Online Conversation | The Kingdom, the Power, & the Glory with Tim Alberta

American Christians have not been immune to the anger, division, and fear that characterize this political moment. For many, the prospect of another election year is a source of dread or of numb exhaustion; others have responded with aggression or defensiveness. Reflecting on our recent history, what can we learn from the varied responses? How can we proceed with wisdom, and a Christlike witness, in this turbulent political age?

In his new book The Kingdom, The Power, and The Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism, journalist Tim Alberta speaks to these questions through the stories of his encounters with believers across the country, and through his own experience as a believer and the son of a pastor.

We hosted an Online Conversation with Tim Alberta on February 23 to discuss what faithful political engagement looks like in a time of division and fear.

Online Conversation | Tim Alberta | February 23, 2024

Cherie Harder: Welcome to today’s Online Conversation with Tim Alberta on “The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory.” We’re delighted that so many of you—I think we have around 2,000 or so of you—have registered for today’s Online Conversation, and want to send out a special welcome to our first-time guests—I know there’s over 250 of you—as well as our international guests, joining us from at least 21 different countries that we know of, ranging from Belgium and Brazil to Pakistan and the Philippines. So if you haven’t already done so, drop us a note in the chat box. Let us know where you’re viewing in from, watching in from. It’s always fun for us to see the wide community of people who are tuning in.

And if you are one of those first-time attendees of today’s Online Conversation or are otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we work to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought for the common good and provide a place where leaders can wrestle with the big questions of life and ultimately come to better know the Author of the answers. We hope today’s conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.

By any measure, these are angry and divisive times. Study after study seems to confirm what so many of us sense and experience: that we the people seem to grow angrier, more divided, and more politicized, as well as more belligerent, in our attitudes, communications, and interactions—with painful and poisonous consequences, both for us as persons and for “we the people.” One of the issues we have repeatedly explored in these Online Conversations is what a faithful response to this challenge looks like, and how to discern and follow the ways of Jesus amidst controversy and conflict. So it was particularly sobering to read the results of a new survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, which found that nearly a quarter of Americans agreed with the idea that “things have gotten so far off track that true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save the country.” Even worse, support for such violence was highest—among all religious groups—among self-reported white evangelicals, with around a third of them indicating support for such violence. Which leads us to the question, how did we get to this point? What path has led us to a place where so many Christians support aggression, even violence, against their neighbors, in order to win political battles or culture wars?

Our guest today is both a preacher’s kid and political analyst, a Christian and a clear-eyed journalist, who has asserted, in his words, that “the crisis of American evangelicalism comes down to an obsession with worldly identity. Instead of seeing ourselves as exiles in a metaphorical Babylon, we have embraced our imperial citizenship. Instead of fleeing the temptation to rule the world like Jesus did, we have made deals with the devil.” And he argues that the way forward lies not on focusing on political domination, but fixing our eyes on a kingdom not of this world. 

It’s a provocative and a powerful argument, and one made with particular insight and expertise by our guest today, Tim Alberta. Tim is an award-winning journalist, a staff writer for The Atlantic, the former chief political correspondent for Politico, and has written for dozens of publications including The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, and Vanity Fair. He’s also the author of the critically-acclaimed work American Carnage, as well as his new and also best-selling work, The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss.

Tim, welcome.

Tim Alberta: Cherie, thank you so much for having me.

Cherie Harder: In starting this book, I always am interested in what the story behind the story is. And in your case, I think it is particularly compelling and perhaps particularly unsettling. You tell an anecdote at the beginning of this book about an experience you had following your father’s unexpected death from a heart attack in 2019, in which you flew back to your hometown and to the church that you grew up in. And at the funeral, after giving his eulogy, you were confronted not only by those who sought to comfort you, but also those who sought to critique your politics. I’d love for you to tell a little bit about that story and how it influenced your decision to write this book.

Tim Alberta: Sure. Well, Cherie, first, thank you for having me. Really, I’m honored to be in conversation with you. And I’m hopeful that, as my father would start off every sermon that I ever heard him give, praying that if he said anything unpleasing in the sight of the Lord, that it would be reduced to nothing and quickly, and that God would be glorified and God alone. So I pray that same thing and offer that same caveat upfront in sharing this story and in our discussion more broadly.

My father was an atheist. He came from a broken home. He battled some real demons in his life and had found great success, great material success, in the world of finance in New York and thought he had it all. And yet he had nothing. And the short version of a long and fascinating story is that he ultimately came to Christ in the unlikeliest of circumstances, and not only came to Christ, but felt called to abandon his lavish lifestyle and to enter the ministry. And he did that some years before I was actually born. And so by the time I was about five years old, my family had moved a few times, and we wound up settling in a suburb of Detroit. Brighton, Michigan was my hometown. And the church that my dad really grew there from the ground up was our home for the next 30-some-odd years. And it’s just impossible to overstate how deeply connected my own identity, my family’s identity, was to this church. And my dad was really sort of a larger-than-life figure there as the senior pastor for more than 25 years, and really kind of a pillar of the community there.

