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Opinion: The factors that made evangelicals ready for Trump

What primed some evangelical Christians to think in apocalyptic terms about America? Jane Coaston interviews Tim Alberta about Donald Trump, Covid and Christianity.

BC-OPINION-COASTON-TIM-ALBERTA-ART-NYTSF — No caption. (Claire Merchlinsky/The New York Times) — ONLY FOR USE WITH ARTICLE SLUGGED — BC-OPINION-COASTON-TIM-ALBERTA-ART-NYTSF — OTHER USE PROHIBITED.

Roughly 24 percent of Americans consider themselves “born-again or evangelical,” but what that means — spiritually, culturally, politically — depends on whom you ask. For some evangelicals, the role of politics, particularly the politics of today’s Republican Party, has taken on deep importance, changing how they relate to their faith, their faith leadership and one another.

Tim Alberta is a staff writer for The Atlantic and a Christian with deep roots in evangelical circles — his father, Richard Alberta, was the longstanding pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brighton, Mich. Mr. Alberta has written a new book on the evangelical world in the wake of Donald Trump, “The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism.” We spoke recently about how some Christians have reshaped their views for political expediency, the role of celebrity in evangelical culture and how many “1776″ moments conservative evangelicals can possibly have left.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity and is part of an Opinion Q. and A. series exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics, and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew.

Jane Coaston: So, in just a few weeks, Donald Trump is likely to win the Iowa Caucus. Why do you think so much of the evangelical leadership went for Trump in the first place?

Tim Alberta: Well, it’s easy to forget now, but much of the high-profile evangelical leadership in 2016 was really resistant to Donald Trump and helped to organize behind Ted Cruz. It wasn’t until Trump had sealed up the nomination, really, that support from white evangelical figureheads started to coalesce. And it was understood, I think to be transparently, unapologetically transactional: Trump was promising these people that he would not only deliver them policy wins on abortion and religious freedom and culture war issues, but that he would also give them a seat at the table, that he would empower them in ways they had not been politically empowered before.

There was this really uneasy alliance, which of course now eight years later seems crazy to say.

Coaston: Something that struck me in your book was a theme of impending doom and, moreover, desire for that doom. One interviewee told you, ‘I always thought we’d have a major event in my lifetime — an uprising, a revolution.’ He doesn’t sound afraid of such an occasion. It sounds like many of the other people you spoke with want one. Where do you think that sentiment came from?

Alberta: I think when you spend so much time swimming in these waters of ‘The end is near, they’re coming for us, brace yourself for this collision between the forces of good and evil,’ you actually start to not only anticipate it, but you start to look forward to it. That’s why, Jane, I think Covid was such an extraordinary moment, not just in American life, but specifically in evangelical life. People had been stewing in that prophetic talk for decades, for generations — that one day they’re going to come for you, one day the church is going to find itself in the cross hairs of the government, and you’d better be ready to stand on your beliefs and stand for your convictions. And when Gavin Newsom says, Hey, we’re shutting down houses of worship as a public health measure for a few weeks here, suddenly it was, I think for so many of these people, it was like the prophecy was being fulfilled. Like, OK, here we go.

What was most surprising to me in that period, to the point of your question, is that a lot of these people weren’t reluctantly entering the fray. They were charging into the fray. They felt like they’d spent a lifetime preparing for just this very clash with the culture, and here it was, and it was very binary. You’re either going to stand up for God and for your faith and fight or you’re going to be a coward and you’re going to be a collaborator and you’re going to give in.

Coaston: How widespread do you think the evangelicals you spoke with believe their views are among Americans? Throughout the book, it seemed to me like the people you spoke to believed they were simultaneously besieged on all sides, and yet there were millions of them and they were going to win every election.

Alberta: Yeah, that’s kind of the Catch-22. You will have someone describe how they are now an oppressed, besieged, persecuted minority, and then in the next breath talk in very confident tones about there’s still a silent majority on our side. And so, you’re sort of like, well, hold on, let’s press pause. Which is it? Are you a besieged minority or are you a sweeping giant and a really strong swaggering majority? I mean, there’s a tension there, and obviously you can’t be both. As many of these right-wing, white evangelical movements will kind of strategically position themselves as being marginalized, as being ostracized and sort of pushed out of the mainstream of American life and thought, they are still extraordinarily well represented in many of the nation’s core institutions and certainly incredibly well represented in government.

