How support for Trump is causing a rift in the evangelical church
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. How did evangelicals become Donald Trump's most unflinching advocates? That question plagued Tim Alberta as a journalist and as a self-described son of a white, conservative, Republican pastor in a white, conservative, Republican church in a white, conservative, Republican town. Alberta describes evangelicalism as the most polarizing and the least understood tradition that is also more politically relevant and domestically disruptive than all the others, combined.
To answer his own question about why many evangelicals support Trump, Alberta reported from evangelical churches around the country, ranging from megachurches to half-filled, small churches and the church he grew up in in a suburb of Detroit. He also reported from Christian colleges and religious advocacy organizations. He writes about how Trump has polarized the church in his new book, "The Kingdom, The Power, And The Glory: American Evangelicals In An Age Of Extremism." Alberta is a staff writer for The Atlantic and former chief political correspondent for Politico. His previous book is the bestseller "American Carnage: On The Front Lines Of The Republican Civil War And The Rise Of President Trump."
Tim Alberta, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to describe the split you're seeing now among evangelicals.
TIM ALBERTA: Sure. Well, I think what we've seen in the past maybe five or six years, Terry, is sort of the bubbling over what had been a low-simmering crisis in the American evangelical church for a couple of generations now, which is essentially a divide in the evangelical movement among some Christians who are really like-minded sort of theologically and culturally and politically in terms of their approach to different issues where they fall on certain, you know, biblical applications in society. Really where they differ is the question of emphasis - priority. You have some folks in the church who believe that it is not the job of the church to be out front, fighting the culture wars, trying to sort of exert dominance over the country because they feel as though their identity as Christians is rooted in something far deeper and far more transcendent than just their American identity, as it were.
And then on the other side, I think you have a lot of people who view it differently and believe that this country, in some sense, was almost ordained by God to help spread the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world. And the only way to effectively do that is to protect their rights at home so that they can go about preaching the gospel around the world. And what that has led to is almost a militant approach to politics and to culture. And so what you're dealing with here is not necessarily a divergence of theology or ideology but really a sharp divergence of tactics. And that divergence has really given way to ferocious infighting and deep, deep schisms inside the American Evangelical church.
GROSS: Does Christian nationalism figure into this?
ALBERTA: Of course it does. Yes. And I would say that it figures into it now more than it ever has simply because, you know, one of the great distinctions I try to draw in the book is how, you know, 40, 50 years ago when you would hear all of this rhetoric from evangelical leaders around, you know, America being on its last legs, the country is in decline, the secularists are taking over and kicking God out of American life, that was mostly rhetoric that they, themselves, did not believe. It was used to raise money. It was used to earn, you know, TV viewers and radio subscribers. It was used to build Christian colleges. But it wasn't really rhetoric that they, themselves, were invested in as a matter of fact.
I think the great difference today is that many of these people who will traffic in terms of this Armageddon talk, they really do believe it. They feel as though the American country as they have known it, the Judeo-Christian foundations of the country are under assault and that this is something of a last stand. And they have attached these existential stakes to that fight. And that is what gives this moment such a level of urgency specific to this question of Christian nationalism, because there is no longer a willingness for a lot of these people to separate their identities as Christians from their identities as Americans. And that is a particularly dangerous place for the church to be.
GROSS: And this goes along with some - what some church leaders told you, which is that some of the people in their congregations see Trump almost on a level with God. Trump has become a cult-like figure, and people almost worship him.
ALBERTA: They - he has, and they do. And of course, on its face, this makes no sense whatsoever, because here is the thrice-married, casino-owning Manhattan playboy, right? We all know the story. We know that Trump has zero familiarity himself with scripture, that he famously botched the pronunciation of a book of the Bible. And yet, at the same time, Trump emerging as this champion of the Christian right makes sense when placed in the context of this kind of apocalyptic, sky is falling, barbarians are at the gates mentality that you hear from many Christians today.
In other words, they feel as though by playing by the rules of Christianity - by turning the other cheek, by loving their neighbor - that they have given away so much ground, culturally, that they've lost, and they've lost the culture wars and they're in danger of losing the country. And so now, feeling as though they are marginalized and under siege and at the brink of extinction, almost, they have turned to someone who does not have to observe their etiquette, who does not have to play by their rules, who doesn't believe in the things that they believe. And ironically, they will tell you that that sort of gives him - Donald Trump - the freedom to do things to protect their movement and to fight against their enemies that they, themselves, would never be able to do.
