Politics and the pulpit: How white evangelicals' support of Trump is creating schisms in the Church


Goodwill Church, in New York’s leafy Hudson Valley, is a special destination for The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta. This was where his family’s faith journey began. “There’s something so deeply familiar about this place, it’s hard to describe,” he said. “My parents always described this church as holy ground for our family.”

Tim’s father, Richard Alberta, was once a pastor on this pulpit, after becoming a born-again Christian here nearly 50 years ago. “I don’t know where he sat,” said Alberta. “I don’t know what the sermon was that day. But something happened: A guy who’d been an atheist for years, you know, decided that he was gonna give his life to Jesus.”

The Alberta family later moved to Michigan, where Tim’s father led Cornerstone Evangelical Presbyterian Church. “My life was completely wrapped up in the church,” said Tim. “It was the sun around which we as a family revolved. It was our whole world.”

Tim Alberta of The Atlantic, with CBS News' Robert Costa. / Credit: CBS News

Tim Alberta of The Atlantic, with CBS News’ Robert Costa. / Credit: CBS News

But Tim Alberta sought a career in journalism, writing about politics. His father urged him to stay grounded, including in a 2019 chat he’ll never forget: “He keeps saying to me, ‘Don’t spend your whole career around these people. There are so many other stories.’ And that was one of the last conversations we had.”

Days later, Tim’s dad suddenly died.

He recalled, “When I come home to my church, I’m expecting, I guess, something different from what I got.”

While some offered consolation, Alberta also got confrontation from some conservative church members objecting to his reporting on then-President Donald Trump. “A lot of folks right there at the viewing just wanted to argue about politics,” he said. “They wanted to know if I was still a Christian. And my dad’s in a box, like, 100 feet away.”

Costa asked, “The church wasn’t a sanctuary from politics; politics was now part of the church?”

“That’s right. I knew that, to some degree. And in fact, I willfully ignored it.”

Alberta’s reckoning with faith and politics is the basis for his new book “The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory,” which documents what he calls an “age of extremism” for evangelicals. “There was a real crisis in the American church, specifically a crisis in the white evangelical church,” he said.

 / Credit: CBS News

/ Credit: CBS News

According to Pew Research Center, about a quarter of American adults (24%) identify as evangelical. And as the Republican presidential race heats up, 68 percent of white evangelicals are supportive of Trump. Alberta says that reflects a shift away from norms – in the GOP and in the church.

“We should think about the American church almost in parallel to American politics,” he said. “When it gains enough influence, when it gains enough power, the fringe can overtake the mainstream. And that’s what we’ve seen happen in the church.”

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The convulsions in today’s churches come after decades of evangelicals gaining influence, from Billy Graham’s stadium crusades, to the stadium rallies of Donald Trump. In recent years, evangelicals have had heated debates, over the response to COVID and to Trump, all while many key Republicans (like House Speaker Mike Johnson) count themselves as one of them.

At Goodwill Church, Senior Pastor John Torres (who used to work with Tim’s dad) is uneasy about the shadow of politics over his church and others.

Costa asked Torres, “What do people say about politics?”

“That it’s bad. That it’s dirty.”

“What do they say to you about politics?”

“Don’t get involved,” Torres replied. “I don’t want somebody who’s sitting there, listening to me preach, whatever their views are, I want them to stay put. I wanna talk to them about Jesus. I don’t want to talk to ’em about politics. ‘Cause I don’t really know what I can offer them in terms of politics.”

Other evangelicals don’t mind politics – and see this moment as an affirmation of hard-won power.

Worshippers attend a concert by evangelical musician Sean Feucht on the National Mall on October 25, 2020 in Washington, D.C.  / Credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Worshippers attend a concert by evangelical musician Sean Feucht on the National Mall on October 25, 2020 in Washington, D.C. / Credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Costa asked, “What do you say to evangelical leaders who might hear your argument and say, ‘You missed the point: Trump wins for evangelical Christians, he wins for Conservative America’?”

“Wins what?”

“Supreme Court seats, a seat at the table at the White House?”

Alberta responded, “Show me where in scripture any of that matters.”

But it does matter to many of those standing with Trump as he once again seeks the White House. Alberta said, “You have millions of evangelical Christians who voted for Donald Trump and just sort of gleefully embraced his terrible rhetoric and his un-Christlike conduct.”

“Why did they ‘gleefully’ embrace it, to use your term?” asked Costa.

“Power,” Alberta replied. “Trump campaigned for president in 2016 promising that if he was elected, Christians would have power. He gave it to them.  He gave it to them in ways that, arguably, no American president has in modern history. And when you have power, you can very quickly lose sight of your principles, your values and your beliefs.”

Alberta says that, regardless, today his faith has never been better. His faith in reporting is also strong, and he says that is his own calling.

“You and I, we’re reporters,” said Alberta. “We’re not supposed to be the story. I never wanted to be the story. [But] once you see this, you can’t look away.”

   
For more info:

“The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism” by Tom Alberta (HarperCollins), in Hardcover, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Bookshop.orgTim Alberta (Official site)Goodwill Church, Montgomery, N.Y.

     
Story produced by Michelle Kessel. Editor: Emanuele Secci.

   
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