And when he died, quite unexpectedly, it just so happened that he died just less than two weeks after my first book, American Carnage, had been released. And that book was very unsparing in its portrayals of Donald Trump, not only in my own analysis, but in the words of many people around him on the record who were speaking in some cases for the first time publicly about their views of the then-president. And so that book really kind of put me in the crosshairs of right-wing media, made a lot of enemies. The president himself tweeted angrily about it. There was quite a commotion there. And then right in the middle of all of that happening, my dad suddenly dropped dead of a massive heart attack, which was, of course, a traumatic moment for my family. And when I went home to Brighton, Michigan, for the funeral, I was quite unpleasantly surprised by the number of people who, at the visitation, while my dad was laying in a box 50 feet away, saw an occasion there to have it out with me about our political differences, about the things that I’d been writing, about the sense of betrayal they felt, that I could be saying these things about our president. 

And really, what was most consistent, in some of these conversations, was that a number of these people let me know that they had heard Rush Limbaugh lighting into me on his show recently. And so it was almost a “hey, which side are you on?” sort of thing. You know, are you on the side of Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump and the good, God-fearing, Bible-believing Christians in a room like this? Or are you one of those people? Are you fighting for the other side? Are you seeking to delegitimize and marginalize your brethren, your people?

And it was quite upsetting. And I can’t say that I was entirely shocked, stunned, by it, because what I had seen in the years leading up to that was a more and more belligerent, antagonistic, us-versus-them attitude permeating portions of the evangelical movement. And yet that was still very much, to me, sort of an abstract phenomenon. It was something that I knew was happening, but not something that was immediately threatening to me. And so I probably just brushed it off. I sort of kept it at arm’s length. And I think it’s, of course, very difficult to see within our own tribe when something has gone wrong, and it’s even harder to then confront it. And so I really had no appetite for that.

And shortly after we buried my father and I gave a eulogy in which I took to task some of these folks for their criticisms, for their confrontational approach to me the day earlier at the wake. But I really made a point of emphasizing the discipleship question and saying, “Listen, whatever you think about me, fine. But like, Rush Limbaugh? Really? Is that who we are?” It was so discouraging to me, not just that we were having robust, lively political discourse in the setting of a funeral, which was odd on its own, but that so many people independent of one another were citing Rush Limbaugh as their sort of inspiration. And to me, that was incredibly troublesome because I’m thinking to myself, this is not just a matter of disagreeing or even just a matter of getting news from a source that might put a certain partisan spin on the ball. You know, Rush Limbaugh, certainly in these latter years of his broadcasting career, Rush Limbaugh wasn’t preaching conservatism. He wasn’t preaching republicanism. He was preaching hatred. He was preaching hostility and animus and sort of blood-and-soil subjugation of the other. And to me, that is just antithetical to the gospel. It is antithetical to who we are called to be as Christians.

And so in my eulogy, I made a point of saying, “Listen, you know, we can agree on certain things, disagree on certain things, but really, the next time you’re in your car, ask yourself, ‘Rush Limbaugh? Am I being discipled? Am I being cultivated in Christ? Am I being sanctified? Am I drawing closer to Christ’s likeness by spending the afternoon with Rush Limbaugh?’ Or might there be a great podcast to tune into? Might there be an old sermon of my father’s that you could listen to?” And I sort of issued that challenge, and it did not go over terribly well. There were a lot of people unhappy with that, and one of them decided to write me a note that I received a few hours later after we’d buried my father. And the note came from someone I’d known for most of my life, a long-time elder in the church, a close friend of my father’s, and he wrote me this note that I opened just after we’d returned home from the cemetery, and it basically accused me of being a traitor and a part of the deep state. He said that I was undermining God’s ordained leader of this country, Donald Trump, and that there would be judgment for me because of that, unless I was willing to repent and use my journalism skills to investigate that deep state and to exonerate Donald Trump, that that would be bringing glory to God.

And in that moment, Cherie, I think what had been up until that point something of an abstract problem that I had been unwilling to confront became much more immediate, became much more threatening, and ultimately became something that I could no longer turn away from.

Cherie Harder: You know, one of the points you make in your work and you alluded to it just now—that of discipleship—you know, so much of the spiritual disciplines is where we focus our time and attention and resources, and that affects what we come to love. I’ve not listened to late-era Rush Limbaugh, but the blood-and-soil nationalism that you mentioned, the appeal of that, ironically, does not seem to be—well, certainly not Christian—does not seem to be conservative in the traditional sense. It’s much more authoritarian and reactionary rather than kind of a Burkean conservative. Why has an authoritarian blood-and-soil nationalism seemed to capture the attention and positive interest of so many people of faith when its appeal seems to be quite contrary to the ways of Christ?

