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The 'heartbreaking' political rift within evangelicalism

The Atlantic's Tim Alberta writes that he's spent his life "watching evangelicalism morph from a spiritual disposition into a political identity. It's heartbreaking." (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The Atlantic's Tim Alberta writes that he's spent his life "watching evangelicalism morph from a spiritual disposition into a political identity. It's heartbreaking." (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Tim Alberta has spent his life “watching evangelicalism morph from a spiritual disposition into a political identity,” he wrote for The Atlantic. He adds: “It’s heartbreaking.”

He says that transformation is causing major divisions inside the church and political danger on the outside. Alberta illustrates the divide through two Michigan pastors.

Pastor Bill Bolin has managed to “harness political and cultural grievance and really weave it into the fabric of the church,” including by spreading false information, says Alberta. And Ken Brown leads a conservative church outside of Detroit but tries to keep his members from being radicalized by a certain kind of right-wing politics.

“Ken Brown has been trying to keep a lid on this inside his church and trying to help people understand which battles are worth fighting and aren’t worth fighting,” Alberta says. “But I think even more fundamentally, trying to discern what is true from what is untrue.”

Interview Highlights

On the rise of Bill Bolin’s church, FloodGate Church, during the pandemic

“Despite having grown up in that town and despite being the son of a pastor in that town and knowing just about everybody at all the churches in that town, I’d actually never heard of FloodGate. It was a very small church. And a couple of years ago, at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the pastor there, Bill Bolin, essentially made a calculation that he was not going to shut down his church in compliance with state orders. And in so doing, he became a small-time celebrity in the local evangelical scene. The church, which had a weekly attendance of somewhere around 100, started seeing several hundred. And today, the church is pushing towards 2,000 people on an average Sunday. … It’s a place where there has been an effortless alliance between political conservatism — in many cases, sort of far right, Republican ideology — and conservative biblical theology. And that has produced quite a windfall financially. In addition to the massive numbers of new people attending the church.”

On what Bolin’s sermons are like 

“On any given Sunday, you will hear about Republican efforts around the country to ease COVID restrictions, for example, or policies on mask wearing, for example. But it goes farther into more conspiratorial areas regarding vaccines and the implications of what vaccines are doing to people, harming people, even going so far as to preach the gospel of ivermectin… the controversial horse dewormer that has been promoted by a number of conservative media personalities, but has been shown in tests to do nothing in treating COVID-19. Those are the sorts of things that this pastor has become incentivized to weave into his sermons and into his church presentation more and more, because many of the people coming to his church … are coming from churches that are not political, that have refused to engage in a lot of these culture war issues. And so the people leaving those churches have come expressly for this.”

On why Bolin gives these sermons

“First and foremost, he is a believer that pastors have been in the past and should be today primary influencers in their communities as far as who we elect and who our leaders are. And I think even beyond that, this is someone who believes that evangelical Christians have ceded too much ground over the last 20 or 30 years, that if they continue to backpedal, then they will be sort of driven out of public life altogether, that the secularists and the liberals will conquer them, and that if churches don’t do something now to hold their ground, then they were going to lose this fight.”

On how Ken Brown’s sermons at the Community Bible Church are different

“So much of the political rhetoric that animates a place like FloodGate is untrue. Much of what I’ve heard Bill Bolin say from the pulpit, or share on his Facebook page, [or] things he said to me in our interviews, simply were not factually accurate.

“What Ken Brown is trying to preach to his people is: ‘Listen, it’s okay to be politically engaged, but your duties as a Christian should come first and second to the extent that you should be politically engaged, you should be engaged and informed by things that are true.’ A challenge he believes is facing the entirety of the evangelical movement is just this basic idea that credibility is eroded and ultimately lost when Christians are throwing themselves into political causes on a basis of things, arguments, ideas that are not rooted in fact.”

On why white evangelical Christians are convinced by misinformation about vaccines, the 2020 election and more at such a high rate

“If you have been steeped in this rhetoric of America in decline and the church under attack and that somebody like [former President] Donald Trump was the only one who was willing to stand up and fight for your values — but now he’s lost this election under suspicious terms, and the government in blue states is telling you that you ‘can’t go to church anymore.’ You add all of this up, and it seems to some of these people like there is this sort of grand conspiracy to eliminate evangelical Christianity from American life. And that’s that’s not much of an overstatement.”

On the 81% support among white evangelicals for Trump and the ‘turning point’ for the evangelical movement

“Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, which was really powered by the white evangelical movement, could be seen as the height of that movement’s power, but also as the beginning of its decline.

“On the one hand, you have prominent evangelical Christian leaders in this country who had more access to the highest rungs of political power in this country than they’d ever had before. … On the other hand, you have to consider this question of credibility and Christian leaders ceding some of their credibility, some of their moral high ground, if you will, by allying themselves with someone who is manifestly sort of antithetical to many of the core values that have been preached in these churches and preached by these same evangelical leaders.

“So what you see … is not just church membership in decline and sagging confidence in the institution of the church, but inside the evangelical movement today, you have massive conflict between people who feel like the church has gotten too political versus people who feel like they haven’t gone far enough because they think that this is sort of their last stand and their last opportunity to preserve their influence in this country.”

On how both sides of the conflict believe there is a war for the soul of the church

“It’s apparent that the institution itself is really at sort of a fork in the road. You see massive movement of people leaving churches that they’ve been a part of for 10, 20, 30 years, and relocating to new churches because those churches reflected their political values. For generations in this country, you’ve had people who consider their political affiliations in the context of their faith. And now what you’re seeing really for the first time is people beginning to consider their faith affiliations in the context of their politics. And that just represents a sea change in American life.”

Julia Corcoran and Todd Mundt produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Francesca Paris adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.