GROSS: You saw that split within your own church. You saw people within the church move to the far right and become more militant and more angry, more extreme. And you grew up in the church because your father was the pastor of a church that went from hundreds of people to thousands of people. It was a church in Brighton, a suburb of Detroit. It was white. It was Republican. And my impression was fairly affluent? Not rich, but affluent?
ALBERTA: That's right. Yeah.
ALBERTA: That's right.
GROSS: And you literally grew up in the church because you spent your time off from school, you know, studying in the church, playing in, like, storage rooms of the church. So describe what you saw in the church in which your father was the pastor - the split that you saw emerging.
ALBERTA: Yeah. You know, I can't emphasize this point enough. You know, my mother was on staff at the church, as well, and I was the youngest sibling. And so I - my entire life was inside the church. Physically grew up inside the church. It was my home. It was my community. And the interesting thing, Terry, is that even as I grew older and became more aware of some of the ugliness, let's just say, around me, some of the rhetoric, some of the behavior that seemed to be antithetical to the Christ that I followed and that I read about in Scripture. I sort of always stayed quiet about it. I - it was something that I never really wanted to address, something that I never thought I would address, frankly, in part because I think when you're part of a tribe, you look at that tribe as yours, even though there are imperfections, and you just - you reflexively reject the caricatures and the attacks from the outside. And I spent most of my life sort of in that category.
Again, even as I was older and getting to a place where some of the sort of naked hypocrisy, some of the really bad behavior, the corruption and the abuse and the bullying that you would see both in my church and in the church writ large, they were things that I just couldn't bring myself to confront because, ultimately, I saw so much good simultaneously in the church. And I felt as though this was a zero-sum proposition, that I couldn't both be a believer in Jesus Christ and a faithful member of his church while simultaneously airing the dirty laundry of the church. And that was sort of a false choice that I had locked myself into. And it really wasn't until sort of personal tragedy struck that I felt kind of a wake-up call, that I needed to speak out about this in a way that sounded the alarm, because clearly something had gone very, very wrong here.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Tim Alberta, author of the new book "The Kingdom, The Power, And The Glory: American Evangelicals In An Age Of Extremism." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Tim Alberta, author of the new book "The Kingdom, The Power, And The Glory: American Evangelicals In An Age Of Extremism." His previous book was the bestseller "American Carnage: On The Front Lines Of The Republican Civil War And The Rise Of President Trump." He's a staff writer for The Atlantic.
In 2019, you were on a book tour for your book "American Carnage: On The Front Lines Of The Republican Civil War And The Rise Of Donald Trump." So at the end of your book tour, you're on the Christian Broadcasting Network. Tell us what you were talking about.
ALBERTA: Yeah. Of all places, I am on the set of the Christian Broadcasting Network, and I'm being asked about Trump's relationship with the white evangelical movement. This question - the million-dollar question of, how? How is it that this guy, of all people, came to be the champion of this movement? - and really trying to unpack some of these schisms and the divide inside the church that was growing more apparent by the day. And here I am doing this very delicate dance on the set of the network because, as I said, I really had been quite reticent to criticize the church as a whole. And I really was trying to make the point about some of this unhealthiness inside the evangelical movement without, like, throwing down the gauntlet, so to speak.
And the interviewer was pressing me deeper and deeper on, you know, the - just how damaging these schisms could be. And by the time I walked off the set, I'm saying to myself, oh, boy. Like, I really blew it. Like, why am I holding back here? Why don't I just say what I'm really thinking? Because what I'm really thinking is that the American evangelical church is approaching a moment of crisis here, and something has to be done about it. And as soon as I walk off the set, I'm looking down at my phone, and I have all of these missed calls. And my dad had collapsed from a heart attack and was dead.
GROSS: Of course, a very upsetting, tragic moment in your life. At the memorial service for him, you got a lot of heat from people who you've known - who you'd known all of your life. Tell us some of the things - well, let me back up and say that Rush Limbaugh started quoting you and assailing you on his radio show. What was he saying about you?
