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Tim Alberta: American Idolatry

December 8, 2023
Notes
Transcript
Is the Almighty, who made heaven and earth, also biting his nails over next year’s election? Tim Alberta joins Charlie Sykes to discuss the evangelicals who worship America, a 500-year moment for Christianity, and the organized crime syndicate Jerry Falwell built. Christmas comes early on the weekend pod.

show notes:

https://www.harpercollins.com/products/the-kingdom-the-power-and-the-glory-tim-alberta?variant=41012408516642

This transcript was generated automatically and may contain errors and omissions. Ironically, the transcription service has particular problems with the word “bulwark,” so you may see it mangled as “Bullard,” “Boulart,” or even “bull word.” Enjoy!
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:08

    Welcome to the Bulwark podcast. We are very fortunate to be joined once again by our good friend Tim Alberta. Stepwriter at the Atlantic, a previously chief political correspondent for political author of the new book, the kingdom, the power and the glory American evangelicals in an age of extremism, First of all, welcome back to him.
  • Speaker 2
    0:00:28

    Hey, Charlie. Thank you for having me, my friend. How are you?
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:31

    I’m good. You know, this well, you know, when you pick it up, you you know, read about, you know, American evangelicals, I I think the reaction a lot of people might be, okay, I kinda know this story. You know, we have seen this before. This is a much more personal book than I was expecting. This is very, very raw.
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:47

    And I wanna I wanna dive into because it tells me a lot about you and you and I have had conversations over the years. And frankly, I had no idea. I had no idea, you know, in some ways, how do I put this? Who you were and where you came from. And I and I think this tells the story.
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:03

    So you wrote, it was never my intention to speak about American evangelical having grown up steeped in Christianity’s right wing subculture, the son of a mega church minister, a follower of Jesus, someone who’s self identified as evangelical since childhood. I was a reliable defender of the faith. I rejected the caricatures of people like my parents. I took offense in efforts to mock and marginalize evangelicals I tried to see the best of the church even when the church was at its worst. And then As you describe, the worst day in your life, July twenty ninth two thousand nineteen.
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:41

    Tell me about it.
  • Speaker 2
    0:01:43

    Yeah, man. I was on the Christian broadcasting network of all places on their set in Washington, DC. I was promoting my first book American Carnage about Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. And, obviously, I was pretty critical of Trump in that book. So I’m talking with the host on the set about evangelicalism and about the role that the church played in Trump’s election.
  • Speaker 2
    0:02:06

    And to the point that you just raised, in the first part of you were reading there, I was really, really reticent Charlie. I didn’t wanna lean too far in. I didn’t wanna criticize my fellow believers. So I really just kind of danced around the questions, and and I came off the set. And I looked at my phone, which had been silenced.
  • Speaker 2
    0:02:27

    And, I had all these missed calls and text messages. And
  • Speaker 1
    0:02:31

    You were wondering whether your your father’s was gonna see that that interview. And you were interested to know what he would think about this question because, of course, he came from this world and was obviously at a very sophisticated view that was one of your first thoughts. You get off the set, and you’re kinda thinking, okay, did my dad watch that? And what would he say about it?
  • Speaker 2
    0:02:50

    And really, anytime that I’d been on any sort of a platform, this one included Charlie, talking with you, whenever the conversation would turn to evangelicalism and the, you know, this uneasy alliance between what was an uneasy alliance, you know, in twenty sixteen with a lot of white evangelicals and Trump And even just a broader question of, like, the role of Republican politics kind of infiltrating the evangelical church, I would always be really cautious in part because of my dad who was a pastor and who, you know, I was incredibly close with and, really looked up So I would always kind of watch my words, and I would always wonder, man, I wonder if he’s gonna hear this. I wonder if somebody at his church is gonna pass this clip along to him, and if we’re gonna talk about it afterwards. So that was my first thought when I walked off the set of the Christian Podcasting Bulwark that day. And then I looked out at my phone and I have all these missed calls Ron DeSantis. And, it turns out that my dad had a massive heart attack and was dead.
  • Speaker 2
    0:03:50

    And, there was nothing that doctors could do for him. So that was pretty devastating, obviously. And it said in motion this sort of crazy sequence of events where I went home to Michigan where my dad had pastored this pretty big church it wasn’t always a big church. It was actually once a pretty small church, but it had grown into a very large church in the suburbs of Detroit where I grew up. And that church was my home.
  • Speaker 2
    0:04:14

