The Church of America
My father, my faith, and Donald
By Tim Alberta
It was July 29, 2019—
the worst day of my life, though I didn't know that quite yet. The traffic
in downtown Washington, D.C., was inching
along. The mid-Atlantic humidity was sweating through the windows of my chauffeured car. I was running late and fighting to stay awake. For two weeks, I'd been sprinting between television and radio studios up and down the East Coast, promoting
my new book on the collapse of the post–George W. Bush Republican Party and the ascent of Donald Trump. Now I had one final interview for the day. My publicist had offered to cancel—it wasn't that important, she said— but I didn't want to. It was important. After the car pulled over on M Street Northwest, I hustled into the stone-pillared building of the Christian Broadcasting Network.
All in a blur, the producers took my cell phone, mic'd me up, and shoved me onto the set with the news anchor John Jessup. Camera rolling, Jessup skipped past the small talk. He was keen to know, given his audience, what I had learned about the president's alliance with America's white evangelicals. Despite being a lecherous, impenitent scoundrel—the 2016 campaign was marked by his mocking of a disabled man, his xenophobic slander of immi- grants, his casual calls to violence against political opponents—Trump had won a historic 81 percent of white evangelical voters. Yet that statistic was just a surface-level indicator of the foundational shifts taking place inside the Church. Polling showed that born-again Christian conservatives, once the president's softest backers, were now his most unflinching advocates. Jessup had the same question as millions of other Americans: Why?
As a believer in Jesus Christ—and as the son of an evangelical minister, raised in a conservative church in a conservative community—I had long struggled with how to answer this question. The truth is, I knew lots of Christians who, to varying degrees, supported the president, and there was no way to summarily describe their diverse attitudes, motivations, and behaviors. They were best understood as points plotted across a spectrum. At one end were the Christians who maintained their dignity while voting for Trump—people who were clear-eyed in understanding that backing a candidate, pragmatically and prudentially, need not lead to unconditionally promoting, empowering, and apologizing for that candidate. At the opposite end were the Christians who had jettisoned their credibility—people who embraced the charge of being reactionary hypocrites, still fuming about Bill Clinton's character as they jumped at the chance to go slumming with a playboy turned president.
Most of the Christians I knew fell somewhere in the middle. They had to some extent been seduced by the cult of Trumpism, yet to composite all of these people into a caricature was misleading. Something more profound was taking place. Something was happening in the country—something was happening in the Church—that we had never seen before. I had attempted, ever so delicately, to make these points in my book. Now, on the TV set, I was doing a similar dance.
Jessup seemed to sense my reticence. Pivoting from the book, he asked me about a recent flare-up in the evangelical world. In response to the Trump administration's policy of forcibly separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, Russell Moore, a prominent leader with the Southern Baptist Convention, had tweeted, "Those created in the image of God should be treated with dignity and compassion, especially those seeking refuge from violence back home." At this, Jerry Falwell Jr.—the son and namesake of the Moral Majority founder, and then-president of Liberty University, one of the world's largest Christian colleges—took great offense. "Who are you @drmoore?" he replied. "Have you ever made a payroll? Have you ever built an organization of any type from scratch? What gives you authority to speak on any issue?"
This being Twitter and all, I decided to chime in. "There are Russell Moore Christians and Jerry Falwell Jr. Christians," I wrote, summarizing the back-and-forth. "Choose wisely, brothers and sisters."
Now Jessup was reading my tweet on- air. "Do you really see evangelicals divided into two camps?" the anchor asked.
I stumbled. Conceding that it might be an "oversimplification," I warned still of a "fundamental disconnect" between Christians who view issues through the eyes of Jesus and Christians who process everything through a partisan political filter.
As the interview ended, I knew I'd botched an opportunity to state plainly my qualms about the American evangelical Church. Truth be told, I did see 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. My own Christian walk had been so badly
flawed. And besides, I'm no theologian; Jessup was asking for my journalistic analysis, not my biblical exegesis.