ALBERTA: That's right. You know, so the book that I had written was in the news. My dad died less than two weeks after that book had come out. And so, you know, Rush Limbaugh was on his show describing some of my unflattering characterizations of Donald Trump and of the evangelical movement. Trump himself was tweeting about my book. I was getting a lot of threats, a lot of nasty email, a lot of criticism from right-wing media. And so when my dad died, you know, I go home to Michigan for the funeral. And the day before the funeral, we're having the visitation inside the sanctuary of our home church, where, again, you know, my dad had been the pastor for over 25 years. It was home for us.
And as I'm standing in the sanctuary with my brothers greeting people, suddenly I'm having folks come up to me, and they're talking about Rush Limbaugh. And I didn't even know why at first. And then I'm sort of piecing it together. Oh, I guess he must have been kind of ripping me on his show. And then there were more people, and then there were more. And some were arguing with me about Rush Limbaugh, some were confronting me about Donald Trump. People were asking me if I was really still a Christian, if I was on the right side of good versus evil. There was a - just - and all the while, of course, my dad is in a box a hundred feet away. And, you know, I'm there in shock, 72 hours after he's passed, you know, having barely slept all week, trying to mourn and trying to process all of this. And I've got people who I've known for most of my life, known me since I was 5 years old, who are instead of hugging me, instead of crying with me, instead of just trying to wrap me in love at that moment, they're wanting to argue about politics.
GROSS: And they're insulting you.
ALBERTA: They're insulting me. And, you know, as I write in the book, it was clear in that moment that for them, they didn't see a hurting son. They saw a vulnerable adversary.
GROSS: And if they saw that in you, the son of their pastor, you, who many of them had known your entire life, that - what about people who they don't know? How easy is it to dehumanize them and just make them into the enemy?
ALBERTA: Well, that's a great point. And this is where - listen, you know, Jesus said that the two great commands are to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. And this was just a moment where it became so clear to me that, like, this thing has tilted so far off of its axis that, you know, it's one thing to try to minimize or explain away the hostile approach to this secular world, even though I think that that is in and of itself completely unbiblical and un-Christlike. But this was something different - altogether different, Terry, to your point. This is inside of the church, to a fellow believer, taunting and mocking and hurting someone at their moment of great vulnerability, and over what? Over a political disagreement. And that's - you're right - I mean, a moment that just sort of opened my eyes to say, boy, if this could happen to me in this setting, then what are we doing out in the world? What sort of damage are these Christians doing?
GROSS: Had your father seen the split in his congregation, and what did he make of it?
ALBERTA: Well, you know, it was interesting. I think at some level, he did, because my dad was a really serious theologian. He - you know, he had advanced degrees from the country's top seminaries. He spoke Greek. I mean, he was a very, very serious, intellectual Christian. And I think he knew - in fact, I know that he knew - that there were a lot of people in his pews who were, you know, very casual with their faith and who were, at some level, there to engage in a sort of, you know, cultural right as much as they were to grow deeper in their faith in the Lord. And so I think he challenged them in that way.
But if I'm being totally honest - and this is probably the hardest part of writing this book - I think in some way, my dad also fed into or encouraged some of those sort of uglier base instincts. And I think specifically what I mean by that, Terry, is, you know, politics in the pulpit is always a very touchy thing. And I think for a pastor like my dad, his most important issue politically - although he wouldn't even view it as a political issue, he views it as a moral, ethical, spiritual issue - was abortion. And so he was, you know, his entire life, his entire career in ministry was a really, really outspoken voice against abortion. But what happens is that when you place so much emphasis on an issue like abortion, you tend to start treating the people in politics who are against abortion as your allies and the people who are, you know, pro-choice as your enemies.
And so it became almost a gateway drug, abortion. And suddenly, you're talking about other things from the pulpit - you're talking about Obamacare, you're talking about education curriculum, you're talking about same-sex marriage. And even though I think my dad was able to compartmentalize in a lot of ways and understood that ultimately, you know, America is not part of God's grand design for the ages and that winning and losing elections here in this country has no eternal significance, I think for a lot of his more casual congregants, they were not able to make those distinctions.
GROSS: Your father was critical of Trump. He thought he was a narcissist and a liar, not moral. But he voted for him anyway. Do you know why?
