Latest Book on Evangelical ‘Extremism’ Reflects Pervasive Tendency to Beat Up on Judaism to Save Jesus

Image: From the front cover of Tim Alberta's "The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicalism in an Age of Extremism" (Harper, 2023)

Perhaps you’re in the crowd that’s baffled by the behavior of American evangelicals. How could these people who, according to this crowd, stood up for traditional moral values (whatever those are) and volunteered to build houses for poor families become agents of rage—Donald Trump’s most reliable allies? If that’s your tribe, Tim Alberta’s recently released The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism is the book for you. 

Written as a travel journal-slash-pilgrimage, the book tracks how White American evangelicals have soiled their witness. In the process, they’ve stoked social division, promoted a would-be dictator, and driven millions away from the church. Especially young adults. A wonderful work of journalism, Alberta’s book also passes along one of Christianity’s most dangerous habits: a pernicious, albeit unintentional, anti-Judaism.

Alberta has composed a deeply personal lament. The son of an evangelical pastor who embraced radicalization, he sympathizes with evangelicals who’ve found the rug pulled out from under them. These include local pastors and denominational officials whose congregations suddenly demanded constant diets of political outrage, along with victims of sexual abuse whose Christian institutions muffled their complaints. 

As a Protestant who lives outside evangelicalism, I’ve seen the same happen to Lutheran and Methodist pastors and Episcopal priests. The old model, in which pastors discerned when the gospel compelled them to address a given social issue, have found themselves subject to loyalty tests. Alberta is especially compelling when he interviews evangelical elites. Figures like David French and Russell Moore hold impeccable credentials as social conservatives, yet they’ve fled to new institutional contexts because they dared criticize the Orange Terror. 

Alberta flashes the psychological insight and narrative finesse of an elite reporter, but his theological reflections can, at times, confuse the reader. Is he summarizing things he heard from someone else? Is he explaining their point of view? Presenting his own theological analysis? When it is clear that Alberta is offering his own theological commentary, he presents himself as coming from inside evangelicalism and holding pretty much the theological outlook of the communities that nurtured him. 

For lots of Christians, that outlook involves denigrating Judaism in one way or another, a pattern prominent in Alberta’s book. Some claim that Jews failed to recognize Jesus as their messiah because they misunderstood their own scriptures. Some progressive Christians say Jesus liberated women, lepers, or disabled persons from a Judaism that marginalized them. Neither claim withstands scrutiny. 

I often ask my students, many of whom are preparing for ministry, “Would you say that if the local rabbi were sitting in the front row?” The answer is often no, both because they understand how harmful their words would be and because they’re likely to be wrong. Few seminary graduates know enough about Judaism, ancient or modern, to speak about it with authority. One splendid resource for addressing this problem is the Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler.

I wish Alberta had consulted with scholars like Levine and Brettler. At one point, for example, Alberta declares that Jesus “finished” what began when God delivered Israel from slavery, a common belief in the church that Christians replaced or “superseded” Jews as God’s chosen, and one that implies that God has abandoned Israel. He goes on to say that the message about Jesus is for all people, while Israel’s election was limited. These slanders are way too common in the church. 

At another point, discussing a pastor who rejects right-wing Christianity, Alberta uncritically includes the pastor’s claim that “the Jews couldn’t comprehend” that, when the Hebrew prophet Haggai commanded Jews to rebuild the temple, he wasn’t speaking of the temple in Jerusalem but of “Jesus and his eternal sovereignty.” Haggai, who would have lived 500 years before the birth of Jesus, was not. Later, the same preacher compares politicized right-wing preachers to the biblical Pharisees, described as “blind guides” in Matthew’s Gospel. This claim is both harmful and, even according to Christian scripture, unfounded. It’s harmful because many Christians imagine the Gospel caricatures of the Pharisees apply to Jews and Judaism in general. It’s unfounded because, while the New Testament Gospels and Acts inveigh against the Pharisees, other ancient sources, including the Apostle Paul, suggest that the Pharisees were widely admired and not an easy target for ridicule. Jesus and the Pharisees may well have conflicted sharply, but not because the Pharisees were villains in the ways Christians often imagine. 

But Alberta’s most egregious take represents his own perspective, not a summary of someone else’s. Because Jesus “showered affection… [on] the broken and the shunned,” his behavior was “disgraceful to the Jewish authorities monitoring [his] activity.” Having written a book that deals with Jesus’s companionship with sinners, I agree that his behavior may have evoked criticism—but only to a point. If the authorities considered Jesus’s behavior disgraceful—mind you, we only have a few stories from Christian sources on the point—Jesus’s very Jewish neighbors apparently rejoiced to see it (e.g., Mark 1:45; 2:12; 5:42). Alberta, like so many before, would no doubt argue that he was speaking of Jewish authorities, not all Jews; but in failing to offer a more balanced picture of Jewish attitudes Alberta’s take perpetuates an old antisemitic stereotype of legalist Jewish opposition to Christian compassion.

Christians often portray ancient Judaism in this way as a means to celebrate Jesus. Surely the gospel is not so weak that Christians must elevate our own faith by debasing someone else’s. Or, as my fellow progressive Christians sometimes do, we abuse Judaism to critique Christians with whom we disagree. These tropes are harmful to Jews who face enough threats already from Christian nationalists who have a greater tendency to hold negative attitudes toward Jews and other non-Christians. Meanwhile, I’ve recently experienced several conversations in which Jewish colleagues and friends report feeling personally unsafe during the current upsurge of antisemitism. Christians need to do better.

And Christians do have another option: we can stop reading ourselves as the heroes of every biblical story and instead turn the critical spotlight on ourselves. Alberta himself approaches this path when, referring to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), he writes, “Two thousand years after Jesus told that parable, religious leaders were still failing to tend to their own, and [religious] outsiders were still showing the type of neighborly compassion that God requires of us.” Healthy biblical interpretation tends to promote introspection. Rather than turn the Bible against religious and social others, Christians would do well to examine our own communities and practices.