Walking off the set, I wondered if my dad might catch that clip. Surely somebody at our home church would see it and pass it along. I grabbed my phone, then stopped to chat with Jessup and a few of his colleagues. As we said our farewells, I looked down at the phone, which had been silenced. There were multiple missed calls from my wife and oldest brother. Dad had collapsed from a heart attack. There was nothing the sur- geons could do. He was gone.
The last time I saw him was nine days earlier. The CEO of Politico, my employer at the time, had thrown a book party for me at his Washington manor, and Mom and Dad weren't going to miss that. They jumped in their Chevy and drove out from my childhood home in southeast Michigan. When he sauntered into the event, my old man looked out of place—a rumpled midwestern minister, baggy shirt stuffed into his stained khakis—but before long he was holding court with diplomats and Fortune 500 lobbyists, making them howl with irreverent one-liners. It was like a Rodney Dangerfield flick come to life. At one point, catching sight of my agape stare, he gave an exaggerated wink, then delivered a punch line for his captive audience.
It was the highpoint of my career. The book was getting lots of buzz; already I was being urged to write a sequel. Dad was proud—very proud, he assured me— but he was also uneasy. For months, as the book launch drew closer, he had been urging me to reconsider the focus of my reporting career. Politics, he kept saying, was a "sordid, nasty business," a waste of my time and God-given talents. Now, in the middle of the book party, he was taking me by the shoulder, asking a congressman to excuse us for just a moment. Dad put his arm around me and leaned in.
"You see all these people?" he asked.
"Yeah." I nodded, grinning at the validation.
"Most of them won't care about you in a week," he said.
The record scratched. My moment of rapture was interrupted. I cocked my head and smirked at him. Neither of us said anything. I was bothered. The longer we stood there in silence, the more bothered I became. Not because he was wrong. But because he was right.
"Remember," Dad said, smiling. "On this Earth, all glory is fleeting."
Now, as I raced to Reagan National Airport and boarded the first available flight to Detroit, his words echoed. There was nothing contrived about Dad's final admonition to me. That is what he believed; that is who he was.
Once a successful New York financier, Richard J. Alberta had become a born-again Christian in 1977. Despite having a nice house, beautiful wife, and healthy firstborn son, he felt a rumbling emptiness. He couldn't sleep. He developed debilitating anxiety. Religion hardly seemed like the solution; Dad came from a broken and unbelieving home. He had decided, half-way through his undergraduate studies at Rutgers University, that he was an atheist. And yet, one weekend while visiting family in the Hudson Valley, my dad agreed to attend church with his niece, Lynn. He became a new person that day. His angst was quieted. His doubts were overwhelmed. Taking Communion for the first time at Goodwill Church in Montgomery, New York, he prayed to acknowledge Jesus as the son of God and accept him as his personal savior.
Dad became unrecognizable to those who knew him. He rose early, hours before work, to read the Bible, filling a yellow legal pad with verses and annotations. He sat silently for hours in prayer. My mom thought he'd lost his mind. A young journalist who worked under Howard Cosell at ABC Radio in New York, Mom was suspicious of all this Jesus talk. But her maiden name—Pastor—was proof of God's sense of humor. Soon she accepted Christ too.
When Dad felt he was being called to abandon his finance career and enter the ministry, he met with Pastor Stewart Pohlman at Goodwill. As they prayed in Pastor Stew's office, Dad said he felt the spirit of the Lord swirling around him, filling up the room. He was not given to phony supernaturalism—in fact, Dad might have been the most intellectually sober, reason-based Christian I've ever known—but that day, he felt certain, the Lord anointed him.
Soon he and Mom were selling just about every material item they owned, leaving their high-salaried jobs in New York, and moving to Massachusetts so he could study at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
For the next two decades, they worked in small churches here and there, living off food stamps and the generosity of fellow believers. By the time I arrived, in 1986, Dad was Pastor Stew's associate at Goodwill. We lived in the church parsonage; my nursery was the library, where towers of leather-wrapped books had been collected by the church's pastors dating back to the mid-18th century. A few years later we moved to Michigan, and Dad eventually put down roots at a start-up, Cornerstone Church, in the Detroit suburb of Brighton. It was part of a minor denomination called the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), and it was there, for the next 26 years, that he served as senior pastor.