Coaston: Talk to me a little bit about how the prosperity gospel fits into the story. The idea that material possessions are an indication of God’s favor is, as you note, unbiblical, but very popular with the exact audience you were speaking to.

Alberta: So obviously you’re right, this is not new. The idea even predates the American political context. There is some history here. I think what’s really interesting is how, and I write about this a little bit in the book, how with a figure like Donald Trump, specifically, if you think about the evolution of views in the charismatic world, specifically, if you look at the evolution of views toward Donald Trump.

I’ve met with any number of prominent Pentecostals or charismatic evangelicals who describe how there’s something about Trump’s success as a businessman, his success as a marketer, as a self-promoter, in the charismatic space specifically — there was something really alluring about Trump’s successes. Even more so for them than for your everyday garden variety evangelical who came to warm up to him and came to see him as maybe something more than just this brutish street brawler who might serve to protect them against the evil secularists coming for the church.

In other words, yes, the traditional understanding is that material blessings are proof of God’s favor being with you. But these folks, they’re looking at Donald Trump and they’re hearing all of the same things that everyone else is hearing. They’re seeing his behavior and studying his personal life and some of his sort of obvious moral failings, and they’re looking for something to grab onto there. And I think that they look at, here’s a guy who has his own television show. Here’s a guy who has this famous book that he wrote. Here’s a guy who has his name plastered across buildings around the world, and maybe, just maybe, all of those material successes are actually proof that God’s favor has been with him all along, that God has set this person apart for purposes that we cannot possibly perceive or imagine.

Coaston: I think that leads me to my next question, which is what’s the role of celebrity in the evangelical world? I was raised Catholic, and things are a bit different within the Roman Catholic Church. You wrote that evangelicals hate feeling like outcasts. Can you explain how celebrity functions here?

Alberta: One of the long-festering, low-simmering sources of grievance in the evangelical world is this belief that they are excluded from the sort of elite influential cliques of culture, whether it’s entertainment, whether it’s academia.

So that’s why when you see a film like “The Sound of Freedom” come out, it enjoys this explosive, astronomical success at the box office. Why? Because, I think, in the subculture of evangelical Christianity, there’s this yearning to belong and to have their presence felt in the secular arenas of America. And so here’s a film made by people like us, starring people like us, about people like us, for people like us.

[”The Sound of Freedom,” released in July 2023, made almost $250 million worldwide.]

I mean, we want to make this all about Donald Trump, but this was happening way before Trump came along. And my fear is that it’s getting worse and that it’s going to be something we’re dealing with long after Trump is out of the picture.

Coaston: Tell me why it was important to talk to Rachael Denhollander, who you spoke to about her work calling out sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention and the backlash she’s received as a result.

Alberta: I have always been mystified by the degree to which women are treated as second-class citizens in much of the evangelical world. I’ve never understood it. I have many friends and family members who subscribe to complementarian theology and they practice it in a way that I find it be completely acceptable and respectful, and I’m not attacking them here. I think what I’m talking about more specifically is sort of a behavioral, attitudinal normalizing of subjugating women inside the church and doing it in a way that is designed to keep their voices at the margins, to make them less credible, to rob them of their agency and their autonomy in the body of believers. It’s something that I’ve always struggled with.

[Complementarian theology is a view expressed by some Christians that men and women are equal but have different roles that “complement” one another. In some Christian circles, that means that men have “headship” in the home, in reference to 1 Corinthians 11:3: “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.”]

I think one of the solutions is elevating the voices of women, who not only have so much to offer theologically, who have so much to give in terms of ministry and leadership, but also who have their own unique perspective that men don’t have in the church. We think about not only Jesus’ relationship with his mother and Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene, but we think about Paul’s relationship with any number of women who were instrumental to his ministry and to the growth of the early church. I grew up in a church where women were celebrated, where my mother spoke every Mother’s Day from the pulpit and delivered the Mother’s Day message. My mom reminded me that there were some men in our church, dear family friends of ours, people who I’ve known forever, who chose to not come to church on Mother’s Day for 25 years because my mother was giving the message and they felt that it was, I don’t know if they felt it was heretical, but they certainly felt it was abiblical and that it was inappropriate.

Coaston: Something you get into later in the book are the contours of a generational divide within evangelical churches, on Trump, but also other issues. What does that divide look like?

Alberta: Kids, college students certainly, and these younger generations are much more socially aware, probably culturally more sensitive and just less given to zero-sum militarism around various disputes and debates.