ALBERTA: I think at the end of the day, it was the question of abortion and the fact that you had multiple Supreme Court nominations hanging in the balance. I mean, those were the conversations we had, and they were pained conversations in 2016. This was a really tough election for him because my dad had preached to me and to my brothers our entire lives that politics is really an exercise in character. That morality and ethics are the prerequisites for political leadership. And so I think he had a very difficult time getting his arms around the idea of voting for Donald Trump. But once he did, there was almost a little bit of a switch that flipped. And that caused some tension in our relationship.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Alberta, author of the new book, "The Kingdom, The Power, And The Glory: American Evangelicals In An Age Of Extremism." He's a staff writer for The Atlantic. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "PLEASED TO MEET YOU")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Tim Alberta, author of the new book "The Kingdom, The Power, And The Glory: American Evangelicals In An Age Of Extremism." His previous book was the bestseller "American Carnage: On The Front Lines Of The Republican Civil War And The Rise Of President Trump." He's a staff writer for The Atlantic. The new book is about how Donald Trump has polarized the evangelical church. On one end, he's created a cult-like following within the church. On the other end, many pastors and congregants have left their churches over disagreements with Trump and his followers.
When you decided you wanted to write about the split in the evangelical church and how that is affecting American politics as well as America's church life, you decided to go back to the church that you grew up in, your father's church in the suburb of Detroit. And the person who had succeeded him as the pastor was the person who had been his associate and was being groomed to take over, eventually, as pastor. His name was Chris Winans, and he was more liberal. He wasn't a liberal, but he was more liberal. What were the problems he started having when he took over?
ALBERTA: Well, there was some uneasiness from the beginning when Chris was being groomed as the heir apparent because, you're right, it's not that he was a liberal. But in a deep red, extremely conservative place like Brighton, Mich., any whiff of liberalism would be enough to make someone suspect. And for a guy like Chris Winans, this young pastor who was preparing to take over for the pastor, my dad, who'd been at the church for over 25 years, there was a lot of uneasiness, a lot of skepticism. And, you know, Chris is a guy who - he just doesn't like guns. He doesn't particularly care about cutting tax rates. You know, he doesn't like wars. This is a guy who, his entire perspective politically is informed by Scripture. And he really - you know, he views politics through the context of his faith rather than viewing his faith through the context of his politics, which, of course, that is at the heart of this schism in the church.
And so when Chris Winans takes over, he's making even just off-the-cuff remarks about Donald Trump or about some issue of the day, and people are up in arms about it, because, again, at a church like this, any sort of deviation from the norm - culturally, politically, ideologically - is going to put a target on your back. And you had people leaving the church in droves because they viewed him as not enough of a culture warrior.
GROSS: And I'm sure that was very upsetting for him. I'm sure he must have felt that he was failing. Did new people come to take the place of the people who fled?
ALBERTA: Not initially. In fact, he described it to me - we were having a lunch just after the January 6 attacks, and he was really at his low point. The church attendance had plummeted. He called it an exodus. The people were just flooding out of the church. And in particular, they were relocating right down the road to a sort of blood-and-soil Christian nationalist congregation that had turned its Sunday morning worship services into, like, political pep rallies. And it was just a deeply hurtful and discouraging period for this young pastor who had taken over for my father. He was beginning to have, like, a panic disorder where he was almost fainting in between services. The stress of this was just so much. He described it as a psychological onslaught. And he told me, in fact, that he was thinking about quitting, that he was thinking about walking away from the church. That's how bad things got for him during that stretch.
GROSS: Why did he stay?
ALBERTA: I think he ultimately felt that God had called him to be a part of the solution to this very real problem that both he and I were beginning to identify around that period of time. I think he also felt an obligation to the ghost of his predecessor, my father, who treated him like a son. And in many ways, you know, my dad had his faults and his flaws, but one of the most courageous things that my dad ever did was he very purposely and strategically chose, as his successor, after 26, 27 years, this young pastor who my dad knew was not a conservative MAGA Republican. I think for my dad, this was an opportunity to broaden the conversation inside the church, to challenge some of his congregants who perhaps had grown complacent in their churchgoing mannerisms. And so I do think that even as ugly and dark as things got for this new pastor, by that point, I think that he felt a certain responsibility to try to see this through.
GROSS: So when people did start coming to the church, replacing some of the people who left the church because it wasn't far-right enough, who were the new people? What did they represent?
