A Kingdom, Power, and Glory Book Club Review

The public establishment of Christianity may be considered as one of the most important and domestic revolutions which excite the most lively curiosity, and afford the most valuable instruction. The victories and the civil policy of Constantine no longer influence the state of Europe; but a considerable portion of the globe still retains the impression which it received from the conversion of that monarch; and the ecclesiastical institutions of his reign are still connected, by an indissoluble chain, with the opinions, the passions, and the interests of the present generation.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, page 634


Tim Alberta’s The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism is a very brave book. It’s the kind of confrontational expose that could produce death threats. It’s an in-you-face exploration into how anti-intellectual a certain slice of civilized Christianity has become in both its religious and political understandings, particularly as those formulations have been magnified into megachurches pastored by MAGA pastors. The book is a cover-to-cover unflinching examination of spiritual idolatry by someone who is himself an openly confessing evangelical Protestant Christian. The analysis is relentless.

What makes the book so compelling (besides the crisp writing style) is that Alberta knows the people he writes about, describes, interviews, and quotes. He lives in the same religious atmosphere they do. They are members of the evangelical tribe he’s quite familiar with. He knows their churches. He knows the preachers. He was a church kid (his father was the minister) from a white, affluent, conservative suburb of Detroit. He grew up in that white, conservative, affluent, evangelical, suburban environment. He continues to embrace a fair hunk of that identity. They’re his kind of people. Except that Alberta—besides being a tough and engaging writer—is a conservative, evangelical Christian, whereas most of the people (essentially all men) he writes about are “Christian” nationalists. And he’s not shy about criticizing their nationalist theology and naming names.

There’s are major and minor components in Alberta’s analysis of why the megachurch is so sunk in on itself. His major critique is that the politicized American church is not in accord with traditional Christian teaching on the separation of church and state. This critique is not about the pros and cons of tax exemption but, rather, about the biblical assertion that the church is “not of this world.” Heaven, says Tim Alberta, is the home of any true believer; to believe that a country or nation is or should be forcibly Christian is to flirt with idolatry. We’re not to get too distracted by politics, especially a politics that tries to unite church and state in ways that attempt to cause the state to be governed by religious conviction and doctrine.

The minor critique—Alberta repeatedly brushes up against these ideas but never dives deeply in—is that the issues Jesus talked about are not guns, gays, and gynecology, but sharing, kindness, and even universal compassion. (Love your enemy.) Alberta knows this, but that critique never completely rises to the surface of his analysis; it peeks out of the ethical closet on occasion but never emerges fully dressed. (Perhaps he senses that if he stressed the ethical point, his critics would shout that he’s a left-wing pinko and therefore—obviously!—not a real Christian and therefore irrelevant.)

There’s no need to summarize Alberta’s book. It’s full of thematic repetition. He visits church after church, interviews religious leader after religious leader. But Alberta is a good writer. He’s always present as narrator. He’s telling us his story, and he tells it exceptionally well. And a serious aspect of Alberta’s credibility is his obvious respect for both Truth and truth. He gets it that all truth is amenable to Truth, for Truth does not scorn her curious children but welcomes their discoveries, even if those discoveries are occasionally surprising and, sometimes, shocking.

But here is where the rubber hits the road. Tim Alberta’s brand of Christianity has its own anti-intellectual blockage, and he seems to be as mythologically convicted by that blockage—or blinded to it—as the megachurch folks are to theirs’. The difference is that Alberta gives every indication of loving and trusting the teachings of Jesus more than he reveres Christian doctrine. And that means he maintains a certain intellectual disposition and openness to truths that may be unwelcome to those who think they’ve got Truth all wrapped up in red, white, and blue bunting or the cross righteously draped with the stars and stripes.

There are Christians, people who call themselves Christian (and an increasing number who don’t), who really do try to get as close a feel for the peasant Jesus as they possibly can. Tim Alberta seems to be one of these people even as it’s most often “Christ,” not Jesus, that he venerates. So he’s got a big problem with his (understated) affection for Jesus versus his mythological commitment to a certain slice of evangelical Protestant doctrine the questioning of which makes the mythological believer tremble with jello-like fear. God, apparently, does not approve of those who question or violate His cosmic supremacy or doubt the eternal veracity of Christian doctrine and conviction. It’s hard to get to the peasant Jesus when the path there is so thoroughly blocked and checkpointed by the Christ police.

That is to say, the kind of Christianity Alberta comes out of, and to which he still seems attached, is itself a supremist mythology. The Christian god is the Only God. There is no salvation but through Christ. Christianity is the only fully blessed religion. And, of course, once the ecclesiastical splintering gets fully underway, the sectarian blessing gets ever more narrow and sharply defined. White, American, affluent, conservative, evangelical Christianity is one of those sharply defined blessings that doesn’t want to dirty its fingers with politics because Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world. Those who are eager to dirty their hands seem to believe they’ve got Christ in a red, white, and blue bag.

I would like to read more of Tim Alberta. But what I’d really like to see is a book—it could be the same sort of report-and-interview narrative he does so well—of the Jesus Seminar scholars, those very serious folks who have gathered, for about forty years, under the institutional wings of the Westar Institute. Here is a Christianity quite different, even radically different, than the Apollonian Christianity of white, affluent, suburban, anti-intellectual, civilized Christians. The book I would like to see Tim Alberta write could change his life. In my estimation, Tim Alberta needs a lot less Christ and a bigger dose of Jesus. That might even constitute a conversion.