Who started the fire?
Conservative Christians didn’t, but we must be careful not to burn down the country in response
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In the summer of 2019, journalist Tim Alberta was riding high on the publication of his new book, American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump. Amid the whirl of media promotion, he was especially eager to speak with John Jessup, news anchor for the Christian Broadcasting Network. Though he wrote for secular publications, Alberta retained the faith inherited from his father Richard, pastor of a large Evangelical Presbyterian church in Michigan. He welcomed the opportunity for thoughtful dialogue with other believers.
In part, American Carnage pondered the question of how Christians could view a shady character like Donald Trump as a political savior. But when Jessup asked for details, Alberta waffled. As Alberta describes the conversation, “I [saw] evangelicals divided into two camps—one side faithful to an eternal covenant, the other side bowing to earthly idols of nation and influence and fame—but I was too scared to say so.” Immediately after the Jessup interview, he received shocking news: His father the pastor had collapsed from a heart attack and did not recover. “He was gone.”
There was no one Alberta loved and respected more, as a father, a pastor, and a genuine Christian. Tim was grateful for his godly upbringing, and yet as an adult he discerned one weakness: “Pastor Alberta’s kryptonite as a Christian—and I think he knew it, though he never admitted it to me—was his intense love of country.” Sometimes it crept into the pulpit, as on those occasions when returning servicemen were asked to stand and be recognized to thunderous applause. Books like American Carnage made the pastor’s youngest son a prophet without honor on his home turf, but he could deal with that. Until the summer of 2019 when he returned for his father’s funeral.
As he recalls in his new book (The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism), Alberta was shocked at the hostility aimed at him from some of the parishioners—Christians he had known and respected from childhood. It seems Rush Limbaugh had disparagingly mentioned the book on his radio program, and local Limbaugh fans wanted to give the late pastor’s son a piece of their minds. Hurt and outraged at the political tone of the visitation, Tim unloaded on the congregation during his funeral eulogy, suggesting they’d be better off listening to his dad’s sermons than Limbaugh’s.
It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that he was reacting to political intrusion with more political intrusion. A grieving son deserves sympathy and slack. Still, evangelicals dissing other evangelicals for their Trump support often fail to account for why the supporters feel threatened. The right can sing along with Billy Joel, “We didn’t start the fire.” The original culture warriors were on the left. After the just and necessary civil rights movement of the early ’60s blazed into social revolution, conservative Christians began to feel themselves pushed further into the margins, even while branded as “privileged whites.” To some, Trump represented breakout—“he fights.” Fire with fire. America itself was at stake.
Tim Alberta calls this idolatry, and he has a point. Christians are dual citizens who owe their deepest loyalty to their eternal King. The temptation to see the United States as a land that must be “taken back” for Christ has no Biblical footing, even though flag-waving and Bible-thumping have gone hand in hand since 1776. We can acknowledge our country as a land uniquely blessed without claiming to know God’s plans for it. Rather, “Let the nations know they are but men” (Psalm 9:20)—including ours.
What the extreme left doesn’t understand is the threat to Christians’ right to speak and influence public policy. What the extreme right doesn’t understand is the risk of burning the whole place down while fighting fire with fire. The church has an opportunity to mediate between them with love and truth. More than opportunity—it’s our obligation.