    It was my community. I’ve been a part of it, you know, my my whole life. And at the funeral, because I’ve been promoting this book recently, because I’ve been in the crosshairs of right wing media for my criticisms of Trump. I had people confronting me and wanting to argue about politics you know, while dad’s in a casket over here. And it got to the point where it wasn’t just like some good natured ribbing or like a little bit of like, oh, you know, you, you guys in the media?
  • Speaker 2
    0:04:40

    No. Like, it was pretty, like, there were a couple of, like, pretty cold, ugly confrontations that left me stunned. At your father’s funeral. Well, at the wake at the at the visitation.
  • Speaker 1
    0:04:51

    Well, and you you tell the story, which I’ve actually talked about on on this podcast. Of the note that somebody had left at the church that, you know, afterwards when you tell the story, you’re back home, the church ladies are serving everybody. And you’re having that kind of warm glow of saying, this is what the church is about. These loving people coming together. This is the community.
  • Speaker 1
    0:05:12

    And then somebody, one of the church ladies hands you a letter that someone had left for you at the church. What was the letter?
  • Speaker 2
    0:05:21

    Yeah. And, Charlie, just to really set the scene, this is right after we’ve buried my dad. Right? So
  • Speaker 1
    0:05:27

    you’re numbed. I mean, it’s it’s hard. I think Oh,
  • Speaker 2
    0:05:29

    it’s. Yeah. Yeah. It’s the worst. Right?
  • Speaker 2
    0:05:31

    And and the day before was all of this craziness at the visitation with these people getting in my face. And so then the next day at the funeral, I give the eulogy, and I kind of I rebuked these people and sort of said, like, what are we doing here? Try to be gentle about it, but I don’t think it was probably very gentle. I You took
  • Speaker 1
    0:05:49

    a shot at limbo?
  • Speaker 2
    0:05:50

    Yeah. Because a lot of them, you know, rush had been ripping me on his show, and so a lot of them were, like, bringing So I took rush limbaugh’s name in vain in my Eulogy, and I said, like, really, like, rush limbaugh. Like, that’s what you wanna argue with me about at my dad’s, you know, So then we bury him at the cemetery, and we come back home. And one of these church ladies hands me this note, and I thought Charlie, I swear. I really did.
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:12

    I thought that it was just a condolence card.
  • Speaker 1
    0:06:14

    Right.
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:14

    Because what else would you get when you just buried your dad?
  • Speaker 1
    0:06:17

    What else would you write? Yes.
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:20

    Well, it turns out it was a note. It was more like a screed from a member of the congregation who was actually a long time elder in the church, friend of the family, somebody I’d known since I was a little boy. And he just let me have it. He said I was a part of the deep state. Basically, he said I was a trader that I was trying god’s ordained leader of this country, undermining Donald Trump and that I should be ashamed of myself.
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:44

    He also told me that it was not too late to be forgiven that if I used my journalism skills to investigate the deep state that I would be forgiven.
  • Speaker 1
    0:06:52

    Now this is somebody you’d known for a long time. This is not just some random guy. Right?
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:56

    Not a not a random guy. No. Not a random guy. I mean, somebody who, like, you know, would have been in the inner circle with my dad, like, a long time family
  • Speaker 1
    0:07:05

    Okay. And so you read this note, you pass it to your wife.
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:09

    Yeah. Who’s the calm collected one in the family. And my wife, reads it. And mind you, Charlie, she had urged me not to say anything in my eulogy about the unpleasantness of the day before. She had been, like, really didn’t want me to make things worse.
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:27

    So she reads the note, and she just loses her mind, and she, like, flings the note in the air and just screams out what the hell is wrong with these people. And that without being dramatic is the question.
  • Speaker 1
    0:07:42

    That is the question. That is
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:43

    the question that I
  • Speaker 1
    0:07:44

    Exactly.
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:44

    Set out to answer here because it’s like because Charlie, here’s the thing. Right? If they’re willing to treat me that way, I’m the son of their pastor. They’ve known me since I was, like, four. I’ve been there my whole life.
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:59

    They know who I am. They don’t know Trump. They don’t know rush. They don’t know any of these people. They know me, and they know what I believe.
  • Speaker 2
    0:08:05

    Right? If they’re willing to treat me that way, on the occasion of my dad’s funeral, then how are they treating the rest of the world. How are they treating their neighbor? Right? Like, can you love your neighbor if you’re treating your pastor’s son like that when he’s grieving?
  • Speaker 2
    0:08:23

    His father’s death, I you know, my hunch is probably not. And so, yeah, what the hell was wrong with these people was sort of a a call to action
  • Speaker 1
    0:08:30

    for me, even though I didn’t immediately realize it. Have you figured it out because I feel like we’ve been wrestling with this for seven and eight years. I have had many podcast interviews discussions with you, with David French, with Peter Weiner, with Russell Moore, And we keep coming back to, like, what had happened? How do you go from being a committed Christian and reading the gospel to what this cult has become. So Tim, what the hell is wrong with these people?
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:03