Tim Alberta: I think, Cherie, we have to understand just fundamentally that faith and fear are really polar opposites, and, spiritually speaking, they are arch-enemies. Perhaps the only thing as powerful as faith is fear. I mean, we think about Peter walking out on the water to meet Jesus, taking that step out of the boat in faith. And Jesus saying, “Keep your eyes on me.” And Peter is walking on the water, and the disciples are bug-eyed and astonished at what they’re seeing. And as soon as Peter looks for a moment away from Jesus and sees the swirling winds, sees the cascading waves, sees the bolts of lightning in the sky, he suddenly becomes frightened and he starts to drown. And Jesus reaches down and pulls him up out of the water and says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

It is, I think, perhaps reductive and yet essential for us to understand that fear—fear of losing something, fear of being replaced or displaced, fear of being marginalized, fear of forfeiting a majority status culturally that we have enjoyed for so long—that is the beating heart of this ascendant movement that we might consider to be sort of right-wing evangelical extremism or Christian nationalism—or however you want to think about the terminology, and we can certainly get into that and unpack it some. But at its core there is, without question, a belief that is now scaling in ways I think we have not seen before, a belief that America is teetering at the edge of the abyss, that we are this close to losing our country, our Christian nation, our Judeo-Christian heritage. And that in these desperate times, desperate measures must be adopted, and that if we lose this fight, then there may not be a tomorrow. There may not be another chance to reclaim what is being lost.

And so if you are operating in that sort of construct, you find it effortless and almost, I would say, second-nature to then ally yourselves with people, with movements, with forces, that are decidedly un-Christ-like in the means, because you believe that the ends ultimately can justify it. And that presents deep problems at a cultural, societal level. But I think most important, it presents a crisis at a theological level, because what we know is that in studying the Gospels and in studying the apostolic era, there was very little concern, if any, with the [ends]. There was a great deal of concern with the [means]. And we have now, I think, almost reached a default posture, far too many of us—and I can be guilty of this as much as anyone at times—of believing that in a moment of hardship, in a moment of urgency, in a moment of “the walls are closing in, what can we do to stave off these assaults on our way of life?”, we can fall very easily into this mentality of the ends justifying the means. And we do it primarily out of fear and out of a desire for self-preservation.

And those things, we are taught again and again and again by Christ—and it’s not ambiguous—that those cannot become our goals, that they cannot become the things that drive us, that animate us, that define us. And, unfortunately, I believe that the lessons of Christ have been sort of set to the side, in some cases just discarded entirely, ironically enough in the pursuit of preserving Christianity itself.

Cherie Harder: You know, I’m sure you’ve encountered this, but I can imagine people listening thinking, you know, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned and worried. They look out and they see one injustice after the other. They see ways that people of faith are mocked and ridiculed. They see what seems to be encroaching injustice, curtailment of different freedoms. In many ways there is an understandable concern and worry. At the same time, the Bible is very explicit to be not afraid or to fear only God. And I’m kind of curious how you would respond to people who say, boy, these seem to be fearful times and it seems appropriate that we be engaged and that we push back against the injustice that we see. How do you counsel people who want to respond in a robust way, but in a hopeful way, as opposed to a fearful manner?

Tim Alberta: Well, I’d say a couple of things, Cherie. It’s a great question, and I would begin by accepting the premise that there are legitimate reasons for people to feel spooked, for people to survey the culture around them and to worry about where this goes next. Because if you are—particularly for the older generations—if you were born in the 1950s, 1960s, you grew up in a very different America than the one that you are raising your kids or grandkids in today. And there’s no question that cultural, social, political mores have changed. And in the view of those folks, they have changed for the worse. And you begin to feel, as Pastor Robert Jeffress says to me in a chapter of my book, when we’re really diving into this, you feel that you are under siege. And that is, of course, not coincidentally, the language that former President Trump has co-opted and wielded quite effectively in talking to conservative Christian audiences, saying that, “You are under siege, they are coming for you. You need someone to fight back on your behalf.”

The problem here is that, as Christians, we signed up to be under siege. This is, again, not ambiguous. There’s not a lot of room for interpretation. When you read the Gospels, Jesus warns us that they hated him and therefore they will hate you. There are, really, as I write in the book, two firm promises that accompany faith in Christ. One is eternal life and the other is persecution in this life. And so it becomes frustrating, I must admit, at times to be in conversation with folks who seem to have consciously or subconsciously rewritten parts of the New Testament to say, you know, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, well, then slap them on their right cheek. Or, you know, if someone asks for your cloak, say, “Well, how much for it?” Right? In other words, we have seemingly inverted some of the core teachings of Christ to better fit and more conveniently apply to an era in which we feel uniquely marginalized, uniquely persecuted. And just to be quite blunt about it for a moment, that is just bad history. One cannot study the early church history, one cannot study even just the first-century church and the outgrowth of the earliest stations of organized Christianity in the Roman Empire, and conclude that these people were anything less than oppressed, beaten, tortured, martyred.

