Cultural divisions and political entrenchment transform evangelical voting bloc

The Supreme Court's leaked draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade has brought the intersection of politics and religion to the forefront, including in the Evangelical Church. The Atlantic's Tim Alberta recently delved into these issues in his recent article, "How Politics Poisoned the Evangelical Church." He joins Amna Nawaz to discuss the church's swing to the hard right.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Supreme Court's leaked draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade has brought the intersection of politics and religion to the forefront.

    The relationship between the two has a long and complicated history. But, in recent years, one trend has stood out: the evangelical church's swing to the far right.

    Amna Nawaz has a look at that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tim Alberta is a staff writer at "The Atlantic" whose most recent article entitled "How Politics Poisoned the Evangelical Church" delves into these issues. He joins me now.

    Tim Alberta, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Always good to have you here.

    Tim Alberta, "The Atlantic": Hi, Amna. Great to be with you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, this is a faith tradition, we should say, that you are familiar with personally. You have grown up in this — in the evangelical and around evangelical churches. And you professionally know it as well. You have been reporting in these communities for years.

    I'm curious, big picture, though, why this moment? Why did you decide to return to report on it in this really deep dive?

  • Tim Alberta:

    I think what's most striking to me at this point, Amna, is just what we have seen as a sort of confluence of events and factors and circumstances.

    You have these massive cultural divisions in the church over everything from discussions of human sexuality and abortion, to race relations, to the MeToo movement and sexual abuse, all of this sort of swirling and churning. And it's created something of a perfect storm, if you will, inside the church, where decades-old alignments, theologically, politically, culturally are sort of fracturing in real time.

    And what you're seeing now is sort of a massive realignment, in which a lot of folks who have been members of the same churches for many years, who call a church in their community home have abruptly left and relocated, sometimes just down the road to another church or to a new church, perhaps.

    And those churches most often are not only reflecting their own partisan views more accurately, but those churches tend to be substantially farther to the right. And that really represents a sea change inside the evangelical movement.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, when we talk about evangelicals, just to kind of paint a portrait here, we are talking about an overwhelmingly white group, right?

    Even Pew numbers recently say people who self-identify as evangelical in America, about 76 percent are white, largely conservative, as you mentioned too. You and your piece profile in great detail a number of people in the community, also a number of pastors you meet with, two in particular I want to ask you about, a man named Ken Brown and Bill Bolin.

    Here's what you write about them.

  • You say:

    "In leading their predominantly white Republican congregations, Brown and Bolin have come to agree on one important thing. Both believe there's a war for the soul of the American church."

    How does that show up in their ministry?

  • Tim Alberta:

    Yes, Amna, it's really fascinating.

    Bill Bolin actually leads a church in my hometown in Brighton, Michigan. And the reason that Bill Bolin became sort of a celebrity overnight in the community and the reason that his church began to grow so explosively was because he refused to close down his church and comply with government regulations at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, before this was really seen as an explicitly partisan political issue.

    Bill Bolin and his church decided to make it one, and they really reaped a whirlwind from it. They saw their church grow from about 100 people on any given Sunday. And, of course, in another suburb of Detroit not far from there is Ken Brown's church. He has seen in his own congregation a lurch to the right and a real sort of dangerous appreciation for conspiracy theorizing and far right fringe politics.

    And so Ken Brown right around the time that this other pastor was sort of exploiting it for the growth and the gain of his church, Ken Brown decided to do the opposite at his church. He decided to sort of put his foot down and begin challenging his own congregants and really make sure that his church would not become radicalized in the way that others were.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Tim, when you talk to people in the community who see their participation in the church as part of their battle for the soul of this country, as you write, what about abortion?

    I mean, you're talking about a group that has long and strongly been opposed to abortion rights in this country. What kind of impact did the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion have on this community? What does it mean for them moving forward?

  • Tim Alberta:

    So, what's so interesting now is that many of those voters, if, in fact, the issue is de-federalized and pushed back to the states to decide on a case-by-case basis, many voters will now have to confront an altogether different calculus come November of an election year, a general election year, in which it's not clear whether or not abortion, the great single issue driver that has galvanized so many churches, and, frankly, which has invited so much of this partisan political activity from churches in recent decades, whether that will now be sort of decentralized.

    And whether you will see more activity on the ground at the local and state level, with much more church involvement in those races, rather than at the top of the ticket. That's something that a lot of churches are not working through, and we're going to have to see how it plays out.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tim, I guess, if you put it in perspective, when you look back, there's always been this sort of intersection of politics and faith among people who self-identify as evangelical, right?

    You think back to the 1980s and the Moral Majority. You write about the evolution, how it is different now. It's causing fractures. I wonder what you think the moving — sort of moving forward, that political influence will be, given everything you report on?

  • Tim Alberta:

    I think what sets this moment apart a bit, Amna, is the fact that for the Moral Majority, in its heyday, there was a real belief that they were saving America from itself, that there was great momentum on their side in this fight to, as they saw it, sort of restore the Christian character of this nation.

    I think what's different now is that, as I write in the piece, there really is a certain fatalism that has set into the evangelical movement. The white evangelical church in America today is in a real way defined by a belief that America's best days are behind it, that America is in inexorable decline, and that, rather than fighting to sort of save America, as it were, or this idealized version of America, really, the battle now is to sort of carve out their own space and prevent the secularization of all of America, and to sort of keep the wolves at bay.

    There is now, I think, a sense in which many white evangelical Christians are sort of letting go of the church and clinging closer to America, rather than the other way around.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Tim Alberta, staff writer at "The Atlantic."

    His latest piece is entitled "How Politics Poisoned the Evangelical Church"

    Tim, thanks for your time.

  • Tim Alberta:

    My pleasure. Thanks, Amna.

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