Cornerstone was our home. Because Mom also worked on staff, leading the women's ministry, I was quite literally raised in the church: playing hide-and-seek in storage areas, doing homework in the office wing, bringing high-school dates to Bible study, working as a janitor during a year of community college. I hung around the church so much that I decided to leave my mark: At 9 years old, I used a pocket knife to etch my initials into the brickwork of the narthex.
The last time I'd been there, 18 months earlier, I'd spoken to a packed sanctuary at Dad's retirement ceremony, armed with good-natured needling and PG-13 anecdotes. Now I would need to give a very different speech.
Standing in the back of the sanctuary, my three older brothers and I formed a receiving line. Cornerstone had been a small church when we'd arrived as kids. Not anymore. Brighton, once a sleepy town situated at the intersection of two expressways, had become a prized location for commuters to Detroit and Ann Arbor. Meanwhile, Dad, with his baseball allegories and Greek-linguistics lessons, had gained a reputation for his eloquence in the pulpit. By the time I moved away, in 2008, Cornerstone had grown from a couple hundred members to a couple thousand.
Now the crowd swarmed around us, filling the sanctuary and spilling out into the lobby and adjacent hallways, where tables displayed flowers and golf clubs and photos of Dad. I was numb. My brothers too. None of us had slept much that week. So the first time someone made a glancing reference to Rush Limbaugh, it did not compute. But then another person brought him up. And then another. That's when I connected the dots. Apparently, the king of conservative talk radio had been name-checking me on his program recently—"a guy named Tim Alberta"— and describing the unflattering revelations in my book about Trump. Nothing in that moment could have mattered to me less. I smiled, shrugged, and thanked people for coming to the visitation.
They kept on coming. More than I could count. People from the church— people I'd known my entire life—were greeting me, not primarily with condolences or encouragement or mourning, but with commentary about Limbaugh and Trump. Some of it was playful, guys remarking about how I was the same mischief-maker they'd known since kindergarten. But some of it wasn't playful. Some of it was angry; some of it was cold and confrontational. One man questioned whether I was truly a Christian. Another asked if I was still on "the right side." All while Dad was in a box a hundred feet away.
It got to the point where I had to take a walk. Here, in our house of worship, people were taunting me about politics as I tried to mourn my father. I was in the company of certain friends that day who would not claim to know Jesus, yet they shrouded me in peace and comfort. Some of these card-carrying evangelical Christians? Not so much. They didn't see a hurting son; they saw a vulnerable adversary.
That night, while fine-tuning the eulogy I would give at Dad's funeral the following afternoon, I still felt the sting. My wife perceived as much. The unflappable one in the family, she encouraged me to be careful with my words and cautioned against mentioning the day's unpleasantness. I took half of her advice.
In front of an overflow crowd on August 2, 2019, I paid tribute to the man who'd taught me everything—how to throw a baseball, how to be a gentleman, how to trust and love the Lord. Reciting my favorite verse, from Paul's second letter to the early Church in Corinth, Greece, I told of Dad's instruction to keep our eyes fixed on what we could not see. Reading from his favorite poem, about a man named Richard Cory, I told of Dad's warning that we could amass great wealth and still be poor.
Then I recounted all the people who'd approached me the day before, wanting to discuss the Trump wars on AM talk radio. I proposed that their time in the car would be better spent listening to Dad's old sermons. I spoke of the need for discipleship and spiritual formation. I suggested, with some sarcasm, that if they needed help finding biblical listening for their daily commute, the pastors here on staff could help. "Why are you listening to Rush Limbaugh?" I asked my father's congregation. "Garbage in, garbage out."
There was nervous laughter in the sanctuary. Some people were visibly agitated. Others looked away, pretending not to hear. My dad's successor, a young pastor named Chris Winans, wore a shell- shocked expression. No matter. I had said my piece. It was finished. Or so I thought.
A few hours later, after we had buried Dad, my brothers and I slumped down onto the couches in our parents' living room. We opened some beers and turned on a baseball game. Behind us, in the
kitchen, a small platoon of church ladies worked to prepare a meal for the family. Here, I thought, is the love of Christ. Watching them hustle about, comforting Mom and catering to her sons, I found myself regretting the Limbaugh remark. Most of the folks at our church were humble, kindhearted Christians like these women. Maybe I'd blown things out of proportion.
