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Churches Between Red Bull & Ovaltine

On Tim Alberta's agony over radicalizing Evangelicalism
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Guess I have to offer a take on the big Tim Alberta piece in The Atlantic that my circles are talking about. But first, let me affirm this tweet by Michael Brendan Dougherty, on the adjacent Tim Keller controversy, in which Evangelicals are arguing over whether or not Tim Keller’s approach to evangelizing the culture is still relevant, or passé:

This seems right to me. It comes from the foofarah over James Wood’s essay in First Things in which he said he used to prefer Keller’s winsome approach, but he has come to believe that times have changed, and now Kellerism is outdated. I wrote about it here (including a link to Wood’s piece), and I sympathize with Wood’s critique. It has been startling to me to see how offended Keller partisans are, given how respectful and appreciative of Keller Wood was in his piece. Wood simply argues that the culture into which Keller originally preached has turned more hostile to Christianity. It’s certainly debatable, but as an outsider to Evangelicalism, I had not grasped that Keller’s partisans would be so aggrieved by this gentle criticism.

Maybe Alberta’s long Atlantic piece sheds light on what I’m missing. The title of the piece is “How Politics Poisoned The Evangelical Church,” which is perhaps the first time in years that that magazine has published a piece like that without Pete Wehner’s byline. Alberta is the son of a pastor. He frames his story as a fight between conservative Evangelical factions. One side is super-Trumpy and ultra-political; the other side is more conventionally conservative, and skeptical of how much right-wing populist politics have infiltrated the life of the Evangelical church. Excerpt:

Every time I heard Bolin preach, I could also hear Brown, the pastors’ voices dueling inside my brain. Brown is polished and buttoned-down; Bolin is ostentatious and loud. Brown pastors a traditional church where people wear sweaters and sing softly; Bolin leads a charismatic church where people dress for a barbecue and speak in tongues. Brown is a pastor’s kid and lifelong conservative who’s never had a sip of alcohol; Bolin is an erstwhile “radical liberal” who once got “so high on LSD” that he jumped onstage and grabbed a guitar at a Tom Petty concert.

But in leading their predominantly white, Republican congregations, Brown and Bolin have come to agree on one important thing: Both pastors believe there is a war for the soul of the American Church—and both have decided they cannot stand on the sidelines. They aren’t alone. To many evangelicals today, the enemy is no longer secular America, but their fellow Christians, people who hold the same faith but different beliefs.

How did this happen? For generations, white evangelicals have cultivated a narrative pitting courageous, God-fearing Christians against a wicked society that wants to expunge the Almighty from public life. Having convinced so many evangelicals that the next election could trigger the nation’s demise, Christian leaders effectively turned thousands of churches into unwitting cells in a loosely organized, hazily defined, existentially urgent movement—the types of places where paranoia and falsehoods flourish and people turn on one another.

“Hands down, the biggest challenge facing the Church right now is the misinformation and disinformation coming in from the outside,” Brown said.

Because of this, the pastor told me, he can no longer justify a passive approach from the pulpit. The Church is becoming radicalized—and pastors who don’t address this fact head-on are only contributing to the problem. He understands their reluctance. They would rather keep the peace than risk alienating anyone. The irony, Brown said, is that by pretending that a clash of Christian worldviews isn’t happening, these pastors risk losing credibility with members who can see it unfolding inside their own church.

There is one person Pastor Brown doesn’t have to convince of this: Pastor Bolin.

“The battle lines have been drawn,” Bolin told me, sitting in the back of his darkened sanctuary. “If you’re not taking a side, you’re on the wrong side.”

I believe it. I know two conservative Southern Baptist pastors who left their churches mostly because they couldn’t take the hyperpoliticization of their congregations in the era of Covid and Trump. I don’t know how either man voted, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they had voted for Trump. Their problem wasn’t Trump per se, but with how many in the congregation got so wound up about politics that they allowed politics to take over everything. Now that I think about it, what both men described were congregations that had become right-wing versions of Woke, imposing purity tests on everybody and everything.