ALBERTA: Well, it was interesting. You know, this new pastor, Chris Winans, he really tried to be welcoming and tried to be - he tried to downplay a lot of the fighting and basically just said, look, you know, we're going to preach the gospel here. We're not going to get into politics. We're not going to use partisan affiliation as some litmus test for coming to this church. And I think what was interesting, Terry, is you could see a real generational turnover here. A lot of the folks who had left the church were baby boomers who had come of age during the Moral Majority and who really viewed politics and culture wars as inextricable from Scripture and from their responsibilities as Christians. And so suddenly, a lot of those people are leaving the church because they've become very upset and very disillusioned with this young pastor's new approach. But at the same time, that new approach is drawing in a lot of younger believers and a lot of young families.
And the thing I would emphasize here is that a lot of those younger believers coming and joining this evangelical church, they're not a bunch of progressives. They're not a bunch of, you know, like, far-left Christians. In fact, most of them are awfully conservative. They're - you know, this is a very conservative community. But I think the great generational divide here is over this question of emphasis and priority. And, again, what is the mission of the church? So for all of the older folks who were looking for a continuation of that full-throated political engagement from the pulpit, you had a lot of their children, that next generation who - they might vote the same way. They might think the same way about some of the issues themselves, but they do not want it in the church. They come to church for something altogether different.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Alberta, author of the new book "The Kingdom, The Power, And The Glory: American Evangelicals In An Age Of Extremism." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA QUINTET'S "CONTRADANZA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Tim Alberta, author of the new book "The Kingdom, The Power, And The Glory: American Evangelicals In An Age Of Extremism." His previous book was the bestseller "American Carnage: On The Front Lines Of The Republican Civil War And The Rise Of President Trump." He's a staff writer for The Atlantic, former chief political correspondent for Politico. In his new book, he goes to the church in which his father was the pastor and looks at the split among evangelicals in that specific church and travels around the country looking at various churches, talking to various evangelical leaders, ones who are more mainstream and others who are very militant, on the extreme right.
So I think it's fair to say that you trace some of this to Jerry Falwell, who was a founder of the Moral Majority. And the Moral Majority is credited as being the evangelical group that helped Ronald Reagan get elected and that brought the evangelicals into the political realm and into a very forceful influence in American politics. So can you talk about that a little bit, the connection that you see?
ALBERTA: Yes. I think, in many ways, when people ask, well, where does this story begin? I think it starts with Jerry Falwell Sr., and I think it starts with his Moral Majority. I think, perhaps even more to the point, Terry, it starts with the founding of a small Christian college in Lynchburg, Va., that was later renamed from Lynchburg Baptist College into Liberty University. And that period of time in the mid to late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter is president, when the culture wars are beginning to rage around abortion and prayer in public schools and pornography and drug usage and all of these things, Jerry Falwell Sr. senses an opportunity to use these massive organizations - his Christian school, his large Christian church and this new organization, the Moral Majority - to use them in concert to apply pressure on the secular left and to enlist like-minded religious conservatives to join his cause.
And what he discovered was this incredibly explosive, dynamic formula for raising money, for mobilizing the grassroots to vote Republican. And I think what was so dangerous about it was that there's ample evidence to suggest that Jerry Falwell Sr. himself did not believe in most of this fear that he was peddling, this fear that he was using to exploit the masses of evangelicals who he was raising, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars from and buying a private jet and flying around the country, saying that the end is nigh. Falwell Sr. himself did not personally believe that, but he was planting this...
GROSS: But how do you know?
ALBERTA: Well, I've spoken with a lot of people close to him. I've read some of his correspondences. There is ample evidence to suggest that Falwell and his contemporaries at the time, some of whom spoke to me for this book, they knew that what they were doing was dishonest, that it was duplicitous, and they didn't particularly care because they saw this as sort of a means to an end, the end being a conquest of the secular culture. And so once you justify things that way, then it's fair game.
GROSS: Would you say that Ronald Reagan kind of opened the door to evangelicals basically becoming the base of the Republican Party?
ALBERTA: I think in some ways, yes. This kind of shotgun marriage between Jerry Falwell Sr. and his Moral Majority and the Ronald Reagan campaign in 1980 - I think it completely reoriented American politics as we knew it to that point. And what we see today in terms of Donald Trump's relationship with the religious right, the throughline is Jerry Falwell Jr., who was probably the single biggest endorsement for Donald Trump back in the 2016 campaign because it was sort of a - it was establishing a continuity between not only generations of the Falwell family, but generations of these evangelical activists who had finally found relevance and success in the political arena and were really reluctant to give that up.