And yet there’s something very interesting happening all the while. I mentioned Peter earlier, and I’ll do so again here. I’m a shameless Peter fan-boy. He’s my sort of favorite biblical character outside of Christ because I think Peter represents the great— and I’m a sucker for narrative arcs as a writer, of course. Peter’s narrative arc, I think, represents exactly the evolution toward Christ-likeness that we are called to pursue. If the guy who, on the night of Jesus’s betrayal, was willing to pull out his sword and strike the servant of the High priest while Jesus is being arrested because he is fearful, he is afraid that they are losing something, and he reacts the only way that he knows how. Of course, he’s been following Jesus for three years. He knows very well the doctrines of nonviolence, and he knows very well what Jesus has promised them about persecution and about laying down their life to find it. And yet, in this moment, how does Peter respond? With the sword. Right? And you ask yourself, what could have possibly changed for that man, that same man who in the Garden of Gethsemane was willing to turn to the sword, that some period of years later he is writing from house arrest in Rome, and his entire first epistle is built around this idea of “we are no longer people of the sword, we are people of the cross.” We are called to not only love our neighbor, we are called to love our oppressor, our persecutor, our executioner, perhaps, and that we draw closer to God not only in our suffering, but in our grace toward the people around us who hate us.

That is happening in the context of brutal oppression for those people in the early church. And they would have had every reason, I think, Cherie, to lash out in the way that we now lash out, because they could have looked around and said, “Well, we are under siege. Look at how they’re oppressing us. Look at how they’re marginalizing us.” And yet they did exactly the opposite. And what is the great irony in this? That in those phases of history where Christianity has existed at the margins, far removed from power, far removed from military might, from political influence, cultural prestige—in those periods of history, the Christian witness has absolutely flourished. It has—. We can see the ways in which being truly countercultural has helped the church grow and expand and enhance its credibility.

And, in fact, the inverse of that is also true. We have seen the periods of history when Christianity’s lust after power and might and its yearning to conquer the world around it and to impose its value sets on all that, those have been the moments when Christianity has been weakened institutionally and when it has lost its countercultural appeal.

And so to bring this long-winded answer home, my response to people in those moments is that you, ultimately, as a Christian, are called to be in sales, not in management. That’s an old line that I’ve stolen from my dad. It was one of his best one-liners. You are called to be in sales, not in management. Your job is to all the nations, to all the peoples, to your community, to your neighbor, to the person who is being horrible and nasty and hateful towards you. Your call is to love that person, to pray for that person, and to present Christ. Not your version of Christ. Not the conveniently tailored iteration of Christ that you might feel more comfortable with, but the true biblical Christ, to that person. And let God deal with the rest. Let God deal with your being under siege. Let the Alpha and the Omega who has a sovereign plan for the ages worry about whether or not the next presidential election in America is somehow going to spell doom for the gospel, because my hunch is that God is a whole lot bigger than Joe Biden versus Donald Trump. And those who would pretend otherwise, I think, do a great disservice to the gospel.

Cherie Harder: There’s so much more I could ask you, but one thing I feel like I have to ask before we turn to questions from our viewers is what you’ve just described is in many ways, it is not natural. It requires supernatural help. And that’s part of what spiritual disciplines are. We don’t get there by binge-listening to late-era Rush Limbaugh. It requires spiritual training. And having gone through this experience yourself and kind of analyzed what has happened, both as a political analyst, but also as a Christian, I’m curious what spiritual disciplines you believe are most needed for both us as individuals cruising into what I think almost everyone is concerned is going to be an increasingly difficult year, but also for the body of Christ. What should churches be doing communally, to essentially spiritually prepare for what’s ahead?

Tim Alberta: I will answer the individual part first because it’s a little bit easier, I think. So I’ll buy myself a bit of time to think on the second part. You know, at an individual level, I’ve heard different versions of these analogies before, and I find them quite helpful. You know, if Tiger Woods rather than, during the height of his career, if rather than putting several thousand golf balls a day, he had just putted let’s say a hundred and then gone back to the clubhouse and binged on fried chicken and chocolate cake and hard liquor—well, when he walks out to the tee the next day, he’s probably not going to be operating at peak performance. Another analogy that I’ve cooked up on my own that may not be as instructive, but bear with me if you would: I’ve always had these funny episodes over the years where you’ll see people who are having some personal fitness frustrations and they might say, “Yeah, but, you know, I’m going to the gym every day.” And you, by taking a good look at them, you say, “No, you’re not.” Now, I say that—and of course, that could come across as cruel, body shaming, what have you—I think I say that because “you shall know them by their fruit” is more than a clever line of prose. I think it is an instruction for us and a warning to us that if you are in the gym every day, consistent, disciplined, programmatic, then people will look at you and know that you are in the gym every day.

