HOW POLITICS POISONED THE
The movement spent 40 years at war with secular America.
Now it’s at war with itself.
Excerpts By Tim Alberta - Atlantic Magazine
Having grown up just down the road, the son of the senior pastor at another church in town, I’ve spent my life watching evangelicalism morph from a spiritual disposition into a political identity. It’s heartbreaking. So many people who love the Lord, who give their time and money to the poor and the mourning and the persecuted, have been reduced to a caricature. But I understand why. Evangelicals—including my own father—became compulsively political, allowing specific ethical arguments to snowball into full-blown partisan advocacy, often in ways that distracted from their mission of evangelizing for Christ. To his credit, even when my dad would lean hard into a political debate, he was careful to remind his church of the appropriate Christian perspective. “God doesn’t bite his fingernails over any of this,” he would say around election time. “Neither should you.”
Brighton is a small town, and I knew the local evangelical scene like it was a second reporting beat. I knew which pastors were feuding; whose congregations were mired in scandal; which church softball teams had a deacon playing shortstop, and which ones stacked their lineups with non-tithing ringers. But FloodGate? I had never heard of FloodGate. And neither had most of the people sitting around me, until recently.
For a decade, Bolin preached to a crowd of about 100 on a typical Sunday. Then came Easter 2020, when Bolin announced that he would hold indoor worship services in defiance of Michigan’s emergency shutdown orders. As word got around the conservative suburbs of Detroit, Bolin became a minor celebrity. Local politicians and activists borrowed his pulpit to promote right-wing interests. FloodGate’s attendance soared as members of other congregations defected to the small roadside church. By Easter 2021, FloodGate was hosting 1,500 people every weekend....
Listening to Bolin that morning, I kept thinking about another pastor nearby, one who approached his job very differently: Ken Brown. Brown leads his own ministry, Community Bible Church, in the Detroit suburb of Trenton. I got to know him during the 2020 presidential campaign when I was writing dispatches from around the country and asking readers about the stories and trends, they thought weren’t receiving enough attention. Brown wrote to me explaining the combustible dynamics within the evangelical Church and describing his own efforts—as the conservative pastor of a conservative congregation—to keep his members from being radicalized by the lies of right-wing politicians and media figures.
When we finally met, in the spring of 2021, Brown told me his alarm had only grown. “The crisis for the Church is a crisis of discernment,” he said over lunch. “Discernment”—one’s basic ability to separate truth from untruth—“is a core biblical discipline. And many Christians are not practicing it.” A stocky man with steely blue eyes and a subdued, matter-of-fact tone, Brown struck me as thoroughly disheartened. The pastor said his concern was not simply for his congregation of 300, but for the millions of American evangelicals who had come to value power over integrity, the ephemeral over the eternal, moral relativism over bright lines of right and wrong.
But in leading their predominantly white, Republican congregations, Brown and Bolin have come to agree on one important thing: Both pastors believe there is a war for the soul of the American Church—and both have decided they cannot stand on the sidelines. They aren’t alone. To many evangelicals today, the enemy is no longer secular America, but their fellow Christians, people who hold the same faith but different beliefs.
How did this happen? For generations, white evangelicals have cultivated a narrative pitting courageous, God-fearing Christians against a wicked society that wants to expunge the Almighty from public life. Having convinced so many evangelicals that the next election could trigger the nation’s demise, Christian leaders effectively turned thousands of churches into unwitting cells in a loosely organized, hazily defined, existentially urgent movement—the types of places where paranoia and falsehoods flourish and people turn on one another.
There is one person Pastor Brown doesn’t have to convince of this: Pastor Bolin.
“The battle lines have been drawn,” Bolin told me, sitting in the back of his darkened sanctuary. “If you’re not taking a side, you’re on the wrong side.”
If this is a tale of two churches, it is also the tale of churches everywhere. It’s the story of millions of American Christians who, after a lifetime spent considering their political affiliations in the context of their faith, are now considering their faith affiliations in the context of their politics.
Substantial numbers of evangelicals are fleeing
their churches, and most of them are moving
to ones further to the right.
When Trump was elected thanks to a historic showing among white evangelicals—81 percent voted for him over Hillary Clinton—the victory was rightly viewed as the apex of the movement’s power. But this was, in many ways, also the beginning of its unraveling. The “battle lines” Bolin described as having emerged over the past five years—cultural reckonings over racism and sexual misconduct; a lethal pandemic and fierce disputes over vaccines and government mandates; allegations of election theft that led to a siege of the U.S. Capitol; and, underlying all of this, the presidency, prosecution, and martyring of Trump himself—have carved up every institution of American society. The evangelical Church is no exception.
Peter Wehner: Evangelicals made a bad bargain with Trump
The nation’s largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, is bleeding members because of ferocious infighting over race relations, women serving in leadership, accountability for sexual misconduct, and other issues. The United Methodist Church, America’s second-largest denomination, is headed toward imminent divorce over irreconcilable social and ideological divisions. Smaller denominations are losing affiliate churches as pastors and congregations break from their leadership over many of the same cultural flash points, choosing independence over associating with those who do not hold their views.