthex right outside the sanctuary and it’s still there to this day.
CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Your childhood physically growing up in the church tells us a little something about spiritually, what your childhood and boyhood was like. What was your experience of the Christianity preached by your father, your personal experience of Jesus, like?
ALBERTA: It’s interesting. I think probably other pastors’ kids listening, they will certainly get this.
But even people who grew up really inside the church as I did, will relate to what I’m saying here when I just observe that in a way, I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know Jesus. I don’t remember a time when I would not have called myself a Christian. And in some ways I almost regret that. My wife came to Christ later in life and she’s always been jealous of me for having grown up steeped in this.
And I’m always jealous of her for having come to it truly on her own later in life. But I was baptized when I was just a little boy, and I did go through a period later in life, particularly late high school years and then into my college years, where I didn’t begin to doubt, necessarily.
Because I’ve always felt this intimacy with God. And I’ve never wavered in my belief, but I needed like the intellectual backing. So I went through a stretch of some years where I just tore through books and and lectures. And I would just try to interrogate my own beliefs.
And I’m glad I did, because I came out on the other side, a much stronger believer than I was going in. But all the while I was simultaneously growing disillusioned with the institution of the church in America, even as my personal faith was growing stronger.
CHAKRABARTI: It’s so fascinating to hear that you had this need, this urge, for sort of the intellectual backing of Christianity.
I imagine a lot of that need comes from your father and the fact that he seemed to have taken, for a lot of his career, that same intellectual approach. Early on in the book, you write about how, I think, if I remember correctly, your father began almost every one of his Sunday sermons with the famous prayer of, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”
At the end of that is the very famous line of, “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.” And you titled your book that, what was it? What is it about that last line that you say, it’s captivated you since childhood.
ALBERTA: Yeah. It’s haunting in a lot of ways, and it always has been for me. Because you think about just statements that sort of make you stop in your tracks and consider the implications. And to say that when you are praising God in that moment and saying that thine, yours, yours is the kingdom. Yours is the power. Yours is the glory. That is a, it is a singular possessive. In other words, there can be nothing else to compete. There can be no other kingdom. There can be no other power. There can be no other glory. It is yours and it is yours alone.
And that’s such an awesome claim, but also obviously such a controversial claim. And I can remember thinking, first as a kid and then as a young man, “Wow, either that’s true and it’s the most fantastic, beautiful news in the history of the world, or it’s not true and it’s the greatest lie ever told,” but it really can’t be anything in between.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s interesting. Okay. I wanted to spend a couple of minutes, Tim, if you didn’t mind, getting a deeper understanding of your relationship with your own faith, because not very many, maybe none, as far as I can remember, of America’s top political reporters have spoken so openly about their personal beliefs. But of course, you’re publishing this book at a time where the fact that you grew up in an evangelical church gives you a unique insight into what’s been happening with American evangelicalism overall.
So I appreciate what you’ve been willing to reveal to us here. I want to, If I could, just play a little bit of a clip from your father at the pulpit, Pastor Richard Alberta. This happens to be during the last Sunday sermon he gave before dying. So this is Pastor Alberta from June 23rd, 2019.
RICHARD ALBERTA: A couple of months ago, I got a note form a little boy named Chase. I think he must be about 7 or 8. And I just brought this one – I have hundreds of them at home, but I want to share this one. It says: Dear Pastor Alberta, thanks for being our old pastor. (LAUGHTER) … Our old pastor for our church at Cornerstone, and thanks for being a great friend. Stay with Christ. So I think I’m gonna do that. Appreciate that note from Chase so much.
CHAKRABARTI: A truly warm moment from your father’s last Sunday sermon. He was the leader of the Cornerstone Church for, until recently, until he passed away, its entire existence. But he himself came into Christianity as an adult, right?
ALBERTA: That’s right. And it’s a story that’s pretty unlikely. My dad had been an atheist. He grew up in a broken, unbelieving home. He saw no use for religion in his life. And he had a very successful career out of college. He went into finance and he wound up climbing his way up with a big banking company in New York.
And my mother, at the same time, was working for ABC Radio in Manhattan. And so the two of them were strivers, and they were quite successful, and they had a big house and a Cadillac, and then they gave birth to my oldest brother, Christopher, and everything seemed great from the outside looking in, and yet, my dad felt this, just almost this despair, this rumbling emptiness.