And I what I fear—and I see this in my own life, Cherie—what I fear, because of my profession, because of what I do for a living, oftentimes I find it impossible to escape from the news cycle. I get sucked into something, and then I’m on to the next thing. And then I’ve got an editor calling me and a source calling me, and the next thing you know, my day has been swallowed up by this doom and gloom and bad news and hatred and sort of mutually escalating belligerence between parties and whatnot. And I have to say that I can notice within myself a distinct difference on days when I spend more time in Scripture, more time listening to a great podcast, more time listening to a sermon from a pastor somewhere, more time praying and in conversation with the Lord, and less time consuming news. I can notice within myself a difference. 

It’s a little bit like—to go back to the exercise analogy—it’s a little bit like if you hop on the treadmill or on the aerobic bike or whatever, first thing in the morning, and you get a great sweat, you’re on there for 45 minutes, you burn a ton of calories and you get off the bike, for the rest of the day, you are really mindful of what you’re putting into your body because you don’t want to spoil or almost betray the hard work that you’ve just put in. Right? And I think that spiritual discipline and sort of epistemological dieting is that same idea, that if you, particularly early in the day—. And I know that I grew up with two parents, I was very blessed to have two parents who literally every day of their lives, even on vacations, were up earlier than anyone else, and they were in separate parts of the living room with their legal pads, with their Bibles, and spent an hour or more in their quiet time. And I used to sort of ask my dad, like, “Do you really? You know, come on, like, you’re a preacher, dude, you got a PhD. Like, you know this stuff. Do you really need to do this?” And he would say, “Yeah, I do, because if I don’t, then I turn into a weirdo for the rest of the day. The way that I think, the way that I talk, the way that I engage with people, the way that I consume news, it’s all out of kilter because I haven’t first set that baseline that I need.”

And so if there is a wildly disproportionate ratio of your consumption, if you’re getting two thirds or three quarters or more of your daily intake coming not just from secular sources but from secular sources whose business model is fear and anger and grievance and resentment and bitterness, and then you’re just getting maybe a little small helping of Scripture on the side, you’re poisoning your body the same way you’d be poisoning your body, to keep mixing metaphors here, if your food pyramid were inverted and you were, you know, all the sweets, all the sugars, all the junk food, and then just like a little bit of green vegetables down here. It’s the same thing. You cannot expect your body to prosper and to function properly if you’re doing that.

And I think we—to transition into your second question, Cherie—we cannot expect the body of Christ to function properly when, as with so many church settings I’ve stepped into, so many pastors I’ve talked to, they describe again and again to me the root problem in their congregations as an information problem, that their people are being discipled 80 to 90% by talk radio, by social media, by cable news, and maybe 10, 15, 20% if they’re lucky by the Scripture. And I think—really, I truly believe this, I’m not searching for optimism here—I truly believe that if that could be inverted, and if we were to begin practicing a diet in which our Scripture, our quiet time, our listening to great podcasts, our dwelling on the Word of God was the dominant intake in our life, and then there was just a little bit of the other stuff, news and whatnot on the side, I think that that could be the single biggest transformative effect inside of the church. I really do. 

And I recognize that that is a big if. It’s not something that’s going to happen easily or overnight, but it would seem to me that it is the place to start from a pastoring standpoint, from a small-group community standpoint, holding one another accountable. It would represent a sea change in our churches. And it may not change the way that you vote. It may not change what policies you support. It may not fundamentally alter your ideological outlook on anything. It might not change the “what” or the “who”, but will it change the “how”—how you engage with your opponents, how you treat your neighbor, how you respond to feeling under siege? My sense is that it would. 

Cherie Harder: Well, the questions are piling up. So we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers. And the first one comes from Anne Miller. And she asked, “Do you think that much of what we see in society at large is a backlash due to the un-Christlike behavior of many Christians? Have we brought some of this on ourselves? And is it possible to turn this around through humility and loving action?”

