What's Tony Thinking

The People of Fear


I am reading Tim Alberta’s new book, The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicalism in An Age of Extremism. It runs nearly 500 pages, but reads well. Keeps you turning the pages.

Still, it’s tough reading. Why? Because it portrays just how frightened, gullible, manipulated and lost are those Evangelical Christians who have allied themselves with Trump, the MAGA movement and conspiracy theories. It’s really a very sad story.

Alberta is a staff writer for The Atlantic. But what makes him especially suited for this subject is that he is himself an Evangelical Christian — a reminder that not all Evangelical Christians buy into Trump and MAGA.

His father was a well-known minister in the conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church denomination, and pastor of the large Cornerstone Church in Brighton, Michigan. It was there that Alberta grew up and was nurtured in the faith. He knows this world from the inside. And he is quite capable of engaging those he studies and interviews on a theological and biblical basis. Whether Alberta identifies today as “evangelical” I don’t know (some who once did no longer do), but clearly faith remains core to his life.

What Alberta shows, in essence, is how many of those who identify as Christians are egregiously, even eagerly, betraying the faith they claim. They have made America, or their version of it, their be-all and end-all, their god. Politics and political power have eclipsed their religion. “Saving America” is the end to which their understanding of Christianity has become instrumental. And they have proven willing to use whatever means necessary in order to gain power. Here’s a zinger from Alberta:

“Unsavory alliances would need to be forged. Sordid tactics would need to be embraced. The first step toward preserving Christian values it seemed, was to do away with Christian values.” (emphasis added)

Just now, as we Christians enter Lent, many will hear again the story of the Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. It sounds all too familiar. In one version, Matthew 4: 1 – 11, Satan took Jesus to a high mountain, and “showed him all the kingdoms of this world and their splendor, and said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.'” To which Jesus answered, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”Alberta’s study makes it very hard not to conclude that the Evangelical Christians supporting Trump and MAGA have done just that . . . put worldly kingdoms and political power above all else, bowing down to the tempter.

That said, Alberta argues that the ground troops have been manipulated by what the Bible calls “false shepherds,” i.e. pastors and “faith-based” political operatives who quite knowingly fuel fear, with lies and half-truths, in order to gain money and followers, to grow their churches or para-church organizations, and to secure votes for their favored candidates or party. Some of these errant shepherds believe what they preach, but a surprising number do not. The latter know they are using people, playing on the fear and gullibility of their flocks. Some excuse their deception by saying, “you have to give people what they want.” Others are seduced by the approval and adulation.

Here’s one example of these distortions and half-truths. As these things go in Alberta’s book, this one is fairly benign but still telling. Sam Brownback, former Kansas Governor  and Senator, who served as Trump’s “Ambassador for International Religious Freedom,” was one of the speakers at Ralph Reed’s “Road to Majority” annual symposium in 2022. Alberta writes:

“Brownback told of a Finnish politician who had been ‘prosecuted criminally’ for quoting Scripture to explain her opposition to same-sex marriage. The crowd murmured as he swore that this sort of persecution was ‘coming to us’ in America next.

“Not bothering to share additional context — for instance, that prosecutors were seeking to fine, not to imprison, the politician; or the the Finnish court had unanimously dismissed all charges against her; or that the case served to underscore the sturdiness of freedom-of-speech provisions throughout the democratized world — Brownback began pounding on the podium. ‘We’ve got to fight back!’ he said, as audience members leapt from their chairs.”

Such exaggerations, deceptions and outright lies — many far worse that this illustration — are the stock-in-trade of this movement.

But not everyone has sold out or capitulated to MAGA. Some of the most powerful and poignant stories Alberta tells, are of Evangelical clergy who have not caved to the MAGA agenda, or to Q Anon or to nationalist idolatry. Scores have remained faithful to the gospel and the Bible. But they have paid a huge price in mental health, suffering death threats and harassment for themselves and their families, and lost jobs and job prospects. Some are well known, like Russell Moore, once a higher0-up in the Southern Baptist Convention. Most, like Chris Winans, who succeeded Alberta’s Dad at Cornerstone but refused to take the church into the political right-wing and Trumpism, are not.

In trying to explain why so many self-identified Evangelical Christians are so susceptible to fear, Alberta says that such people feel “under siege.” Which I kind of get. Just the other day the ACLU had a big ad in the NYT bannering, “Drag Is Free Speech!” Elsewhere in the paper an article declared polyamory to be “the next big thing.” The culture wars tend to put “next, new thing” in your face, ready or not. We seem to have a hard time allowing for the fact that in a big nation not everyone is, or needs to be, on the same page on every issue.

Still, the false shepherds have a lot to answer for. Acknowledging that people are afraid, Alberta writes,

“They were scared in part because of economic and cultural instability. But mostly they were scared because people like Ralph Reed (Christian Coalition and Road to Majority) were trying to scare them; people like Reed needed to scare them. Sure the Bible’s most frequently cited command is ‘Fear not,’ but remember Reed is no preacher. He’s a political organizer. The job of a political organizer is to win campaigns. To win campaigns, Reed realized long ago, his most valuable tool was fear.”

While claiming the mantel and symbols of faith, those Alberta describes in this movement are not in reality motivated by faith at all. They are motivated by fear. Which may be the most concise way to describe what’s truly sad and alarming about our country today: faith, which among other things means trust, now seems overmatched by fear. To be sure, there are reasons for apprehension. There are causes for alarm, even fear. There’s a lot that’s wrong. And both sides in today’s politics play on fear.

But at some point, we all have to decide whether we are living out of our fears or out of our hopes? Perhaps all of us need to ask how much fear is in our own driver’s seat these days?

If you want to better understand how an influential faith tradition, i.e. Evangelical Christianity, lost its way under the impress of fear and a hunger for this worldly-power, get a hold of Alberta’s book.


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