    Okay. Charlie, the simplest answer I can give from all the reporting, all the research, all the introspection. And, you know, this is personal, as you said earlier. I really I felt like I was wrestling with the ghost of my dad in in writing this. And the best answer I can come up with is America.
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:24

    You know, I asked my dad’s successor at one point. What’s wrong with American evangelicals? And he said, America. They worship America. Too many of these people worship America.
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:36

    And let’s be specific about what that means. Right? I am a patriotic guy. I’ve got friends and family in law enforcement and the military. Like, I love this country.
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:45

    I’m super grateful to have been born here. Like, we’re not you know, we’re not burning flags on the bulwark today. There is this idea that we are not just a nation that was born out of some Judeo Christian principles and values know that we were conceived in covenant with god. That we are a nation that was explicitly formed to be a Christian nation, to be ruled by Christian Maxim that the framers really did intend for us to have, if not a state religion, then at the very least, you know, with sort of a wink and nod, we’re telling us that, like, you can’t have this country run by anybody except Christians. And that in many ways is the foundation of the problem, Charlie, because when you deal with these ascendant movements, whether it’s sort of the Christian nationalist Brigade, whether it’s the David Barton fake history store America, whether it’s Mike Flynn and his reawaken America tour, they’re all basically oriented around the same idea, which is that This version of Christian America, which was never real, that it is under assault, that it is breathing its last, and that we have to fight to restore it, and we have to fight as though not just America hangs in the balance, but as though god himself is on the verge of defeat that if America falls, then god is defeated and that fighting for one is fighting for the other.
  • Speaker 1
    0:11:21

    I would have thought god was more powerful than that. I think in some sense, what continues to surprise me is how small the god in that narrative is. For people you would think would not be regarding him as quite that fragile and vulnerable.
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:35

    Amen, brother. I mean, Charlie Sykes. Like, you believe that god, the father, almighty, maker of heaven and earth. Yeah. And in Jesus Christ, his only son, who conquered the grave.
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:47

    Right? He conquered death. Yeah. And he took upon himself on the cross, the brokenness of all mankind dating back to the Garden of Eden. And he, the second and better Adam, was able to restore humanity’s relationship with god by dying on the cross, but but that same god, he’s biting his fingernails over the next election in America.
  • Speaker 2
    0:12:09

    Right?
  • Speaker 1
    0:12:09

    Yeah. Nancy Pelosi is just a terrifying prospect, Dan. So what does Mike Johnson fit into all of this? The new speaker.
  • Speaker 2
    0:12:20

    So full disclosure. I think I’ve met Mike Johnson twice and they were both, you know, both times were brief. I don’t know the man. I do know what he has said publicly, and I know some of the people who he runs with. And I think that there’s cause to be concerned, obviously, because whether he truly believes it or whether he just likes to traffic in this sort of rhetoric for personal, political professional gain, and I truly don’t know.
  • Speaker 2
    0:12:48

    I know with most of these people who have really spent time with, whether they believe it or whether they’re just selling something. I don’t know in his case. But in either case, his weaponization of scripture and saying basically, well, you wanna know what I think about, you know, government. You wanna know what I think about politics. You wanna know what I think about, you know, how to rule the country, how to govern the country, that’s all right there in the Bible.
  • Speaker 2
    0:13:10

    Yeah. And really so what does the Bible say about the CR? What does the Bible say about the the shutdown that we have to avoid? About the defense appropriation bill? I mean, it’s just It’s a nonsensical answer.
  • Speaker 1
    0:13:20

    Little vague.
  • Speaker 2
    0:13:21

    And Charlie, I would just, like, I would emphasize that nowhere nowhere in the new testament. Is Jesus even flirting with the idea of his kingdom of heaven. As a governing structure of some kind. Like, they wanted to make him king, and he ran away from them. He never challenged the Romans.
  • Speaker 2
    0:13:42

    He said render unto Caesar. This idea that the Bible is a governing handbook. It’s just it’s nonsense. It’s totally a biblical.
  • Speaker 1
    0:13:50

    In your book on the the front piece, you actually have, you know, Luke four, five day, where the the devil tempts Jesus, you know, takes them of the high mountain shows all the kingdoms of the world and says to him, all this power I will give thee and the glory of them for this has been delivered unto me If you will worship me, everything will be. So he’s given given that temptation, the temptation of Christ, which is all that power. And, of course, We know the story in the end. He says, no. That’s not this isn’t my kingdom.
  • Speaker 1
    0:14:20