And he would say, looking back on it, that it wasn’t depression, it’s not, he didn’t, he wasn’t, I guess the best way he would describe it was just to say that there was something so obviously missing, which made no sense at all. Because he had this beautiful wife and this beautiful firstborn son and this big house and this great job paying him a lot of money, and what could possibly be missing?
And so this atheist, at about 30 years old, set off on this search to find what was missing. And that search led him into this little church in the Hudson Valley called Goodwill. And my dad went in there one Sunday and listened to the gospel for the first time. And right then and there, he gave his life to Jesus, and it just utterly transformed who he was.
People who knew him, his brothers and my mom, who was not yet a Christian, and his friends, everybody who knew him, said that he became like an alien to them. That he was waking up at four in the morning and spending hours silently meditating and reading scripture, and they just didn’t know what to make of this guy.
And then something even more dramatic happened not long after that. He felt the Lord calling him to the ministry, to go to seminary, and to preach the Word of God, and this is really when people thought he’d lost his mind. Basically, and I’m not exaggerating this, basically his entire family cut him off.
They basically stopped talking to him. They thought that he was a loon, and my mom had become a Christian by this point. She thought he was a bit of a loon too, but the next thing you know, they were selling all of their possessions and going to seminary. And for the next couple of decades, they basically just lived off of food stamps and worked in small churches around the country. And had traded this very glamorous life for something that was decidedly unglamorous, but that was what they felt the Lord leading them to do.
CHAKRABARTI: And so when Cornerstone was first founded, you said there were like a couple of hundred congregants, but by the time your father passed away, there were several thousand, right?
ALBERTA: That’s right. The church had grown tremendously.
When we arrived, when I was a little boy, yeah, it was a very small, pretty modest church. And some of this owed to just where we were, my hometown is at the intersection of two highways outside of Detroit. And obviously there was some people moving in, but also my dad was just outstanding in the pulpit and he drew some pretty big crowds.
CHAKRABARTI: Tim, there’s just something I need to get out of my system, if you don’t mind. Listening to you speak so beautifully about your father really grips my heart. Because my father passed away last year and the overwhelming need and urge to look back and examine the great heights and the valleys of these towering figures in our lives is very powerful.
And I deeply appreciate how you use your father’s life as an example for us all in terms of understanding the country better. I’m gonna screw my journalist head back on here.
ALBERTA: Oh, man, but thank you for sharing. I’m so sorry to hear that.
CHAKRABARTI: It’s okay. Life has its cycles. But again, it’s just, it’s a very rare thing, I think, for especially someone like you, who reports in Washington to say no, I’m going to step back and use this portion of my life, which I don’t talk about in The Atlantic or in POLITICO very much, especially because all of us as Americans, regardless of our faith or not faith, really need to understand the Evangelical Church and Trump, which is ultimately what your book is about.
It’s reaching me intellectually and emotionally, Tim, that’s all I wanted to say. (LAUGHS) Now, your father, one of the most captivating things about him as a figure in your life, and in the Cornerstone Church, is that you tell us that he begins his life as a Christian being, you said earlier, like a very intellectually grounded examiner and believer in the Bible.
But then, in your own words, he becomes an apologist for Donald Trump, who, as you write, is the least Christian, the least evangelical of any possible president we’ve ever had. Can you take a minute to describe that change in your father?
ALBERTA: Yeah, so I think that there’s a long arc of the story, but the short version of it is that for most of my life my dad, we didn’t talk about politics at home.
It wasn’t something that our family was really engaged with. It was just, it wasn’t, it really wasn’t like a dinner table topic of conversation. I would say that the one thing that we did talk about in the context of politics was always character. It was integrity. It was morality. The idea that if you are going to be in a position of leadership of any kind but especially political leadership, then character is a prerequisite for that.
And one of the formative moments for me as a kid was living through the Clinton impeachment and I can just remember how upset my parents were at this idea that the president of the United States, who should be a role model for the nation’s youth, was carrying on this extramarital affair and was lying about it and just showed such a grotesque lack of character.
And in fact, I can remember my parents holding a little viewing party in our living room with some friends from church when George W. Bush was inaugurated in January of 2001, not because they really liked George Bush that much. It was because they were celebrating the return of character to the Oval Office.