Just then, one of them walked over and handed me an envelope. It had been left at the church, she said. My name was scrawled across it. I opened the envelope. Inside was a full-page-long, handwritten screed. It was from a longtime Cornerstone elder, someone my dad had called a friend, a man who'd mentored me in the youth group and had known me for most of my life.
He had composed this note, on the occasion of my father's death, to express just how disappointed he was in me. I was part of an evil plot, the man wrote, to undermine God's ordained leader of the United States. My criticisms of President Trump were tantamount to treason—against both God and country—and I should be ashamed of myself.
However, there was still hope. Jesus forgives, and so could this man. If I used my journalism skills to investigate the "deep state," he wrote, uncovering the shadowy cabal that was supposedly sabotaging Trump's presidency, then I would be restored. He said he was praying for me.
I felt sick. Silently, I passed the letter to my wife. She scanned it without expression. Then she flung the piece of paper into the air and, with a shriek that made the church ladies jump out of their cardigans, cried out: "What the hell is wrong with these people?"
There has never been consensus on what, exactly, it means to be an evangelical. Competing and overlapping definitions have been offered for generations, some more widely embraced than others. Billy Graham, a man synonymous with the term, once remarked that he himself would like to inquire as to its true meaning. By the 1980s, thanks to the efforts of televangelists and political activists, what was once a religious signifier began transforming into a partisan movement. Evangelical soon became synonymous with conservative Christian, and eventually with white conservative Republican.
My dad, a serious theologian who held advanced degrees from top seminaries, bristled at reductive analyses of his religious tribe. He would frequently state from the pulpit what he believed an evangelical to be: someone who interprets the Bible as the inspired word of God and who takes seriously the charge to proclaim it to the world.
From a young age, I realized that not all Christians were like my dad. Other adults who went to our church—my teachers, coaches, friends' parents—didn't speak about God the way that he did. Theirs was a more casual Christianity, less a lifestyle than a hobby, something that could be picked up and put down and slotted into schedules. Their pastor realized as much. Pushing his people ever harder to engage with questions of canonical authority and trinitarian precepts and Calvinist doctrine, Dad tried his best to run a serious church.
But for all his successes, Dad had one great 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.
Once a talented young athlete, Dad came down with tuberculosis at 16 years old. He was hospitalized for four months; at one point, doctors thought he might die. He eventually recovered, and with the Vietnam War escalating, he joined the Marine Corps. But at the Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia, he fell behind in the physical work. His lungs were not healthy. After receiving an honorable discharge, Dad went home saddled with a certain shame. In the ensuing years, he learned that dozens of the second lieutenants he'd trained alongside at Quantico—as well as a bunch of guys he'd grown up with—were killed in action. It burdened him for the rest of his life.
This experience, and his disgust with the hippies and the drug culture and the war protesters, turned Dad into a law-and-order conservative. Marinating in the language of social conservatism during his time in seminary—this was the heyday of the Moral Majority—he emerged a full-spectrum Republican. His biggest political concern was abortion; in 1947, my grandmother, trapped in an emotionally abusive marriage, had almost ended her pregnancy with him. (She had a sudden change of heart at the clinic and walked out, a decision my dad would always attribute to holy intercession.) But he also waded into the culture wars: gay marriage, education curriculum, morality in public life.
Dad always told us that personal integrity was a prerequisite for political leader- ship. He was so relieved when Bill Clinton's second term ended that he and Mom hosted a small viewing party in our living room for George W. Bush's 2001 inauguration, to cel- ebrate the return of morality to the White House. Over time, however, his emphasis shifted. One Sunday in early 2010, when I was home visiting, he showed the congre- gation an ominous video in which Christian leaders warned about the menace of Obamacare. I told him afterward that it felt inappropriate for a worship service; he disagreed. We would butt heads more regularly in the years that followed. It was always loving, always respectful. Yet clearly our philosophical paths were diverging—a reality that became unavoidable during the presidency of Donald Trump.