    And it’s like, do the dominationists and the nationalists What did they make of that passage? I mean, this is the temptation. Right? Give up everything in order to get power. We’ve kind of gone through this.
  • Speaker 1
    0:14:32

    Right?
  • Speaker 2
    0:14:33

    We’ve gone through it, man. And Charlie, like, how many times have you and I had this conversation about a devil’s bargain? Right? But this is where it this is where it comes from.
  • Speaker 1
    0:14:41

    This is it.
  • Speaker 2
    0:14:41

    This is it. This is D devil’s bargain. Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness and says all of this, all of the kingdoms, all of their glory, all of the power. It can all be yours. You just have to you just have to bow down to me.
  • Speaker 2
    0:14:55

    Right? And this is the fulfillment in so many ways of the old testament, which is one giant warning against idolatry. Israel falls out of covenant with god because of idolatry because they constantly wanna pursue the idols of this earth and the gods of this earth rather than following their true god, yahweh. And so here’s Satan tempting Jesus with this Not only does Jesus reject him, but he he tells him, he says, get behind me, Satan. Yes.
  • Speaker 2
    0:15:25

    Now the reason that’s so important Charlie Sykes later on in the new testament, Peter, who we, you know, Saint Peter, in many ways, the most important disciple and someone who means so much to me personally and his writings. Peter, When Jesus tells them for the first time, what the plan is that he’s going to be handed over to the authorities, he’s gonna be crucified, he’s gonna be executed by the state. Peter rebukes Jesus and says, no. No. No.
  • Speaker 2
    0:15:51

    No. No. You can’t be. What are you talking about? Don’t talk like that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:15:54

    You’re being a defeatist Don’t you know that you’re the Messiah? Don’t you know that you’re here to slaughter all the Romans. Don’t you know that you’re here to rule with an iron fist that you’re gonna be this great military leader And do you know what Jesus says to Peter? Get behind me Satan. He uses the exact same phrase.
  • Speaker 2
    0:16:11

    With Peter, his disciple who he loves. Same temptation. Same temptation. So Charlie, none of this is new, man. It’s like and in some sense, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills that we even have to this conversation.
  • Speaker 1
    0:16:22

    The evolution of all of this, because clearly the idea that that America’s a covenant nation, this has been around a long time. The fact that America is is uniquely blessed by god, not a tremendously controversial idea in evangelical circles, but it feels like it’s taken this turn that that you’re describing here. I remember when the Christian Wright was starting to become more active. It felt like it was on the defensive that it felt like that the culture war was coming to And one of the things up until, like, it felt like just a few minutes ago that they were clinging to was don’t tread on us. We don’t want this state telling us what to do and clinging to and emphasizing the idea of religious freedom and religious liberty.
  • Speaker 1
    0:17:05

    Actually using the separation of church and state to carve out his own that the state could not interfere, couldn’t take away their rights. When did it transition? From leave us alone religious liberty to religious domination. Because the idea that we are a Christian nation in one context is not controversial. The idea that you are describing that we are a Christian nation that needs to be governed by Christian doctrine, strikes me as something that was very much a fringe minority attitude up until recently, or is it just, like, this wasn’t on our radar screen.
  • Speaker 1
    0:17:45

    You know, the preexisting condition versus the what has actually changed?
  • Speaker 2
    0:17:49

    No. It’s I mean, it’s a really good question. And one of the real differences is exactly what you said. It has moved from a defensive fight to an offensive fight. And in some ways, that’s almost epitomized by this relationship with Trump, not that I wanna spend a lot of time on Trump, but I think in some sense, Trump went from, like, protector figure.
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:16

    Right. Right.
  • Speaker 2
    0:18:16

    Right. Someone who could defend them from, you know, the barbarians are at the gates and we need a barbarians to fight back.
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:22

    He was he was cyrus.
  • Speaker 2
    0:18:23

    Yeah. He was cyrus. Exactly. To now, it’s this you know, when Trump says, I’m gonna be your retribution, Charlie, like, when he’s using this language in context of speaking to evangelicals, like, you see the heads nodding and it’s resonating in an entirely different way. You know, the persecution complex thing is very real.
  • Speaker 2
    0:18:46

    You and I have talked about this a little bit before, but I also think that helps to justify the offensive fight that well
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:54

    Right. Right.
  • Speaker 2
    0:18:54

    And by the way, again, gosh, I hate to bring this back to Trump, but When people say, well, what about these indictments? Right? Then that, you know, doesn’t that and it’s like, no. No. No.
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:02