That was the environment that I was raised in. I think what happened over the next, 15, 20 years with my father, with my home church, is really representative of what’s happened with the evangelical movement more broadly. Which is to say that, as the walls began to close in, as they saw it, in other words, as the culture wars were lost, as the country became more and more secular, less Christian, the country was, the ground was moving beneath the feet of the church.
And the culture was becoming something unrecognizable. And I think that sort of shifted the goalposts for a lot of Christians, whereas once they demanded this level of moral rectitude, moral fiber from their leaders. Suddenly, they were beginning to panic over the future of the country, over the loss of sort of Judeo Christian values in society.
And they began to look about to say who can save us from this? Who can protect us from this? Now I should make clear Meghna, that Donald Trump was the last of the 17 Republican candidates in 2016 whom my dad wanted to see elected, and that was pretty well borne out in a lot of the polling.
It’s easy to forget now. But back in 2016, white evangelicals were Trump’s softest supporters. It really wasn’t until the general election against Hillary Clinton when many of them began to rally around him. And that was effectively a transactional relationship. He gave them policies that they wanted and they gave him their votes.
But that transactional relationship then began to morph into something else entirely.
CHAKRABARTI: Right. But hadn’t that that morphing begun even decades earlier, because there’s something also that you write in the book about things that you sensed as a boy in your father’s church, because this was a time where already, or actually, not just already, but for several, for many years, conservative Christians weren’t just voting their beliefs.
But it’s that politics had already come into the church, right? Because we had the relationship between socially conservative Christians, like the moral majority, focus on the family, those groups, having made a pact with fiscal conservatives.
Essentially, that was what a lot of the early 1980s was all about. And you saw that in your church, right?
ALBERTA: Yeah, no question. And I think what maybe I’m trying to describe with some texture here is the degree to which, you know, politics being in the church, became politics permeating the church and then ultimately became almost politics taking over the church, if that makes sense.
So there was this progression, right? And no two congregations are the same. No two pastors are the same. But at least as far as I saw it, that kind of mission creep, and let me spell this out even more plainly. So the only issue for most of my life that I’d ever heard, the only political issue that I’d ever really heard my dad get into from the pulpit was abortion. There may have been some other things here and there, but that was the prevailing political sentiment. When my dad would, who was a staunch pro life advocate.
And I came to view abortion as almost like a gateway drug for a lot of evangelicals, which is to say that because they didn’t view abortion as a political issue. They viewed it as an ethical issue, as a moral issue, as a spiritual issue. Therefore, they felt that there was no problem mobilizing their congregations around abortion when it came to voting. The problem, of course, is that when you become so deeply invested in an issue like that and you attach serious, existential, eternal stakes to an issue like that.
Then it becomes the red team that is on your side, they’re the allies. And the blue team that’s on the other side, they’re the enemies. And suddenly that starts to become like a proxy war. Partisan politics, everyday partisan disputes become this proxy for good versus evil. And that was the sort of thing I began to sense more and more creeping into the church.
CHAKRABARTI: By the time your father passed away, which was 2021.
CHAKRABARTI: 2019, sorry.
ALBERTA: No, that’s okay.
CHAKRABARTI: I was thinking, I don’t even know why I was thinking about 2021. 2019. Thank you for the correction, Tim. The politics being infused into not only many churches around the country, but into the congregation of your father’s church was so evident, right?
Because you write in the book about how, people, during your father’s funeral or a little bit after, came up to you and some gave you comfort and care, but others were talking to you about how you had betrayed the church because of some of your reporting. Now, what I’d like to hear actually more is what happened just after that, because you tell quite an incredible story of a letter that was given to you that day, but you received it the next day, and it was from an elder in the church.
Can you tell us about that?
ALBERTA: That’s right, yeah, just the day of my dad’s funeral, after I’d given the eulogy, and in fact, in the eulogy, I made a point of pausing and reflecting on all of these folks who, the day before, at the wake, were confronting me about politics, wanting to argue about politics.
And I just paused in my eulogy and said, really, is this who we are as a church? What are we doing here? And issued a rebuke. And I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t have done that. I don’t know. I’ve gone back and forth, but in any event, after I did that, and after we went to the cemetery and we buried my father.
We were back home at my parents house, and a nice church lady who was preparing a meal for us, she came over and handed me a note that had been left at the church. And that note was written by a longtime elder in the church, someone who was a friend of my father’s, someone who’d known me since I was a little boy, and basically the note accused me of basically of being a traitor.