Dad would have preferred any of the other Republicans who ran in 2016. He knew that Trump was a narcissist and a liar; he knew that he was not a moral man. Ultimately Dad felt he had no choice but to support the Republican ticket, given his concern for the unborn and the Supreme Court majority that hung in the balance. I understood that decision. What I couldn't understand was how, over the next couple of years, he became an apologist for Trump's antics, dismissing criticisms of the president's conduct as little more than
an attempt to marginalize his supporters. Dad really did believe this; he believed that the constant attacks on Trump's character were ipso facto an attack on the character of people like himself, which I think, on some subconscious level, created a permission structure for him to ignore the president's depravity. All I could do was tell Dad the truth. "Look, you're the one who taught me to know right from wrong," I would say. "Don't be mad at me for acting on it."
To his credit, Dad was not some lazy, knee-jerk partisan. He was vocal about certain issues—gun violence, poverty, immigration, the trappings of wealth—that did not play to his constituency at Cornerstone.
Dad wasn't a Christian nationalist; he wanted nothing to do with theocracy. He just believed that God had blessed the United States uniquely—and felt that anyone who fought to preserve those blessings was doing the Lord's work. This made for an unfortunate scene in 2007, when a young congregant at Cornerstone, a Marine named Mark Kidd, died during a fourth tour of duty in Iraq. Public opinion had swung sharply against the war, and Democrats were demanding that the Bush administration bring the troops home. My dad was devastated by Kidd's death. They had corresponded while Kidd was overseas and met for prayer in between his deployments. Dad's grief as a pastor gave way to his grievance as a Republican supporter of the war: He made it known to local Democratic politicians that they weren't welcome at the funeral.
"I am ashamed, personally, of leaders who say they support the troops but not
The author and his father in 2019
the commander in chief," Dad thundered from his pulpit, earning a raucous standing ovation. "Do they not see that discourages the warriors and encourages the terrorists?"
This touched off a firestorm in our community. Most of the church members were all for Dad's remarks, but even in a conservative town like Brighton, plenty of people felt uneasy about turning a fallen Marine's church memorial into a partisan political rally. Patriotism in the pulpit is one thing; lots of sanctuaries fly an American flag on the rostrum. This was something else. This was taking the weight and the gravity and the eternal certainty of God and lending it to an ephemeral and questionable cause. This was rebuking people for failing to unconditionally follow the president of the United States when the only authority we're meant to unconditionally follow— particularly in a setting of stained-glass windows—is Christ himself.
I know Dad regretted it. But he couldn't help himself. His own personal story—and his broader view of the United States as a godly nation, a source of hope in a despon- dent world—was impossible to divorce from his pastoral ministry. Every time a member of the military came to church dressed in uniform, Dad would recognize them by name, ask them to stand up, and lead the church in a rapturous round of applause. This was one of the first things his successor changed at Cornerstone.
Eighteen months after Dad's funeral, in February 2021, I sat down across from that successor, Chris Winans, in a booth at the Brighton Bar & Grill. It's a comfortable little haunt on Main Street, backing up to a wooden playground and a millpond. But Winans didn't look comfort- able. He looked nervous, even a bit para- noid, glancing around him as we began to speak. Soon, I would understand why.
Dad had spent years looking for an heir apparent. Several associate pastors had come and gone. Cornerstone was his life's work—he had led the church throughout virtually its entire history—so there would be no settling in his search for a succes- sor. The uncertainty wore him down. Dad worried that he might never find the right guy. And then one day, while attending a denominational meeting, he met Winans, a young associate pastor from Goodwill— the very church where he'd been saved, and where he'd worked his first job out of seminary. Dad hired him away from Goodwill to lead a young-adults ministry at Cornerstone, and from the moment Winans arrived, I could tell that he was the one.
Barely 30 years old, Winans looked to be exactly what Cornerstone needed in its next generation of leadership. He was a brilliant student of the scriptures. He spoke with precision and clarity from the pulpit. He had a humble, easygoing way about him, operating without the outsize ego that often accompanies first- rate preaching. Everything about this pastor—the boyish sweep of brown hair, his delightful young family—seemed to be straight out of central casting.