GROSS: Oh, you describe one picture of Jerry Falwell Jr. and Donald Trump, and the background was one of Trump's walls at one of his homes. And it's filled with, like, photos, and some of those photos are, like, Playboy models and other things that should be, like, far outside of what Jerry Falwell Jr. would be endorsing.
ALBERTA: Yes. And the great irony was that it was Jimmy Carter's presidency that really galvanized Jerry Falwell Sr. to get engaged and to mobilize these tens of millions of evangelical voters. And one of the specific things that Falwell Sr. cited was the fact that Jimmy Carter had the audacity to give an interview to Playboy magazine, which Jerry Falwell Sr. singled out as, like, an avatar of America's cultural and moral decay. And here is his son and his namesake, Jerry Falwell Jr., a generation later, posing in front of a Playboy magazine with Donald Trump, giving a thumbs up and smiling broadly and tweeting that out to all of his followers. And just that split screen - that juxtaposition tells you so much about the trajectory of this movement.
GROSS: Jimmy Carter was a much more liberal evangelical than the Falwells. But also, that's the interview. The Playboy interview is the interview in which Jimmy Carter confessed that he sometimes had lust in his heart. Not that he acted on it, but, you know, that he had it in his heart. And I think the implication was he felt kind of guilty about it. But, like, Trump's lusted out loud, you know? Like, he's had affairs with Playboy models, and he's talked about, like, sexually harassing women and how cool that is. So that's a contrast, too.
ALBERTA: It's - I'm so glad you're raising that, Terry, because yes, in that Jimmy Carter Playboy interview that I believe he gave in 1976, that was what Falwell and some of his associates at the time seized all over. How dare this person who would run the United States of America, be the leader of the free world, how dare this person admit that he has felt temptation and lust in his heart? That is totally unacceptable for the leader of God's ordained country, the United States.
And yet, here we are, you know, 50 years later, dealing with a president who has become the unquestioned leader of that religious right movement who has spent years parading his mistresses through the tabloids, boasting about sexually assaulting women, who was found guilty recently - or found liable recently of sexual abuse by a jury. I mean, so understanding the backslide here of what the standards are and what they aren't inside the American evangelical movement and really, I think, just to put it very bluntly, understanding the rank hypocrisy that has guided this movement in recent years is at the core of this story.
GROSS: Do you see parallels between the split in the evangelical church and the split in the Republican Party? Just as many people have left their churches for more open-minded churches, a lot of Republicans who are more from the Republican mainstream have abandoned the party.
ALBERTA: Oh, absolutely. The parallels are uncanny. I think they start with just this basic fact that, you know, Donald Trump, in many ways, represented the fringe of the party becoming the mainstream. That is probably the single biggest consequence of the Trump presidency is that these voices that once existed at the periphery of the GOP during the Tea Party years and even farther back, they, in Donald Trump, suddenly took over the mainstream of the party to the point now where anyone who is attempting to sort of adhere to traditional, conservative, Republican policy beliefs is sort of an outcast because they no longer belong in the party.
We've seen that same dynamic at work in the evangelical movement, which is to say that, you know, 15 or 20 years ago when you would see Westboro Baptist Church protesting outside of funerals with these heinous, hateful banners that they would hold up, those people were rightly viewed as a cult. They were viewed as the fringe. But today, you have pastors who are even more incendiary, even more extreme than Westboro Baptist, and they have massive followings. They preach to millions of people online every Sunday. They've been invited to Trump's White House.
One of these pastors in particular, Greg Locke, who has built this massive tent revival church in Tennessee and who is known for things like saying that autistic children are oppressed by demons and for staging burnings of "Harry Potter" books and he's debating flat Earth theology next week at his church, in fact, this pastor, he was invited to the White House, and he posed for a photo there with Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham. So these people who once would have been treated as outcasts and pariahs, they are now very much in the evangelical mainstream.
GROSS: Well, we need to take another break here. So let me reintroduce you. My guest is Tim Alberta, author of the new book, "The Kingdom, The Power, And The Glory: American Evangelicals In An Age Of Extremism." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON'S "YOU'RE A MEAN ONE MR. GRINCH")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Tim Alberta, author of the new book, "The Kingdom, The Power, And The Glory: American Evangelicals In An Age Of Extremism." His previous book was the bestseller "American Carnage: On The Front Lines Of The Republican Civil War And The Rise Of President Trump." He's a staff writer for The Atlantic.