That I was part of the deep state, that I was undermining God’s ordained leader of this country, Donald Trump, and he told me that there was still hope, that if I would use my journalism talents that God gave me to do a 180 and to investigate the deep state and to exonerate Donald Trump, that I would be forgiven and yeah, it was a pretty, it was a pretty good idea.
A pretty devastating moment, but also a pretty eye opening moment because, boy if that’s the way that you are willing to treat, not just a grieving son, but a grieving son who you know so well, and boy, then how are you treating the outside world?
CHAKRABARTI: That must have been extremely difficult, right?
Because as you said, these are people who you grew up with as a son of a pastor and whose message they had heard from your father, just as you did, for so many years. Take this now to the national stage. I know a couple of years ago you talked about how you were a little sheepish about answering in an interview whether or not there’s a divide or a crisis within the evangelical movement.
How would you answer that now? Is there?
ALBERTA: Yeah. There’s more than a divide. There’s really a war happening within the evangelical church in America. And I think I was so reticent for so long to acknowledge that or to speak to it or even just to observe some of the really self evident hypocrisies and deficiencies of the church, and I feel ashamed in many ways looking back, but I think it’s really hard for anyone who’s a part of a community, a part of a tribe, to step out and to air the dirty laundry and to wag a finger in its direction.
Look, if I’m being totally honest, I don’t think I could have written this book while my dad was alive. I think it would just have been too painful and it would have caused strain in our relationship and so in some ways it took that ordeal at his funeral for me to really feel this nudging to say, “Okay what are we doing here?
And can I play a role in maybe reclaiming this?” Listen, I just, I can’t emphasize enough that when we talk about evangelicals, when we talk about white evangelicals, we’re talking about tens of millions of people in this country, right? And there is absolutely an extremism that has infiltrated some chunk of that population.
But there are also huge numbers of these people, I would argue, still a majority of these people, who are horrified by what they’ve seen inside the church. And they, too, are looking for some way to reclaim it. But it’s really hard to find your voice in this moment when that extremist faction has gotten so loud and so organized and so influential.
And so yes, there is this deep schism now inside of the church, and that’s what I’ve tried to explore in the book.
CHAKRABARTI: So just tell me a little bit more about, the whole book is about that schism, so you can’t tell me just a little bit more, but in hearing this, we are focusing exclusively on the schism or the emerging schism within the evangelical movement in the United States.
But for that minority of extremists, as you see them, as a minority, I wonder if other analysts would say the same, but anyway, for that minority to have become as powerful and influential as it is, they need to have become influential with people outside of evangelicalism, right?
So I’m talking about does not the Republican Party as a whole play a role in exacerbating the divides within the evangelical church in this country?
ALBERTA: Oh, sure. And look, you very much can and should view the crack up of the American Evangelical Church in parallel to the crack up of the Republican Party.
What we’ve seen in a lot of ways is almost a carbon copy in terms of this sort of emboldened, extremist fringe, encroaching upon the mainstream. And then steadily almost becoming the mainstream. Because of what I just described a minute ago, that if you think about Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican party, which I had spent my entire first book trying to document, it happened in part because so many normal, reasonable, mainstream Republicans just shrugged and said this is nothing to worry about. It’ll take care of itself.
We just need to go about our business here. They didn’t take it seriously, and they didn’t take it seriously until it was too late. And then once Trump had really put the party in a headlock, they went along with it. Because they didn’t want to ruffle feathers.
They didn’t want to alienate their friends and allies. They didn’t want to lose their tribal membership. And that exact same thing is happening in the church. I can tell you, honestly, like I don’t have a Bible here, but if I did, I’d put my hand on it. So in my inbox right now, my email inbox from my personal website, that I keep open, that I keep my address listed, so people can reach out to me.
I probably have 500 emails in the last week since I started doing this media tour. And I would say probably four fifths of those emails are from people who have basically said the exact same thing, which is that, “Thank you for saying this. I have been in the exact same position in my church, but I’ve been terrified to say anything.
I’ve been terrified to speak out. I’ve been terrified to confront the craziness around me, because I’m just feeling paralyzed. I don’t know what to do.” And that message is exactly what you heard from Republicans during the sort of Trumpist takeover of the party. So there has to be a certain level of courage and accountability inside the tent here and my great regret is that I found my own voice here far too late.
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