There was just one problem: Chris Winans was not a conservative Republican. He didn't like guns. He cared more about funding anti-poverty programs than cutting taxes. He had no appetite for President Trump's unrepentant antics. Of course, none of this would seem heretical to Christians in other parts of the world; given his staunch anti-abortion position, Winans would in most places be considered the picture of spiritual and intellectual consistency. But in the American evangelical tradition, and at a church like Cornerstone, the whiff of liberalism made him suspect.
Dad knew the guy was different. Winans liked to play piano instead of sports, and had no taste for hunting or fishing. Frankly, Dad thought that was a bonus. Winans wasn't supposed to simply placate Cornerstone's aging base of wealthy white congregants. The new pastor's charge was to evangelize, to cast a vision and expand the mission field, to challenge those inside the church and carry the gospel to those outside it. Dad didn't think there was undue risk. He felt confident that his hand-chosen successor's gifts in the pulpit, and his manifest love of Jesus, would smooth over any bumps in the transition.
He was wrong. Almost immediately after Winans moved into the role of senior pastor, at the beginning of 2018, the knives came out. Any errant remark he made
about politics or culture, any slight against Trump or the Republican Party—real or perceived—invited a torrent of criticism. Longtime members would demand a meeting with Dad, who had stuck around in a support role, and unload on Winans. Dad would ask if there was any substantive criticism of the theology; almost invariably, the answer was no. A month into the job, when Winans remarked in a sermon that Christians ought to be protective of God's creation—arguing for congregants to take seriously the threats to the planet—people came to Dad by the dozens, outraged, demanding that Winans be reined in. Dad told them all to get lost. If anyone had a beef with the senior pastor, he said, they needed to take it up with the senior pastor. (Dad did so himself, buying Winans lunch at Chili's and suggesting that he tone down the tree hugging.)
Winans had a tough first year on the job, but he survived it. The people at Cornerstone were in an adjustment period. He needed to respect that—and he needed to adjust, too. As long as Dad had his back, Winans knew he would be okay.
And then Dad died.
Now, Winans told me, he was barely hanging on at Cornerstone. The church had become unruly; his job had become unbearable. Not long after Dad died— making Winans the unquestioned leader
of the church—the coronavirus pandemic arrived. And then George Floyd was murdered. All of this as Donald Trump campaigned for reelection. Trump had run in 2016 on a promise that "Christianity will have power" if he won the White House; now he was warning that his opponent in the 2020 election, former Vice President Joe Biden, was going to "hurt God" and target Christians for their religious beliefs. Embracing dark rhetoric and violent conspiracy theories, the president enlisted prominent evangelicals to help frame a cosmic spiritual clash between the God-fearing Republicans who supported Trump and the secular leftists who were plotting their conquest of America's Judeo-Christian ethos.
People at Cornerstone began confronting their pastor, demanding that he speak out against government mandates and Black Lives Matter and Joe Biden. When Winans declined, people left. The mood soured noticeably after Trump's defeat in November 2020. A crusade to overturn the election result, led by a group of out-spoken Christians—including Trump's lawyer Jenna Ellis, who later pleaded guilty to a felony charge of aiding and abetting false statements and writings, and the author Eric Metaxas, who suggested to fellow believers that martyrdom might be required to keep Trump in office—roiled the Cornerstone congregation. When a popular church staffer who had been known to proselytize for QAnon was fired after repeated run-ins with Winans, the pastor told me, the departures came in droves. Some of those abandoning Cornerstone were not core congregants. But plenty of them were. They were people who served in leadership roles, people Winans counted as confidants and friends.
By the time Trump supporters invaded the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Winans believed he'd lost control of his church. "It's an exodus," he told me a few weeks later, sitting inside Brighton Bar & Grill.
The pastor had felt despair—and a certain liability—watching the attack unfold on television. Christian imagery was ubiquitous: rioters forming prayer circles, singing hymns, carrying Bibles and crosses. The perversion of America's prevailing religion would forever be associated with this tragedy; as one of the legislative ringleaders, Senator Josh Hawley, explained in a speech the following year, long after the blood had been scrubbed from the Capitol steps, "We are a revolutionary nation precisely because we are the heirs of the revolution of the Bible."