    The indictments only help him with a lot of these folks because it’s that same persecution complex. Right? They’re coming after us. First, they have to get through him, which is what he says all the time. So, really, you know, this is a part of the persecution.
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:14

    And in some sense, Charlie, that idea of being persecuted, it creates a permission structure to not only say things, do things that you would never do otherwise. But to sort of go on the offensive, you know, turning the other cheek as Don junior said a couple of years ago, Like turning the other cheek, where has that ever gotten us? You know? And it’s like, that’s a pretty good window into the thinking right there.
  • Speaker 1
    0:19:39

    As you pointed out, I mean, there’s this the low simmering schism in the church that’s been there for a very, very long time between the Christians who want this transcendent experience and who don’t want the church fighting the culture war versus the more, you know, militant approach. And again, I wanna talk about this transition. So you’re right. In the last five or years though. That’s really bubbled up.
  • Speaker 1
    0:19:59

    I mean, so was Trump, COVID, George Floyd, What’s happened in the last five years to take the simmering schism and to make it so toxic?
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:11

    So, Charlie, I really think two things. Number one, just to preface. We might be living through what some people are referring to as a five hundred year moment for Christianity. These schisms, this realignment, this infighting in the church, you know, do the math. Go back five hundred years.
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:30

    We’re talking about the reformation. Right? So when people say that this is a five hundred year moment for Christianity, that’s quite a statement. I think if in fact it is a five hundred year moment, Charlie, people will look back for decades and decades, maybe centuries. They will look back at COVID nineteen.
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:46

    They will look back at COVID nineteen because if you grew up steeped in the evangelical subculture like I did, That means that you will have been marinating for decades in this idea that one day there’s gonna be this imminent clash between the good god fearing Christians in America and the godless secularists, the evil, progressive humanist, whatever, you know, the labels have changed obviously over the years, but that they’re gonna come for you, that the government’s gonna come for you, that they’re gonna come for Christianity. That they’re gonna persecute you, they’re gonna purge religion from public life, and that they’re gonna shut down your churches. I mean, Charlie, that’s been there for a long time. Jerry Falwell senior helped to build an entire movement around that fear, and it has percolated ever since what and it percolated even before that. But that’s the thing.
  • Speaker 2
    0:21:38

    And then COVID nineteen arrives and Gretchen Whitmer in my state of Michigan tells churches that they can’t meet, right, for some short period of time. And That was prophecy fulfilled. That was it. This was the moment that your parents warned you about. Your grandparents warned you about.
  • Speaker 2
    0:21:56

    You can’t say that you didn’t see this day coming, and now the question Charlie Sykes all these pastors in the blue states where the governor’s, you know, shut down churches. Are you gonna stand and fight? Are you gonna put on the full armor of god? And are you gonna go to war with the government and defend your faith? Or are you gonna cower?
  • Speaker 2
    0:22:14

    Are you gonna be a weak, spineless collaborator with the regime who’s willing to let them do this to god? Right? That was the litmus test. Charlie Sykes have traveled the country. I have spent time in hundreds of churches with hundreds of pastors Charlie Sykes the great majority of them, I should make this clear.
  • Speaker 2
    0:22:33

    The great majority of them. In the evangelical church, these are guys who are conservative theologically, conservative culturally conservative politically, but they decided for two weeks, three, four weeks, maybe a month. They decided to close down their churches. To protect their congregations because they were scared. They they didn’t know what was happening, right, at the beginning of COVID.
  • Speaker 2
    0:22:52

    They decided that they would comply with the government. Right. And they became marxist overnight because they decided that it was in the best interest of the health of their people, their community, to close down for some period of time. They suddenly became Marxist woke. The enemy of of of their congregants in some cases.
  • Speaker 2
    0:23:13

    And some of these guys got run out of their churches for it, Charlie. It and those schisms, those wounds, they have not healed.
  • Speaker 1
    0:23:19

    What about George Floyd? You mentioned, Trump, COVID, George Floyd? What world did that play in this schism?
  • Speaker 2
    0:23:26

    Well, look, let’s just say this for what it is. I make clear in the book that I am talking about white evangelicals. Right? The reason that I make that distinction is that if you spend time around evangelicals of color, they will have some pretty different conversations with you as it pertains to Not just even the issue of a race in the church, but kind of a an assortment of different social cultural issues. Right?
  • Speaker 2
    0:23:52

    They just they don’t line up squarely with some of their white brethren. Charlie, much of the white evangelical tradition in America is rooted in kind of an identitarian struggle, particularly if you look at the Southern Baptist convention. I mean, it’s the history there is not murky. I mean, the Southern Baptist convention was born as an explicitly pro slavery anti abolitionist movement. Right?
  • Speaker 1
    0:24:21

