The Kingdom, The Power, and The Glory by Tim Alberta

The kingdom, the power, and the glory cover imageSummary: Well-constructed argument that the purpose of the church has been lost, but can be regained again.

I was somewhat reluctant to pick up The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory because I was unsure what more I could learn about Christian Nationalism and extremism, and because I have read so widely in the recent literature. But I saw a copy at my library, and several people I trust have recommended it. I related to his opening because I am a pastor’s child who often does not understand the faith of many people who call themselves Christians.  While it was well-written and expertly crafted, I did not find the book’s first half all that engaging because I knew the stories already. There is value in compiling all of it together in a single book for those who have not been paying attention. But it is tough for me to trust that people who haven’t been paying attention will be interested in this.

One of the book’s strengths is that Alberta spends a lot of time interviewing people and allowing them to speak in their own words about their motivations and strategies. Several people commented in reviews or podcasts with Alberta about how surprised they were that so many people spoke on the record. I agree that allowing people to speak for themselves has real value. Quite often, Alberta gives context to those interviews because the subjects rarely explore their complicity in creating extremism within the church. At the same time, this is one of my biggest frustrations with the book because, as much context as Alberta gives, he often frames the conversation sympathetically.

For instance, when he interviews Stephen Strang in Branson, MI, at a Rewaken American event, Alberta talks about how uncomfortable Strang was with his surroundings. However, Alberta had previously discussed Charisma media and the magazine’s role in spreading misleading information. Strang is the owner and publisher of Charisma, not someone incidental to the world. Strang signed up Mark Driscoll to a book contract and speaking tour after he was fired from Mars Hill. Strang wrote a book in 2020 defending Trump (God, Trump, and the 2020 Election: Why He Must Win and What’s at Stake for Christians if He Loses) and a previous spiritual biography of Trump and four other books that were directly or indirectly about Trump. (Those books had introductions from Eric Metaxas, Jerry Falwell Jr, Mike Lindell, Benny Hinn, Mike Huckabee, and Lori Bakker.)

Alberta reports that Strang spoke nostalgically about the earlier fundamentalism of his upbringing. Strang also claimed he wasn’t advocating that Trump run for president in 2024 (this interview was in 2022). Strang complained about “woke” Russ Moore and Christianity Today as an organization. He claims that Trump made a profession of faith during his presidency and “was a changed man.” Alberta did press back against some of these things during the interview. And Alberta did mention the books and other previous support of Trump. But detailing the background necessary to get a complete picture of the subjects interviewed in the book would double the page count.

There is a significant running theme throughout the book that the real problem isn’t the extremists (who are clear about their positions) but the moderates who do not find the behaviors and comments of the extremists disqualifying. Strang is an example of that. He claims to be a moderate who was uncomfortable with the extremists who were present at the rally he was interviewed after. But Strangs’ company was the main sponsor of the Reawaken America Tour; if he could not address the extremism, who did? Strang expressed discomfort but demonstrated that there was nothing that Trump (or others) could do that was too far to stop his support.

One of the most encouraging moments of the book was the discussion of the Faith Angle Forum in France, where Miroslav Volf and Cyril Hovorun discussed nationalism in the context of their former homes of Yugoslavia and Russia/Ukraine. This is discussed well in a Faith Angle podcast interview with Alberta by Michael Wear. What is encouraging about that section is that it feels like truth is being approached. But the accounts of true believers and what Alberta regularly refers to as grifters are nothing except cynicism or incredulity inducing.

Alberta suggests that in his interview with Greg Locke, Locke knew he had gone too far, admitted it, and pledged to do better and concentrate on the gospel. But then Alberta would point out that Locke continued emphasizing politics and ignoring the truth. In the case of the pastor near his home church who trafficked conspiracy theories, based on the new growth from those conspiracy theories, the church grew and bought a new property and planned a new building. This meant that even if the pastor recognized his false conspiracy theories, he knew they would go elsewhere if he didn’t give the people what they wanted.

In my previous church, I called on church leadership (and had many conversations with various staff) to distance themselves from Marjorie Taylor Greene (who claimed to attend the church but had not attended in nearly a decade when she ran for office). The staff and leadership were concerned with the message any distancing would send. I told the leader of my church site (a multi-site congregation) that regardless of whether the church leadership wanted it, the choice was to alienate people who were attracted to MTG or people whom MTG repulsed. He agreed it was a risk, but the church leadership hoped the problem would disappear. (I do not want to suggest these are all related, but in a relatively short period, a significant number of site pastors and senior leadership of the seven church sites left, including the one I spoke to.)

