Evangelical congregations feel the brunt of political divisions after Trump and Covid

The combined effects of the pandemic and the populism driven by the Trump presidency have caused new divisions among evangelicals that have reached down into everyday congregational life, writes Tim Alberta in The Atlantic (May 10). While divisions between evangelical leaders and activists were on display for all to see during the Trump administration and the conflicts over Covid public health measures, Alberta argues that local churches and clergy as well as denominations are feeling similar levels of polarization and resulting radicalization. While the article is based on a rift between two local pastors in the Detroit area, it also fleshes out the dynamics behind polarization at the local level in a way that has been sorely missing in survey research and other media accounts about “white Christian nationalism.” Alberta writes that “a year’s worth of conversations with pastors, denominational leaders, evangelical scholars, and everyday Christians tells a clear story: Substantial numbers of evangelicals are fleeing their churches, and most of them are moving to ones further to the right.” The divisions are less about specific theological or even political issues and more about claims and counterclaims regarding the need for militancy in ministry and the conspiracy theories and outright partisan politics that have come to occupy pulpits and ministries.

Alberta says much of the polarization was intensified during the pandemic, with a shifting of church attendance from congregations that closed and followed public health mandates to those that actively protested such measures and remained open, attracting many evangelicals who were also critical of the lockdowns. Alberta writes that “[m]any right-wing pastors have formed alliances—with campaign consultants, education activists, grassroots groups, even MAGA-in-miniature road shows promoting claims of an assault on American sovereignty—that bring a steady flow of fresh faces into their buildings. From there, the fusion of new Republican orthodoxy with old conservative theology is seamless. This explains why, even during a period of slumping church attendance, the number of white evangelicals has grown:…more and more white Trump supporters began self-identifying as evangelicals during his presidency, whether or not they attended church.” This new populist fervor and its relation to contested information networks (relating to the pandemic and the 2020 election results) faced opposition from more apolitical evangelical clergy and churches, resulting in the standoff that continues today.

Led by such evangelical leaders as former Southern Baptist activist Russell Moore and Christianity Today magazine, they target what they see as the politicization and fanaticism within evangelicalism and publicly preach against such tendencies, thereby intensifying the divisions. For their part, the populists view their former churches as compromising and playing it safe by avoiding contested political issues. The concern is that both groups are “sorting out” their differences by leaving and joining new congregations, resulting in more division and fragmentation. Not everyone who is dissatisfied leaves their congregation, at least at first. They may instead join with other disgruntled members. “It’s a mass estrangement, in which people stop listening to the pastor or stop trusting one another—or both—and the church slowly loses its cohesiveness,” Alberta writes.

(The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/06/evangelical-church-pastors-political-radicalization/629631/)

Source: The Nation, 2017.