Tim Alberta: Yes and yes. I do believe— and I’m unapologetic in this belief. I know that it’s a source of contentiousness. I do believe that, as I write a couple of times in the book, quoting some people who present the data to support their arguments, I do believe that more and more of the secular world hates us not for being too Christian, but for being too unchristian. I was sharing with a pastor friend of mine over breakfast this morning that one of the really remarkable things to me is I have spent the last two and a half months in deeply secular spaces with deeply secular people. I mean, one night in particular, I was holding court inside of 30 Rock because I had taped, I think, a 9 p.m. segment and then an 11 p.m. segment. And so I was just hanging out in the green room for a little while, killing time. And right across the way, there’s a makeup room with one of their hosts preparing hair, makeup, and we start talking. And then the makeup artist wanted in on the conversation, and then the hair artist wanted it on the conversation. And then a couple of the other guests who had been coming and going, they wanted in on the conversation. I’m not sure that a single one of these people went to church that following Sunday. I’m not sure that some of them had ever been inside of a church. And yet when I talked to them about Christ—not about Christianity, not about the institutions of the Church, not about some of the trappings that we have used to erect barriers to entry—but when I talk to them about Jesus, do you know what I received in return? Genuine organic curiosity. And I have to say that in all of these secular spaces—and I could share a number of other examples like this—it has been incredibly encouraging and honestly surprising to me that in all of these secular spaces, if we’re talking about Jesus—and not just a fluffy, feel-good Jesus—the risen Christ who came to bring the sword, and in talking about the true doctrine of depravity and reconciliation and justification and sanctification and salvation through the resurrection and the resurrection alone, it has been astonishing to me how many people have then wanted to talk more. They haven’t wanted to fight about it. They haven’t wanted to mock me, marginalize me. They’ve wanted to learn more about this Jesus.

In fact, I could show you emails that have brought me to tears in the last month or two from people who have walked out of these settings and said, “Hey, I just want you to know, I’m actually doing some more reading, and I think I might go to church this Sunday.” And this is not to glorify me. This is not to pound my chest. But the point is Christ is exclusive, but he is not exclusionary. And I think far too often we have presumed to know, in our incredibly finite wisdom, who it is that we’re sitting across the table from, and what part of God’s kingdom they might have a part in or not have a part in. And my fear is that that arrogance, that unwillingness to just be in sales and instead promote ourselves to management is a crisis for the Church, and that if we could get out of our own way and if we could just let that door stay propped open to some of these folks instead of slamming it shut in their face, then the Church would benefit. Society would benefit. Our communities would benefit. And ultimately the kingdom of God would benefit.

Cherie Harder: That’s great. So, in a way, a follow-on to that answer comes from a question from John Owen, who asked, “Historically, Christians such as Wilberforce have been political activists who influence cultural change. How might Christians today be political activists and still be in sales, not management?”

Tim Alberta: It’s a great question. Let me say a couple of things in response. There have been some suggestions in certain unfriendly, unflattering analyzes or reviews of my book that what I’m prescribing is that basically Christians dig underground bunkers and go down and never engage with civil society again because we have to be separatists in this moment, that any sort of political engagement is therefore the gateway drug to idolatry, which in fact could be nothing further from the truth. And of course, it always causes you to wonder how much of the book any of these people actually read because at times I explicitly discuss the slave trade, the abolitionist movement. I discuss, obviously, the civil rights movement, among other movements, causes historically that have been inspired by Scripture, have been inspired by the words of Christ.

I think what we have to be cautious about is recognizing, as a pastor friend of mine said, that Jesus was political, but Jesus was not partisan. And there is a difference, right? In other words, any time we start to morph Jesus into some sort of a mascot for the donkeys or the elephants, we have stripped him of his singular, beautiful, splendid wonder as he who is meant to unite all the nations, he in whom there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, man or woman, but one body in Christ. And I think there’s a temptation for us to believe that when it comes to one certain issue, or maybe a couple of certain issues, where we believe that one side is the good guys and the other side are the bad guys, well, then we attach ourselves to that one side, and we begin to process every partisan political dispute that takes place between those two warring tribes as not a battle between Republicans and Democrats, or conservatives and liberals, or red versus blue, but really as a cosmic showdown between good and evil. And when you’ve suddenly locked yourself into that place, you begin to not view your adversaries as just adversaries, as opponents. You begin to view them as enemies. You begin to dehumanize them. You begin to strip away from them that image of God that we are called to see in all of his people.

And so there is every opportunity for Christians to engage healthily in the civic arena, whether that is running for office or whether it’s stuffing ballots and making phone calls or canvasing neighborhoods or anything in between. All of that is fine and good and to be commended. And yet, the moment that we allow political electoral wins and losses to shape our identity, and the moment that we allow—to be more explicit about this—the moment that we allow political power to become an idol to us, and we justify it by saying, “well, but that power can be used for good, for the betterment of a society, to bring God back into the classrooms, to bring God back into our cultural institutions”—the minute that that starts to happen, you have ceased to serve and glorify God, and you have begun to serve and glorify self. And that is a fine line to walk.

And so my caution in the book is to make sure that we are first and foremost serving his kingdom, not our kingdom, that we are first and foremost steeped in and working through his power and not seeking our own power, that we are first and foremost meant to glorify him and to boast in knowing him and him alone, rather than glorifying ourselves and boasting in ourselves and what we may have accomplished.

And again, there is no blueprint for this. There’s no magic formula. It has to be understood situationally, circumstantially. But this returns us, Cherie, to the earlier point about discipleship, my hunch— and, again, I am the most flawed person of the 762 on this call. I fail every day in this regard, but I promise those listening that if you are able to anchor your day in the Scriptures, if you are able to anchor your day in the teachings of Christ and in the applications of his apostles and in the lessons of the early church, if you are able to do that, then it will transform your mind for the rest of the day in understanding where that line is, and having the discernment and the wisdom to know when not to cross it.

Cherie Harder: So many questions and just apologies to our viewers. We really do appreciate all the questions. Obviously there’s not time to get to all of them, but I’ll finish with combining two, sort of asking about what then should we do? So Brendan Cole asked, “How should we interact and love those who work in politics, or are wrapped up in politics, or have embraced the brand of identity politics that you describe?” And then Rob Selkoe, who asked, “From your experience as an interviewer, what questions would be useful to get faithful friends to examine disordered thinking?”

Tim Alberta: That’s really good. Well, so, listen— I think a couple of things. You would be amazed at—and of course, I’m using that as a rhetorical device because I think you would not be amazed—many of you have already studied the stories of Augustine, the story of C.S. Lewis, the story of Chuck Colson. There is something beautiful and mysterious and divine about showing grace and mercy and understanding toward those who are in search of the Lord. You know, I make this point in my book, and I just can’t underscore it enough, Cherie, because I think, to me, it was one of the great epiphanies I had in my travels and my reporting and in my writing: The New Testament model is very clear on how we are to engage with the outsider. Because they do not know God, we are to treat them with a bottomless supply of generosity, of kindness, of understanding, of grace, of mercy, of charity, because they don’t know God and they don’t know any better as a result of it. Right. That is the early-church model. That is the New Testament model. And I would say, by the way, that the other part of that New Testament model is, while you’re giving that sort of bottomless grace towards those on the outside, you are practicing the strictest of accountability for those on the inside. Right? Because they do know better. They are to be held to the highest standard.

And I fear that one of our great problems in the American church is that we have essentially inverted that model and done exactly the opposite. We show a bottomless grace and forgiveness and love and kind of justification and turning a blind eye to the sins inside our own house, to the people who were either committing the abuse or enabling the abuse or covering up the abuse, to the people who have turned their churches into war zones over partisan political disputes. The people who I think have gotten away with murder in many of these congregations, we treat them with a brotherly/sisterly deference that, frankly, is not entirely called for in the New Testament. And yet, simultaneously, for the outsider, for our perceived enemy, we treat them with contempt, with judgment, with sort of righteous hostility. And it’s incredibly discouraging to see that because we never know, as another pastor friend of mine said to me recently, we never know who is sitting across the table from us. You know, we have no idea that the person who has the alternative lifestyle and the sort of pugnacious, outspoken, venomous anger towards God and the wholesale rejection of Scripture today might be the person, a couple of years from now, revolutionizing a movement in their community to bring people to the Christ who transformed their lives.

And we, having come from a place of depravity and brokenness and who are fighting every day—. You know, I used this analogy in a small group setting recently, and somebody said to me, “Hey, that’s really good. You should use that.” And so I’ll try it again here. And if anybody wants to throw tomatoes through the screen, feel free. But the resurrection of Jesus is so deeply connected with our salvation and with our ongoing sanctification, in part, I believe, because whereas Jesus’s burial cloths were left in one place on that bench inside the tomb in the garden—he emerged free of those cloths, he was free of sin—we being born again and we conquering death in Christ, we emerge from that tomb still wrapped in all of those bandages, and every day we are endeavoring to pull them off a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more, to eventually unravel ourselves entirely from sin and to become more like Christ. And for any of us—while we are still wrapped in these bloody, nasty, smelly burial cloths because of the death we were headed toward were it not for Christ entering our lives and saving us—for us in that position, to be wagging a finger at any one else is, I believe, not only unhelpful and destructive, but I genuinely believe that it makes Jesus weep and that we can and must do better for him.

Cherie Harder: Tim, thank you. And thank you for all the great questions. There were many of them. We’re so sorry we couldn’t get to all of them. In just a moment, I want to give Tim the last word, but before that, a few things to share with you. First, when we wrap up, you will see on your screen an invitation to send us some feedback. We really do value this, so thank you in advance for giving that feedback. We read all of these and we do try to incorporate your suggestions to make these programs ever more valuable. As a small token of appreciation for sending in that survey, we will send you a code for a free Trinity Forum digital Reading download of your choice. And there’s a few we would particularly recommend that we think would supplement this conversation, and perhaps help one go even deeper in their thinking. One is by Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness,” as well as Vaclav Havel’s “Politics, Morality, and Civility.” And of course, Augustine’s “The City of God,” not to be missed.