It’s fascinating to see, mostly because the ideological differences between them and their parents are not all that vast. Many of these young people, if you went down the list and asked them about certain issues and how they would vote, there’s not some sharp divergence necessarily from their parents just on paper. But in their heart and in their speech and in their actions, there’s this dramatic generational course correction.

Even at a place like Liberty University, which has become sort of the avatar of evangelicalism’s moral corruption, you spend time there with students and you’re just consistently blown away by how many who are conservative theologically, conservative culturally, conservative politically want nothing to do with Trump, and they want nothing to do with MAGA, and they want nothing to do with Christian nationalism. They think about all of these things through a completely different lens. It really does come back to this idea of, do you view your faith through the prism of politics, or do you choose to view politics through the prism of your faith?

Coaston: We’ve both lived in the D.C. area, and we’ve both covered politics for a long time, and we’re also both from the Midwest. What do you think people from, let’s say, your median conservative church in Michigan where you live, or suburban Ohio, don’t understand about how evangelical Republican politics works in Washington?

Alberta: For the book, I spoke with Cal Thomas, who had been one of Jerry Falwell Sr.’s lieutenants in the Moral Majority, and he talked to me in these really broken, regretful tones. He was very emotional talking to me about how during his years with Falwell and the Moral Majority, how he knew that they were just ripping these people off.

Coaston: Is he the person who mentions that there’s a fund-raiser whose wife works for NOW, and they’re doing both, basically?

[The National Organization for Women is a feminist group whose work includes abortion rights advocacy.]

Alberta: Yes, yes. And how they’re laughing about it, that this fund-raiser who is helping to pick the pockets of these sweet little old ladies in Tulsa, Okla., or Topeka, Kan., or wherever, is simultaneously raising money off of these liberal causes that are at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. They’re just laughing their way to the bank, sort of sneering at the simple-mindedness of these people who they’re taking advantage of.

Coaston: Much of this book is written in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections, and you note that they’re being described with connotations of eternal significance. I still don’t know why, but I remember hearing that the ‘96 election was the last election that was ever going to happen. Dr. James Dobson wrote something about, if Obama gets elected in 2012, it’ll be essentially illegal to be a Christian. And we see this over and over again. So, first, why do you think evangelical Christianity is so vulnerable to the waves of current politics? How many more 1776 moments can there be?

Alberta: The entire construct of a 1776 moment, when you hear that sort of talk, it raises an obvious question. Do these people who are arguing that we are in a 1776 moment, do they actually believe that we’re in a 1776 moment, or are they saying that to raise money to mobilize voters to raise their own profile? You hear Lauren Boebert, the congresswoman from Colorado, use that kind of language. If this was truly a 1776 moment, would Lauren Boebert be vaping in the middle of a “Beetlejuice” show, or would she have something more pressing to do with her time?

The question of why white evangelical Christians are so particularly susceptible is one that I’ve wrestled with for a really long time.

I’ve had the good fortune of spending time with Christians from other parts of the world, who even in dire situations, I’ve found to be incredibly joyful and confident. I’ve had the good fortune of doing missionary work in other parts of the world. I’m really proud to support missionaries today in other parts of the world. There is something very unique about the American Christian psyche, and when I say that it’s unique, I think it’s unique in ways that are both amazingly good and terrifyingly bad.

The amazingly good is that American Christians are just extravagantly generous and have proved willing time and time and time again throughout the generations of coming to the aid of people when they need it most. And not just here, but also abroad, and not just Christians, but anyone who needs it. Christian civic organizations, Christian social institutions have just played such an indispensable role in promoting the greater good that it would be impossible for me to try to even begin quantifying it.

At the same time, I think it’s that very special role that American Christianity has played in doing good in the world that creates a sort of innate sense of paranoia, that if you believe in spiritual warfare, if you believe that every day in this world there is a very real struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil, and that in order for evil to triumph, that America must fall, then you begin to associate any little change in the America that you’ve come to idealize or perhaps even idolize as a threat, not just to your national identity, but as a threat to your faith identity. You begin to think that if America slips, then God is himself in danger.

The best explanation I have is that the American Christian has an identity crisis, that they have come to worship America in a way that creates an impediment to truly worshiping Christ, and they’ve come to view them as one and the same. Therefore, any threat to America, real or perceived, is a threat to God and to God’s plan for the ages.

Jane Coaston is a contributing Opinion writer for The New York Times. Previously, she was the host of Opinion’s podcast “The Argument”; she was also the senior politics reporter at Vox, with a focus on conservatism and the G.O.P. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.