    They felt like the mainstream No. No mystery, no subtlety. Yeah.
  • Speaker 2
    0:24:24

    No. I mean, like, the the mainstream Baptist tradition at that time was, you know, they were abolitionists and they were woke. Right? I mean, they didn’t use the word back then, obviously. The southern baptists broke.
  • Speaker 2
    0:24:35

    For those purposes. Right? Now that’s not to say that all of the other denominations did as well, but there has been this long festering struggle in the white evangelical movement around this question of race of slavery of America’s original sin because Charlie, this takes us back full circle. This is something that we could spend a whole podcast talking about, but this has to be unpacked psychologically. Go back to the beginning of our conversation.
  • Speaker 2
    0:25:00

    This idea of America born in covenant with god, a Christian nation, right, squaring this idea of a Christian nation born in covenant with the almighty, and yet also a nation that trafficked human beings and that owed much of its early material wealth and commercial successes and and financial growth to the industry of of chattel slavery, that’s really difficult to reconcile those two things. And so for a lot of white evangelicals, that’s been kind of a a no fly zone. They don’t really wanna go there. They don’t wanna have those conversations. So when George Floyd is is murdered, And you have this summer of racial unrest.
  • Speaker 2
    0:25:44

    It’s like ripping the Band Aid off of this wound that’s been oozing inside the church for generations And there was there was just no way to put it back on.
  • Speaker 1
    0:25:53

    Because, I mean, you also can’t tell the story of America’s redemption on race without talking about the role of the Christian church in the abolitionist movement in the civil rights movement. So, I mean, there is that completely. I mean, you wanna talk about a split screen. You know, Martin Luther King, the there’s just the role in the nineteen sixties. The abolition of slavery in Britain, being led by people like Wilberforce, I mean, this is a deeply, big, deeply Christian movement.
  • Speaker 1
    0:26:21

    So imagine that most of your interviews have focused on Donald Trump and trumpism and everything, which you know, I I I think is is is a hugely important issue. But I am fascinated by all of your reporting in this book about the other really ordinary story. You mentioned Jerry Falwell senior, you know, who raised millions of dollars for the moral majority and created Liberty University. And it’s one of those almost classic cartoonish stories about how, you know, the the mission becomes the racket at a certain point. You know, you tell the story he buys his private jetty flies all over the world.
  • Speaker 1
    0:26:54

    Telling people the end was near, you know, that that America was was under siege. But Liberty University is really an incredible story. And it’s one of those stories that it almost defies the scriptwriter’s ability to say. Okay. Let’s make a story of this evangelical Christian thing that just goes horribly off the rails.
  • Speaker 1
    0:27:16

    And, of course, the fall of Jerry Junior is pretty spectacular and very telling, isn’t it?
  • Speaker 2
    0:27:23

    Yeah. And tragic. Right? Charlie, this is the thing. I spend twenty five thousand words over the course of two chapters, one at the beginning of the book, one at the very end of the book detailing kind of the rise and and fall of the fall wells and of liberty.
  • Speaker 2
    0:27:39

    And This is a tragic story in a lot of ways. I think one of the truly tragic elements is that Jerry Falwell senior, who was a brilliant businessman, a brilliant marketer. Right? This guy could have succeeded in anything. You know, I get some people to go on the record at Liberty who have never gone on the record before, and because Liberty is basically in run as almost an organized crime syndicate for decades.
  • Speaker 2
    0:28:09

    I mean, you like, you don’t step out against the family or else you sleep with the fishes. You know, that’s kinda how it goes there. Mhmm. There are people who go on the record in this book who are deep inside of the Liberty establishment. And what one of them said to me at one point, he said, look, we have to be honest about this.
  • Speaker 2
    0:28:26

    This is a professor who he goes on the record. His name is Aaron Warner, and Doctor Werner, he turns down a pretty nice NDA, you know, the hush money that Liberty offers when when they ax people. He turned that money down to talk with me for the book, and which was pretty extraordinary. And one of the things he said to me that was so striking, he said, This is not quite verbatim because I’m not reading from the pages, but he said, look, Jerry, senior, and Jerry Junior, these guys, they’re great businessmen. They could have made their millions with anything.
  • Speaker 2
    0:28:58

    It could have been moonshine. Right? But they chose Christianity. And it gave them power, and it gave them money. And those are the two things that they truly worship.
  • Speaker 2
    0:29:10

    That’s the gist of what this guy said. And, you know, when you trace this long arc at Liberty University, as I do in the book, to the founding of the school, Jerry Falwell senior recognizing that his mega church there in Lynchburg, that it wasn’t that they needed a parallel institution. So he’s got this school, this little Baptist school, Lynchburg Baptist College. And at the time of the bicentennial in nineteen seventy six, he decides, you know what? We’re gonna rebrand it.
  • Speaker 2
    0:29:40