In addition, tomorrow, right around noon, we’ll be sending around an email with a lightly edited video of today’s Online Conversation, as well as a list of further recommended readings and resources, and would love for you to share that video with others. Start a conversation about some of the topics that we’ve raised here, or go more deeply in your own thinking.

In addition, we would love to invite all of you watching to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who share and want to further Trinity Forum’s mission of cultivating, curating, and disseminating the best of Christian thought for the common good. There are many benefits of being a member of the Trinity Forum Society, including a membership and a subscription to our quarterly Readings, as well as our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations. And as a special incentive and thank you for joining, if you join or with your contribution of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Tim Alberta’s book, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory. So hope you will avail yourself of that invitation.

In addition, if you would like to sponsor an upcoming Online Conversation, we would love to hear from you. And please just go ahead and indicate that on your feedback form.

We want to let you know about a few other Online Conversations coming up. Next week, same time, we’ll be talking with Amy Julia Becker on “Perfectly Human: Why Understanding Disability Matters to All of Us.” A couple of weeks after that, on March 15th, we’ll be talking with Phil Yancey on “Life, Death, Poetry, and Peace.” And then on March 22nd with Charlie Peacock and Andi Ashworth on “What Matters Most.” You can access all of our past Online Conversations on our website at or on our YouTube page. And of course, many of them are also available in the form of a podcast through our Conversations podcast.

And finally, as promised, Tim, the last word is yours.

Tim Alberta: Well, Cherie, thank you so much for hosting me today. And thank you, all of you who are tuned in and listening. It’s been a blessing to be with you. And I want to, if I may briefly return to this question earlier of how then are we supposed to have a foot in the political arena and be engaged civically as Christians without compromising or corrupting our witness—I think it’s that word “corrupting” that comes to mind. I did a little bit of a deep-dive, nerded out, in the middle of the book because I noticed in my reporting that so many people were continually coming back to me with this quote of being salt and being light, particularly being salt and what that meant, and some of the interpretations, some of the exegesis, around what it meant to be salt. And what I found so interesting, the more I read and studied and tried to parse the verbiage here and looking back at early translations and trying to do the hermeneutical thing, was that the message so clearly to me was that salt was no ordinary rock. That salt had a distinctive flavor that set it apart from all the other ordinary rocks. And that when Jesus warned that once the salt loses its saltiness, that it is good for nothing except to be trampled under the feet of men, I think what he is warning us—and this pertains to our political engagement, obviously—I think what he is warning us is that we are called to be different. We are called to be distinct. We are called to not be ordinary, but to be extraordinary in him. 

And the moment we allow our distinctiveness to be taken from us by engaging in the sort of panicked, hyperbolic sky-is-falling, “what can we do to save ourselves”-mentality that animates so much of our politics—and I have seen it over my career reporting on this professionally, on the left, on the right, and everywhere in between—the moment we do that, we are no longer salt. We are just like every other rock and the flavor that we have is compromised. It is corrupted.

And so I would encourage those listening and I would pray alongside of you that in our political and civic engagement, no matter who it is that we ultimately vote for, no matter what policies we support, that our allegiance is never to the donkeys or to the Republicans. Our allegiance is never to a political figure. We have a king. We have a kingdom. And that the best way for us to retain our saltiness is to prioritize that allegiance and that allegiance alone.

A very quick addendum to that: one of the really eye-opening conversations I had early in my reporting process here was with the pastor who succeeded my dad at our home church, who’s a wonderful, godly man. And he gave me sort of a really good theology lesson over lunch one day, talking about how faith in the ancient world was very directly understood and translated in certain cases to mean allegiance. And that when one transfers their allegiance to Christ, as they did in the first-century Roman context, it meant transferring allegiance away from the rulers of Rome. It meant transferring allegiance away from the Jewish ruling elite. It meant transferring allegiance away from some of the subversive political movements that aimed to reclaim what had been taken from them. Right? To make Israel great again, if you will. Instead, those allegiances were now entirely subordinate to this highest allegiance to Christ. And that is what allowed the apostles and the leaders of the early Church to truly be salt, because they were no longer contaminated with their desire for power, for influence, for kingdom, for glory. It was all, “How might I be an ambassador for Christ and turn more of these ordinary rocks into pieces of salt?”

And I hope that we can take a lesson from that and apply it to our daily lives in this election year, when we will have every reason to abandon that sort of wisdom. I pray that we might keep it at the forefront every day.

Cherie Harder: Tim, Thank you. Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.