About a year after that conversation, the church’s senior pastor spoke to the Georgia House as the “chaplain for the day.” In his brief remarks, he called on the legislators to put the good of the state before their political viability. This was a nice line, but given that I am sure many legislators knew that he has refused to speak out about MTG, his credibility was lacking. He ended the talk by explicitly citing Letter From a Birmingham Jail as justification for maintaining his moderate position “because King was attacked on all sides.” At this point, I knew that my previous 15 years of membership and advocacy of the church to move toward justice (and not moderation) had been wasted.

Much of the book’s story is about how moderates who refuse to speak out against extremism end up encouraging it. This fits with my personal experience. As much as I know that extremism exists in a variety of areas, the extremism of the White evangelical church is political extremism that seems to have forgotten who Jesus is.

Part three of the book starts to tell the story of those who have tried a different way. It is about churches, often a fraction of their former size—people who have lost jobs and suffered the consequences. Alberta himself hinted at this in the book’s opening. He told the truth in his previous reporting, and people yelled at him during the receiving line at his father’s funeral. Again, I know many people who have lost jobs, left churches and faced relational conflicts. I texted a friend just last week who said he regularly has nightmares about his church experience. And he isn’t the only one that has told me that.

Part three opens with Brian Zahnd, an author I have followed for years. That section, again, gave more context to Strang because Strang published several of Zahnd’s books and showed that, at least in part, Strang was well aware of the problems of a capitalistic and political church. Later profiles of David French, Curtis Chang, Dan Darling, Rachel Denhollener, and others were not surprising to me; I know their stories. And while I am not as conservative as most of these people, I want them to succeed in their work.

Much of the third section is about people who are opposing sexual abuse in the church. To tell that story, Alberta has to tell the story of the sexual abusers. One of the stories told is of Ravi Zacharias. Again, I know that there is a limited page count. This is already a long book. But as he frames Zacharis’ story, he talks about how many people were praising him when he died (there were) but that the story was different a year later when accusations came out. Again, people who were paying attention knew there were accusations before he died. And it was well known he had fabricated degrees, previous positions, and other background details. But the organization, and general Christian community, did not hold him accountable for those lies. He personally admitted to falsifying those degrees and positions in 2017 but suffered no real consequences.

Later, Alberta talks about how both he and the journalist Julie Roys were just unwilling to believe the accusations against Zacharias before his death, even though they were journalists and well aware of widespread abuse in other cases that made the accusations against Zacharias credible. This more extended section on Roys and Denhollander gets into Roys’ work on problems around John MacArthur, and again, I have the same complaint. As much as Alberta is carefully crafting a broadly correct argument, there are so many more details that moderates have ignored. He notes that MacArthur is “too big to fail.” But you do not have to get to the details shared here to see that MacArthur was problematic long before recent issues. The racial issues, the financial self-dealing, MacArthur and his staff’s support of far-right “discernment bloggers” perpetuating conspiracy theories should have been disqualifying. But they were not. And all of those were details that were not significant enough even to be included in the book.

Literally, nothing in this book surprised me. I was aware of almost everything and knew about most of the characters. And when I didn’t know specific characters, I knew others who had played similar roles. However, the stories here just won’t be enough to move anyone who has not been previously moved.

I want to commend his writing, his skill in building his case over time, and his skill as an interviewer and journalist. I had read or listened to a number of interviews and reviews before reading The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory. The subtlety of not including any women interviews until the third section is both an incisive critique of the evangelical world and a good way of pointing out that women primarily lead the way forward. But that is part of the problem; I do not think the critique goes far enough.

It is clear that the extremism is being empowered by the moderates who do not find the extremism disqualifying. But the moderates in most of these cases are quite conservative. There is an exploration of how corruption is a natural result of sin. And Alberta is quite clear that he thinks the only way forward is to expose that corruption. However, the exploration of how theology empowers corruption is barely touched on. Alberta is a journalist, not a theologian, and I do not want to complain about the lack in an already lengthy book. Still, that lack means that many reformers profiled are exposing sin but not necessarily moving toward more healthy systems. No church system is perfect. Abuse and corruption can be found in all areas of the church and the secular world. However, some streams of Christianity are more open to addressing how theology and practices influence corruption. And this is an area where this book would have benefited from more time.

He starts to address this in the epilogue, but mostly, it explores the results of embracing extremism more than the ways that extremism is empowered theologically.

The Kingdom, The Power, And the Glory: America’s Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism by Tim Alberta Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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