We've been learning about some of the people Trump would be likely to bring into his administration and to try to appoint as judges if he is reelected. Are any of the people you've been reading about people who you would describe as Christian nationalists?
ALBERTA: There is no question that if Trump is reelected, he will surround himself in the West Wing with people who would identify - self-identify as Christian nationalists. And it's not a coincidence that just recently on the campaign trail - I believe it was in New Hampshire - Donald Trump floated the idea of imposing a religious litmus test on any new migrants coming to this country. So this has escalated significantly from the Muslim ban in 2017. Trump is now saying that if you are Jewish, if you are Hindu, if you are secular, if you are not a Christian, then maybe we won't let you into America anymore.
And that really, Terry - that is a stunning thing for someone to say who might soon be the president of the United States because it's really just one step removed from an embrace of state religion, from the pursuit of actual theocracy, the sort of thing that the founders, in their founding documents, were terrified of and made clear that they wanted religious freedom to be, in many ways, kind of the cornerstone of this country. And Donald Trump - not just Donald Trump himself, but some of the folks who are in his ear, who are advising him and who are building out the policy blueprints for another Trump term - they are, in many cases, quite invested in this idea of effectively merging church and state and doing away with some of the old firewalls that would have prevented the sort of things that Trump has talked about.
GROSS: We're living in a very difficult, kind of frightening time. There's the war in Ukraine, the war between Israel and Hamas, the tragedies in Israel and in Gaza, divisions in church and politics that are resulting in death threats. In the U.S., we had an insurrection here. What verses in the Bible do you turn to in a time like this to help get you through the difficulties of the era that we're living through?
ALBERTA: I am so glad you asked, Terry. I really am. I think I would just cite - single out two, if I could. You know, the first was one of my dad's favorite verses that he talked to us about since we were really, really young, which is Mark 8:36 - what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but forfeit his soul? And I think that's something that we should all - whatever your belief system, we should all reflect on, that the things that we argue about and fight over every single day in an attempt to gain fame, money, influence. Are we selling our soul in the process of doing that?
The other verse that I would point out is - has been my favorite verse since I was a child. It's from Paul's Second Letter to the early church in Corinth, Greece. And he says, you know, we - we followers of Jesus - we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen because what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. And I think that is the ultimate call to Christians to recognize that if you are called to the Kingdom of God, that your citizenship is ultimately not in America, it's ultimately not in this earth, that you are called to something greater, and that your priorities and the way that you treat people and the way that you engage with the culture around you, it must reflect that.
GROSS: When you're meeting somebody for the first time who doesn't know your reporting and you say that you're a Christian or a Christian evangelical, do you immediately try to qualify that in terms of what your beliefs and politics are so that the person who you're talking to doesn't think you identify with the far right?
ALBERTA: You know, it's interesting. I didn't used to, but I've had to do that more and more. And I've had to do it not only to assure people that I don't identify with the far right, but when I go into evangelical spaces, I have to do it to make sure that they don't think I'm part of the far left. In other words, it's no longer sufficient when talking with Christians to say, yes, I'm a Christian. I'm a follower of Jesus. I can cite Scripture. We can talk in depth about our theology and our doctrines. That's not enough.
And that's really, in many ways, the whole problem, is that you have to then sort of qualify, well, what kind of Christian are you? Do you - where are you on guns? Where are you on, you know, sexuality? Where are you on poverty programs? Where are you on the deep state and Donald Trump and his indictments? In other words, we have taken the biblical standards and we've set them aside to embrace an entirely different standard that has nothing to do with God, has nothing to do with our relationship to Jesus Christ and really is that eternal, ephemeral thing that we are told, time and time again in Scripture, to avoid.
GROSS: Tim Alberta, I want to thank you for talking with us. It's been really, really interesting.
ALBERTA: It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Tim Alberta is a staff writer for The Atlantic and author of the new book "The Kingdom, The Power, And The Glory: American Evangelicals In An Age Of Extremism." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be journalist Ari Berman, who's been covering efforts in the courts to dismantle the Voting Rights Act. He'll talk about the history of the act, which is considered one of the most effective pieces of civil rights legislation ever enacted in our country, and the implications of dismantling it. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.
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