    It’s gonna be Liberty University. The colors They used to have green bay packer colors, Charlie, green and gold, and they change it to red, white, and blue. And he takes the choir around the country, basically putting on traveling roadshow, talking about how America, how it’s on its last legs. And Jimmy Carter were doomed, you know, the apocalypse is here. Right?
  • Speaker 2
    0:29:59

    Does it sound familiar?
  • Speaker 1
    0:30:00

    Scary. Yeah. Yeah.
  • Speaker 2
    0:30:01

    Oh, yeah. Jimmy Carter, the Sunday school teacher, right, the the evangelical who builds, you know, is in his nineties still doing habitat for humanity. He’s the bad guy. Which, by the way, as a quick aside, Charlie, as a student of history, I’m sure you’ve already made this connection yourself. But in case your listeners haven’t, One of the great galvanizing moments for Jerry Falwell senior informing this movement that eventually became the moral majority was in nineteen seventy six when Carter as a presidential candidate, he gave an interview to playboy magazine.
  • Speaker 1
    0:30:29

    Oh, gosh. Yeah.
  • Speaker 2
    0:30:30

    And to Fallwell senior, this was unforgivable because he how could anyone lead the country if he would be so depraved as to give an interview to playboy magazine and fast forward fifty years twenty sixteen. Right? Fifty years later.
  • Speaker 1
    0:30:45

    Yeah. On the dot. There’s Donald Trump.
  • Speaker 2
    0:30:47

    There’s Donald Trump with Jerry Fallwell junior in Prussia. Playboy magazine.
  • Speaker 1
    0:30:51

    Playboy magazine. Yeah.
  • Speaker 2
    0:30:52

    Thumbs up. Right? I mean, it’s just like you could I as you said earlier, Charlie, the script writers would throw it out. It’s just too so it’s tragic. I mean, it’s tragic because You have, at liberty, you have generations of eighteen year olds, Charlie, who go there because they don’t really know any better.
  • Speaker 2
    0:31:12

    There are young idealistic Christians who think, okay, I wanna go to a Christian college, and they go there. And They’ve been used and they’ve been manipulated. And in some sense, they’ve almost been brainwashed a lot of them. That’s what one of the other people who went on the record with me, who’s a current professor, He said that. He said, look, like, I was brainwashed when I went there.
  • Speaker 2
    0:31:30

    Like, that’s what they do. And Liberty has No longer even tried in many cases to be an ambassador for the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a Republican culture warring power brokering institution above all else.
  • Speaker 1
    0:31:46

    You’ll also talk about something that I I this is very interesting when you talk about, you know, how amazing it is that, they didn’t censor you know, Paul’s letters because there’s a culture within the church that you don’t area the dirty laundry, right, that we can examine the brokenness of society in great, great detail, but that somehow you are you’re violating the faith If you examine the brokenness within the church, you call out the sins of the leaders of the church. But I think you make a great point when you point out Okay. Anybody ever read Paul’s letters because he doesn’t spare anybody, and you you you’re right. The Bible is a book of brutal candor, man’s sinful nature, is, you know, stars from Genesis through Revelation. But it is interesting that there has been this kind of, you know, again, this sort of Omerta.
  • Speaker 1
    0:32:34

    We don’t criticize the developments within the church? Because how else would this stuff fester unless people were reluctant to call out the betrayal of people like the Fallwells and, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
  • Speaker 2
    0:32:47

    Charlie, I mean, for me, this is like the whole ball of wax in writing the book, which is just to address this question of, okay. Well, hold on a second. Institutions, man made institutions. They do not police themselves very well. We know that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:33:05

    And if you want to have accountability and transparency, it has to come from somewhere. So this idea that by criticizing what’s happening inside the church that you are somehow betraying your faith, you know, that that betraying your brothers. It’s utter nonsense. I mean, again, you the biblical standard here is really clear. I mean, even get beyond Paul and his epistles, which were just, I mean, really brutally honest about the sins of the church and what was happening in some of these congregations, even get beyond that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:33:37

    Charlie, the whole new testament model for the church predicated around this idea that we as Christians are to be gracious and merciful and forgiving towards the outsider towards the unbelievers because they don’t know god. So they don’t know any better, and we are to love them unconditionally And at the same time, that we are to practice real strict accountability inside the church, that we are to hold believers to a higher standard because they do know god. Right? That new testament model in the American context, Charlie, we have completely inverted it. We are taught basically in this country, you know, in the American evangelical tradition, like, we are hostile, reflexively hostile towards the outsiders, completely unmerciful, so quick to judge and to condemn.
  • Speaker 2
    0:34:29

