FORT SMITH, Ark. — In the fall of 2020, Kevin Thompson delivered a sermon about the gentleness of God. At one point, he drew a quick contrast between a loving, accessible God and remote, inaccessible celebrities. Speaking without notes, his Bible in his hand, he reached for a few easy examples: Oprah, Jay-Z, Tom Hanks.
Mr. Thompson could not tell how his sermon was received. The church he led had only recently returned to meeting in person. Attendance was sparse, and it was hard to appreciate if his jokes were landing, or if his congregation — with family groups spaced three seats apart, and others watching online — remained engaged.
So he was caught off guard when two church members expressed alarm about the passing reference to Mr. Hanks. A young woman texted him, concerned; another member suggested the reference to Mr. Hanks proved Mr. Thompson did not care about the issue of sex trafficking. Mr. Thompson soon realized that their worries sprung from the sprawling QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims that the movie star is part of a ring of Hollywood pedophiles.
For decades, Mr. Thompson, 44, had been confident that he knew the people of Fort Smith, a small city tucked under a bend in the Arkansas River along the Oklahoma border. He was born at the oldest hospital in town, attended public schools there and grew up in a Baptist church that encouraged him to start preaching as a teenager. He assumed he would live in Fort Smith for the rest of his life.
Roe v. Wade looks like a triumphant era for conservative evangelicals. But there are deepening cracks beneath that ascendance.
Across the country, theologically conservative white evangelical churches that were once comfortably united have found themselves at odds over many of the same issues dividing the Republican Party and other institutions. The disruption, fear and physical separation of the pandemic have exacerbated every rift.
Many churches are fragile, with attendance far below prepandemic levels; denominations are shrinking, and so is the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian. Forty-two percent of Protestant pastors said they had seriously considered quitting full-time ministry within the past year, according to a new survey by the evangelical pollster Barna, a number that had risen 13 points since the beginning of 2021.
Michael O. Emerson, a sociologist at the University of Illinois Chicago, described a “seismic shift” coming, with white evangelical churches dividing into two broad camps: those embracing Trump-style messaging and politics, including references to conspiracy theories, and those seeking to navigate a different way.
Donald J. Trump and urging Christians to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. But more often, the ruptures are quieter: a pastor who moves to another church to avoid a major confrontation, or who changes careers without fanfare.