Anyway, back to Alberta, who says that hard data are difficult to come by, but on reporting this story for a year, he has come to believe that large numbers of Evangelicals are fleeing their conservative churches for congregations that are more ostentatiously and combatively right-wing, in terms of their political stance.

I don’t feel that I have a dog in this fight, but it really is a fascinating story. It’s clear where Alberta’s sympathies lie. He writes:

For much of my lifetime, however, American Christians have done the opposite. Beginning in the 1980s, white evangelicals imposed themselves to an unprecedented degree on the government and the country’s core institutions. [Emphasis mine — RD] Once left to cry jeremiads about civilizational decline—having lost fights over sex and sexuality, drugs, abortion, pornography, standards in media and education, prayer in public schools—conservative Christians organized their churches, marshaled their resources, and leveraged their numbers, regaining the high ground, for a time, in some of these culture wars.

Short-lived victories, however, came at a long-term cost. Evangelical leaders set something in motion decades ago that pastors today can no longer control. Not only were Christians conditioned to understand their struggle as one against flesh and blood, fixated on earthly concerns, a fight for a kingdom of this world—all of which runs directly counter to the commands of scripture—they were indoctrinated with a belief that because the stakes were getting so high, any means was justified.

I don’t want to nitpick, but could you imagine a story in The Atlantic featuring the line “African-Americans imposed themselves to an unprecedented degree on the government and the country’s core institutions”? The word “imposed” really bothers me. It implies that there was something illegitimate about Evangelical political involvement. I am certainly more sympathetic to Alberta’s aversion to the crackpot stuff he details in his piece, but he seems to think that white conservative Evangelicals should have stayed quiet and read their Bibles. Does he, or do the editors of the Atlantic, believe that black churches should have done the same? That progressive churches should have?

I recall reading in the authoritative book American Grace, by Harvard’s Robert Putnam and Notre Dame’s David Campbell, back in 2010, that according to social science data, liberal and progressive churches were more likely to be overtly political in their orientation than conservative churches. Where are the long articles about how left-wing politics ruined Christianity? They don’t exist, because, most likely, liberal and progressive religion’s political involvement is seen by the media as normative. A couple of years ago, I visited a suburb of Boston to give a talk, and as we were driving around, the only church I passed that didn’t have a rainbow Pride flag, or a Black Lives Matter banner, or both out front was a Catholic parish. Every single Protestant church proudly proclaimed its politics. There’s no question that a Christian like me would feel unwelcome there — almost as unwelcome as I would feel at one of the far-right churches Alberta profiles.

I’m not trying to “whatabout” this. Tim Alberta is writing about a real phenomenon, and a truly destructive one. But I don’t for one minute think it’s confined to the Right. Alberta is a conservative journalist, or at least that’s where he made his reputation (I don’t know how he would describe himself today, but he’s a good reporter). Where are the liberal Christian journalists grieved over how thoroughly politics have conquered their churches? Do they even exist?

Alberta writes about a Methodist congregation in Atlanta pastored by a conservative (Bingham), who is assisted by a progressive (Myers). They have struggled to hold the church together in political turbulent times:

But what is left to hold together? When I visited, the church—an elegant structure with room for 500 in the sanctuary—was hosting maybe 150 people total across two Sunday services. Bingham is proud to say that he hasn’t driven anyone away with his political views. Still, membership has been in decline for years, in part because so many Christians today gravitate toward the places that are outspokenly aligned with their extra-biblical beliefs.

For all their talk of keeping Aldersgate unified, Bingham and Myers acknowledged that in a few years’ time, they would belong to different churches. The same went for their members. When I met with some of the longest-tenured laypeople of the church, almost everyone indicated that when the UMC divorce was finalized, they would follow the church that reflected their political views. It didn’t matter that doing so meant, in some cases, walking away from the church they’d attended for decades.

“What’s coming is going to be brutal. There’s no way around that,” Bingham told me. “Churches are breaking apart everywhere. My only hope is that, when the time comes, our people can separate without shattering.”