That sort of thinking, Winans said, represents an even greater threat than the events of January 6.
" A lot of people believe there was a reli-gious conception of this country. A biblical conception of this country," Winans told me. "And that's the source of a lot of our problems."
For much of American history, white Christians have enjoyed tremendous wealth and influence and security. Given that reality—and given the miraculous nature of America's defeat of Great Britain, its rise to superpower status, and its legacy of spreading freedom and democracy (and, yes, Christianity) across the globe—it's easy to see why so many evangelicals believe that our country is divinely blessed. The problem is, blessings often become indistinguishable from entitlements. Once we become convinced that God has blessed something, that something can become an object of jealousy, obsession—even worship.
"At its root, we're talking about idolatry. America has become an idol to some of these people. If you believe that God is in covenant with America, then you believe—and I've heard lots of people say this explicitly—that we're a new Israel," Winans said, referring to the Old Testament narrative of God's chosen nation. "You believe the sorts of promises made to Israel are applicable to this country; you view America as a covenant that needs to be protected. You have to fight for America as if salvation itself hangs in the balance. At that point, you understand yourself as an American first and most fundamentally. And that is a terrible misunderstanding of who we're called to be."
Plenty of nations are mentioned in the Bible; the United States is not one
of them. Most American evangelicals are sophisticated enough to reject the idea of this country as something consecrated in the eyes of God. But many of those same people have chosen to idealize a Christian America that puts them at odds with Christianity. They have allowed their national identity to shape their faith identity instead of the other way around.
Winans chose to be hypervigilant on this front, hence the change of policy regarding Cornerstone's salute to military personnel. The new pastor would meet soldiers after the service, shaking their hand and individually thanking them for their service. But he refused to stage an ovation in the sanctuary. This wasn't because he was some bohemian anti-war activist; in fact, his wife had served in the Army. Winans simply felt it was inappropriate.
"I don't want to dishonor anyone. I think nations have the right to self-defense. I respect the sacrifices these people make in the military," Winans told me. "But they would come in wearing their dress blues and get this wild standing ovation. And you contrast that to whenever we would host missionaries: They would stand up for recognition, and we give them a golf clap ... And you have to wonder: Why? What's going on inside our hearts?"
This kind of cultural heresy was getting Winans into trouble. More congregants were defecting each week. Many were relocating to one particular congregation down the road, a revival-minded church that was pandering to the whims of the moment, led by a pastor who was preaching a blood-and-soil Christian nationalism that sought to merge two kingdoms into one.
As we talked, Winans asked me to keep something between us: He was thinking about leaving Cornerstone.
The "psychological onslaught," he said, had become too much. Recently, the pastor had developed a form of anxiety disorder and was retreating into a dark room between services to collect himself. Winans
had met with several trusted elders and asked them to stick close to him on Sunday mornings so they could catch him if he were to faint and fall over.
I thought about Dad and how heart- broken he would have been. Then I started to wonder if Dad didn't have some level of culpability in all of this. Clearly, long before COVID-19 or George Floyd or Donald Trump, something had gone wrong at Cornerstone. I had always shrugged off the crude, hysterical, sky-is-falling Facebook posts I would see from people at the church. I found it amusing, if not particularly alarming, that some longtime Cornerstone members were obsessed with trolling me on Twitter. Now I couldn't help but think these were warnings—bright-red blinking lights— that should have been taken seriously. My dad never had a social-media account. Did he have any idea just how lost some of his sheep really were?
I had never told Winans about the confrontations at my dad's viewing, or the letter I received after taking Rush Limbaugh's name in vain at the funeral. Now I was leaning across the table, unloading every detail. He narrowed his eyes and folded his hands and gave a pained exhale, mouthing that he was sorry. He could not even manage the words.
We both kept quiet for a little while. And then I asked him something I'd thought about every day for the previous 18 months—a sanitized version of my wife's outburst in the living room.
"What's wrong with American evangelicals?"
Winans thought for a moment.
"America," he replied. "Too many of them worship America."
The author and his father in 2019
Tim Alberta is a staff writer at The Atlantic. This article was adapted from his new book, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism.