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Are All Evangelicals Extremists?

A few hours after he laid his dad to rest in 2019, Tim Alberta recounts, a family friend and elder at his father’s church wrote him a handwritten letter accusing him of treason. He was allegedly part of an evil plot to undermine God’s ordained leader. The explicit suggestion of the letter was that he could restore himself by using his journalistic talents to expose “the deep state.” It wasn’t just the timing of the letter that felt inappropriate but the certainty and strength of the position.

The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism is a New York Times bestseller, national conversation starter, and journalistic exposé. But it’s more. Alberta is a Christian and a pastor’s son, so his personal connection injects intimacy into his exploration of faith—a faith that’s often at odds with the teachings of Christ. Through vivid portraits of believers, Alberta paints a picture of a faith tarnished by fear, a promise distorted by partisan subterfuge, and a reputation marred by scandal.

Part memoir and part cautionary tale, Alberta’s book brims with righteous anger and dissatisfaction. He depicts an American church seeking to embrace right-leaning politics and Jesus in equal measure. It’s meant to be a warning against political idolatry at a time when the political temperature only seems to be getting hotter. However, the book is imprecisely argued and fails to offer a positive solution beyond Christians retreating from cultural engagement.

Problematic Definition

Alberta, a staff writer for The Atlantic and author of the bestseller American Carnage, hinges his book on one question: Who are evangelicals? He defines them as essentially synonymous with politically conservative Christians, a group he critiques yet with whom he shares some theological views. According to Alberta, “‘Evangelical’ became shorthand for ‘conservative Christian’ during the Moral Majority era.” Eventually, it became synonymous with “white conservative Republican” (11). While this politicized meaning prevails culturally, it seems reductive and doesn’t reflect the doctrinal distinctiveness of evangelicals.

Alberta states, “I’m no theologian” (3). His lack of theological awareness shows up as he engages in a debate that requires some understanding of his own presuppositions and those of whom he’s examining. He’s clear throughout the book about his favored group, which he generally paints positively, but it doesn’t seem like he’s done the work to fully understand those he critiques. For example, Alberta makes broad statements like this: “From a purely organizational standpoint, Christianity is in disarray” (439). Such sweeping claims would be difficult to defend and they tend to undermine his substantive critiques.

Evaluating evangelicalism requires grappling with its diversity of views. Alberta is rightly disturbed by the syncretism of a politician telling his followers to “put on the full armor of God and take a stand against the left’s schemes” (257) or a pastor praying for his “state be turned red with the blood of Jesus, and politically” (252), but many churchgoing evangelicals don’t fit neatly into his right-leaning, obsessively political box.

Evaluating evangelicalism requires grappling with its diversity of views.

While Alberta spotlights vocal conservatives, studies suggest the overall level of political engagement may be just as high, if not higher, among left-leaning evangelicals. Alberta’s focus on politically engaged subgroups risks committing the fallacy of composition, attributing the actions and beliefs of a few to the entire evangelical population. Additionally, he fails to distinguish the way nonchurchgoing people who claim to be evangelical distort the discussion. Alberta isn’t alone in his generalizations, but it’s discouraging when that error comes from a self-identified insider who claims to want to make things better.

Unfriendly Fire

At times, Alberta is unmerciful with his subjects. This isn’t surprising given his raw experience with his father’s right-leaning church. However, this leads him to create caricatures and impugn motives. People who lean in Alberta’s direction are “learned and well-read,” while those who disagree offer “adolescent commentaries” (321). The pastor whose preaching he likes is presented with sage-like veneration. The casual repetition of pejorative descriptions undermines Alberta’s points, even when his criticisms are valid.

Alberta doesn’t fairly evaluate doctrines with which he disagrees. For example, he asserts that the biblical case for restricting women from the pastorate is “thin and unconvincing” (386). He fails to genuinely engage with Scripture or historical theology. Somehow, for thousands of years, the majority of Christians have been convinced and found biblical support for this position, but many readers wouldn’t know based on this telling.

In the end, Alberta’s book doesn’t stand or fall solely on the issues he’s raised or the arguments he makes. The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory will also be judged by the way it makes its arguments. Though Alberta doesn’t make this point, he illustrates the fact that what we say and how we say it are both vitally important.

Spiritualized Politics

In multiple cases, Alberta sets up false dichotomies that highlight his preferred positions. He writes, “The crisis of American evangelicalism comes down to an obsession with [a] worldly identity. . . . Instead of fleeing the temptation to rule all the world, like Jesus did, we have made deals with the devil” (13). Undoubtedly, political engagement can become a form of idolatry. Yet Alberta seems to assume a particular political theology—one with an anabaptistic flavor—and conclude the only real alternative is idolatry.

Ultimately, the only remedy for idolatry of any sort is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only grace can melt hardened hearts and establish Christ-centered priorities in lives and communities. Political views are complex, and solutions imperfect, but the kingdom of God stands eternal (Eph. 3:21). Our fractured nation needs the hope only the Prince of Peace can provide.

Only grace can melt hardened hearts and establish Christ-centered priorities in lives and communities.

By assuming the “faithful presence” model as the primary alternative to extremism (443), Alberta glosses over other legitimate forms of Christian cultural engagement. The book concludes by quoting 2 Corinthians 4:18, where Paul states, “The things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” The message seems to be that Christians should abandon the politics of this world for spiritual concerns.

This, however, ignores the ways believers have historically worked to end slavery, care for orphans, and abolish foot binding. Many of the social goods normalized in the West are the result of Christians being politically active, often in ways that seemed uncouth and inconvenient to the surrounding culture.

Alberta’s focused criticism of the political right isn’t surprising given the vocal extremism from some within evangelical churches. Those who already have a negative view of evangelicals will find more support for their dislike. Readers unaware of the most egregious issues will benefit from reading this book to understand the concerns some evangelicals (many of them politically conservative) have about the current climate of the political right. But this book will join a host of others criticizing evangelical Christians with little advice to offer beyond being quiet or leaning politically left.

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