As I’ve said, I don’t know the Evangelical world, but reading Alberta’s piece, I found myself grateful that we don’t have this kind of thing in Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, even though I really do hate the bizarre things that the preachers Alberta quotes say, and even though I wouldn’t go within a mile of those sanctified political rallies, I don’t blame people for being fed up with churches that don’t seem to have anything at all to say about real life in these post-Christian, and increasingly anti-Christian, times. That so many flock to lurid shock-jock pastors is deeply upsetting, at least to this Christian, but these people are not wrong to believe that we are no longer in normal times, and winsome quietism is not sufficient to prepare the church for the struggles ahead.

I hasten to add that I don’t know much about Tim Keller and his ministry, so please don’t read this as a criticism of him! I think, though, that when Evangelicals criticize Keller, what they’re talking about more generally is pastors who take the view that Everything Is Fine, and let’s just keep calm and carry on, and all will be well. This is a dangerous lie. The answer is absolutely not to run to circus pastors who rant about Trump and Covid and conspiracy! But people are not wrong to want leadership from pastors and priests who can help them understand the signs of the times, and prepare themselves to respond as faithful Christians.

I’ve mentioned several times in this space a conversation I had some time back with a pastor who refused to talk to his congregation at all about gender ideology, calling it “political,” and saying he refused to let politics infect his congregation. I understand and even share the view about keeping politics out of the congregation. But the question of “what is a man and what is a woman” could hardly be more relevant to Biblical teaching, and Christian discipleship! Not all controversial questions taken from the headlines are “political” in the extraneous-to-Scripture sense that the pastor in question meant. I really do believe that if you are part of a congregation that is not preparing you and your family well to endure the intense challenges now present, and coming in the near future, you need to find one that is, if you have that opportunity. But I also believe that flocking to shock-jock right-wing churches is foolish and dangerous, because those pastors aren’t helping people either.

What should responsible leaders, and responsible followers, be looking to as a model? Well, study the leadership of pastors under Communism, and other oppressive regimes. How did they manage? How did Christians live and worship? How do they do so today in countries like Egypt? America is not Egypt, but are there lessons we can learn from them and apply here? What about in the lives of the martyrs? How did they live?

In my book Live Not By Lies, the most important lesson for us, according to all the different Christians from the former Soviet bloc I interview, is that we have to learn how to suffer as Christians. That’s not a popular message. The Christians who go to the shock-jock churches want to be told how to beat their enemies. The Christians who go to the Mr. Rogers-and-Ovaltine churches want to be comforted and told that everything is basically okay, and that they should just keep doing what they’re doing. But it’s not okay, and it’s not going to be okay for many lifetimes. Yet it is very, very easy to imagine how Christians can win worldly victories, but lose their souls, and certainly their minds.

This is not going to be easy. We have never been here in America. This is what it means to be post-Christian. I really do believe that the progressive churches are going to dwindle out of existence over the next twenty or thirty years, and the Ovaltine churches will too. But the radical shock-jock churches will have given people no real spiritual food for the long, difficult journey ahead, only Red Bull and hot wings. What Christians need is priests and pastors who really do have a sense of urgency about the times, and who bring that to their teaching and leadership, but who also don’t yield to the false idols of right-wing politics or America-worship.

Who are the Christian pastors and lay leaders who model this? Anybody know?

To recall MBD’s tweet: Holy war really is thrust upon us, even though saying so embarrasses and alarms many respectable conservative Christians … but we also have to be faithful disciples and compelling witnesses to the non-Christian world, not conspiracy-besotted berserkers. I think it’s also true that on both left and right, churches that focus so intensely on What’s Happening Now — whether looking at it from the Left or the Right — are going to fail.

If there are any liberal journalists reading this, why not do a deep, Alberta-like dive into how politics has affected liberal churches? It’s not quite as obvious, because liberal churches, since the Social Gospel days, have always been more worldly. Still, though, I recall a conversation with a Jewish woman who had begun to attend a Conservative synagogue, because, she told me, she got so sick of everything at her Reform synagogue being so politicized. She’s a political liberal, but she attended temple to worship God and learn about Judaism, not to hear another sermon about Black Lives Matter, social justice, and the rest. What about people like her?



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