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books Trump and His Evangelical Believers

Tim Alberta is a fine guide to the world of conservative US Christians, their dispiriting march to the right, and its ugly cost.

The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism
Tim Alberta
ISBN: 9780063226883

With The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism, Tim Alberta of the Atlantic, author of a previous blockbuster on Republican politics and, this year, the profile that helped bring down Chris Licht at CNN, delivers another essential read. It is substantive, news-filled and personal.

“I have endeavored to honor God with this book,” he writes. The son of an evangelical Presbyterian minister who came to religion from finance, Alberta lays bare his hurt over how the cross has grown ever more synonymous with those who most fervently wave the Stars and Stripes, on the right of the political spectrum.

“All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.” Isaiah’s teaching stands nearly forgotten.

In his prologue, Alberta takes us back to summer 2019, and his father’s funeral. The Rev Richard Alberta died suddenly, of a heart attack. Regardless, a church elder delivered to Alberta a one-page screed expressing his disapproval of the author for not embracing Donald Trump as God’s anointed. Yes, the same guy who made “Two Corinthians” a punchline. Time, place and decorum were discarded. Alberta’s sins demanded rebuke.

“I was part of an evil plot, the man wrote, to undermine God’s ordained leader of the United States. My criticisms of President Trump were tantamount to treason – against both God and country – and I should be ashamed of myself.”

Alberta passed the letter to his wife.

“What the hell is wrong with these people?” she cried.

As many congregants would see it, probably nothing. The unidentified elder simply repeated sentiments that had taken root in evangelical America since Trump’s election in 2016. The letter embodied a shift that was decades in the making. Demographics were in flux. Barack Obama had occupied the White House. The spirit of Protestant dissent, which once fueled rebellion against the crown, had given way to declaring Trump a divine emissary, a modern-day Cyrus. Or Caesar.

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Funny how Obama never held such a place of honor. Then again, he was Black and liberal and his personal beliefs could be discounted. American evangelism had evolved into caffeinated American nationalism, white identity close to the surface.

Franklin Graham, the late Billy Graham’s son, threatened Americans with God’s wrath if they had the temerity to criticize Trump. “The Bible says it is appointed unto man once to die and then the judgment,” he said, on Facebook.

Another famous scion, the now disgraced Jerry Falwell Jr, admonished his flock to stop electing “nice guys”. Instead, he tweeted, “the US needs street fighters like Donald Trump at every level of government”. Resentment and grievance supplanted the message of scripture and “What would Jesus do?”

Alberta remembers a preacher in Colorado who conflated a Republican midterms victory with the triumph of Christ. “May this state be turned red with the blood of Jesus, and politically,” Steve Holt prayed, at a revival in spring last year.

“Lauren Boebert looked right at home,” Alberta recalls, of the far-right controversialist and congresswoman from the same great state. “Boebert wasn’t bothered by this pastor praying for Jesus’s blood – His precious, sacrificial blood, shed for the salvation of sinners – to win an election, because, well, she wasn’t bothered by much after all.”

Months later, Boebert won re-election in a squeaker. Her recent behaviour at a performance of the musical Beetlejuice in Denver – singing, dancing, vaping, groping – simply confirmed what everyone had thought since she arrived on the national scene. She is profoundly unsuitable for power.

Alberta grapples with the decline in evangelical affiliation and the growth of evangelical unpopularity. He is mindful of religion’s lack of purchase among younger Americans. Scandal, and the embrace of conservatism and Trump, has extracted a heavy price. “Religious nones” grow stronger at the polls. In 2020, more than one in five voters identified that way. White evangelicals made up 28%.

Alberta also delivers a deep dive into events at Liberty University, the Virginia machine built by Jerry Falwell Sr and Jr.

“Jerry Jr told me … the school was building a new $35m facility,” Alberta writes. “There would even be a hologram of Falwell Sr preaching.”

So much for the biblical injunction against worship of idols and images.

“I actually own my father’s name and it happens to be my name too,” Falwell Jr is quoted as saying. By that logic, the sordid circumstances surrounding Falwell Jr’s marriage would be stains on his father’s legacy. “I like to watch”? It doesn’t scream piety or faith.

Donald Trump talks with Jerry Falwell Jr in Davenport, Iowa, in 2016. Photograph: Paul Sancya/AP

These days, Falwell Jr litigates against the school his father built. Fallen from grace, he wants back in. Among his gripes is that present management is “choosing piety over competence”, Alberta quotes him as saying. “It’s exactly what my dad didn’t want to see happen.”

Alberta also captures Trump’s true feelings for the evangelical community, or at least those who sided with Ted Cruz in the 2016 primary. “So-called Christians.” “Real pieces of shit.” Seven years on, it does not seem much has changed.

According to recent reports, Trump has privately derided anti-abortion leaders as lacking “leverage” to force his hand while tweaking them for having nowhere else to go after the supreme court struck down Roe v Wade. He has reportedly mocked as “disloyal” and “out of touch” those evangelicals who cast their lot with Ron DeSantis. In Iowa, Trump holds a 30-point lead. DeSantis falls, Nikki Haley nipping at his (lifted?) heels. As November 2024 draws closer, a Trump sell-out of his evangelical supporters looms large.

Alberta closes his book with a verse from II Corinthians, the Epistle of Paul Trump couldn’t get right: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

Lloyd Green is an attorney in New York and served in the US Department of Justice from 1990 to 1992