    But when it’s our tribe, when it’s somebody on the inside, who’s abusing somebody in their congregation or somebody who’s been, you know, stealing money or somebody who’s been preaching total heresy or whatever, No. No. No. It’s it’s it’s just, you know, we treat them with the kid gloves. It’s okay.
  • Speaker 2
    0:34:44

    We keep this inside the family, and that is just completely abiblical.
  • Speaker 1
    0:34:48

    Let’s end with the warning and a little bit of hope. A second trump term. I think we’ve talked about, you know, the authoritarian nature, but you have said on in a number of the interviews that, you think he would just surround himself with people who, liked the idea of marrying church and state eliminating the the walls that he would have, you know, in a Trump White House, self identifying Christian nationalists who do not see theocracy as a dirty word, and who will promote the Christianity expense of other religions. So this is gonna would be a much higher profile in a second trump term than we ever seen before in American politics. That case?
  • Speaker 2
    0:35:24

    Yeah. Totally fair. Totally fair. And Charlie Sykes a few weeks ago, This is how desensitized we’ve become, but Donald Trump said when he was campaigning in New Hampshire, he floated this idea of a religious litmus test on migrants coming to America that if you’re not a Christian, maybe we won’t let you in anymore. I mean, that is a a spectacularly stunning thing for a candidate for president to say.
  • Speaker 2
    0:35:49

    And we, like, we don’t even bat an eye anymore.
  • Speaker 1
    0:35:51

    It doesn’t even make the list of the top thirty most outrageous things he said.
  • Speaker 2
    0:35:54

    It doesn’t. It doesn’t even crack the top, yeah, the top a hundred. Right? And yet, here is Donald Trump basically flirting with If you wanna look at, you know, what is the entry point to Christian Jonathan Last, or what is the entry point to state religion, or maybe even one day, what is the entry point to theocracy look like? Probably looks a little something like this.
  • Speaker 2
    0:36:12

    I mean, we should be taking this seriously.
  • Speaker 1
    0:36:14

    Okay. So the hopeful note, you are seeing new congregations those bringing up who are looking at this and thinking, we have a different way that so you see some hopeful signs, with younger conservatives and younger families. Looking for something different from the church?
  • Speaker 2
    0:36:29

    Yeah. I do. I mean, well, and Charlie, let me be clear. Like, my my great hope is, as my dad used to say all the time that, you know, his favorite expression was god doesn’t bite his fingernail. And that is my hope.
  • Speaker 2
    0:36:41

    That’s where my hope is found because I believe that that’s true. In this immediate context on this earth, look, yeah, I do have some optimism that when you spend time around younger believers, younger evangelicals who I should note. Like, they’re they’re conservative, culturally, theologically, politically, just like their parents, but they want nothing to do with a lot of this stuff, Charlie. They don’t. I mean, We can focus on, like, the Charlie Kirk rallies and how many young people he draws.
  • Speaker 2
    0:37:07

    But when you go to Christian campuses, You talked to the student body leaders there. They have rejected Charlie Kirk in turning point USA, like it’s a bad virus. Really? There’s a really interesting struggle there. Like, even at Asbury, the school that had the revival in Kentucky that obviously drew a lot of national media attention.
  • Speaker 2
    0:37:25

    Yeah. There was this really fascinating moment that I document in the in the book where Russell Moore was talking with leaders at Asbury, and they told him that Tucker Carlson his show had tried to come and set up to shoot and do a live segment from the campus of Asbury, and the student leaders were like, nope, not gonna happen. You are not going to hijack this moment of spiritual revival for us for your culture war electioneering dominate the country purposes. It’s just not gonna happen. So that is something Charlie Sykes does give me real optimism that the children of the moral majority have seen through the facade of the moral majority, and they really wanna do this differently.
  • Speaker 1
    0:38:10

    The book is the Kingdom, the power and the glory, American evangelicals in an age of extremism by Tim Albert, the New York Times best selling author of American carnage This is a massive best seller. It is a must read. Tim, thank you so much, for joining us on the Bulwark podcast, and best of luck on the book.
  • Speaker 2
    0:38:28

    Charlie Sykes appreciate you a lot, man. Thanks a lot for having me.
  • Speaker 1
    0:38:31

    And thank you all for listening to this weekend’s Bulwark podcast. I’m Charlie Sykes. We will be back on Monday, and we’ll do this all over again. Boatbrook podcast is produced by Katie Cooper. And engineered and edited by Jason Brown.
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