February 2020 Church & State Magazine | Cover Story

Days after Christianity Today ran a hard-hitting editorial calling President Donald Trump “morally confused” and asserting that he’s not fit for high office, Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College and a former contributor to the magazine, posed a pointed question: What took you so long?

“I concede that I may have missed some signs of deviation from the right-wing norm, but when I returned to the magazine’s online archive to check my memory, I mostly encountered a lot of fawning over the likes of Michele Bachmann and Mike Huckabee outside of the editorial pages,” wrote Balmer in a Los Angeles Times op-ed column. “Assuming the mantle of prophet is all well and good. But a prophetic voice seeks to avert calamity rather than redress it.”

Balmer wasn’t the only one asking that question in the wake of the Dec. 19 editorial, which hit the evangelical community – and the larger political world – like a bolt of lightning.   Conservative evangelicals had been marching behind Trump in lockstep, and here was the nation’s leading publication for that community, a magazine founded by no less than the late evangelist Billy Graham, taking a decided turn in the opposite direction.

Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, who has since retired, didn’t hold back. Referring to the scandal that sparked Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives, Galli wrote, “But the facts in this instance are unambiguous: The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.”

He added, “The reason many are not shocked about this is that this president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone – with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders – is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”

But Galli didn’t stop there. He hit evangelicals where it hurt by pointing out the harm blindly following Trump does to their own witness.

“To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve,” Galli wrote. “Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?”

They’re compelling questions to be sure, but many evangelicals were in no mood to entertain them. Reaction to the editorial was swift and furious as Trump’s evangelical defenders circled the wagons and blasted back.

Trump himself led the way, employing his Twitter account to make a number of hyperbolic claims about Christianity Today.  He deemed the magazine irrelevant. According to Trump, the magazine is a “far left” publication that “has been doing poorly.”

In fact, Christianity Today, which has been published since 1956 and doesn’t appear to be floundering, is hardly a leftist organ. On two of the most visible social issues of the day – legal abortion and LGBTQ rights – it’s solidly in the conservative camp. Its evangelical bona fides are just as solid.

Days after the editorial ran, Timothy Dalrymple, the publication’s president and CEO, wrote a column defending the piece.

“President Donald Trump would have you believe we are ‘far left,’” Dalrymple wrote. “Others have said we are not Bible-believing Christians. Neither is true. Christianity Today is theologically conservative. We are pro-life and pro-family. We are firm supporters of religious liberties and economic opportunity for men and women to exercise their gifts and create value in the world. We believe in the authority of Scripture.”

Dalrymple went on to blast the evangelical alignment with the Republican Party, writing, “We nevertheless believe the evangelical alliance with this presidency has done damage to our witness here and abroad. The cost has been too high. American evangelicalism is not a Republican PAC. We are a diverse movement that should collaborate with political parties when prudent but always standing apart, at a prophetic distance, to be what Martin Luther King, Jr. called ‘the conscience of the state.’ That is what we believe. This is where we plant our flag. We know we are not alone.”

Among the magazine’s detractors was Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and one of Trump’s most obsequious sycophants. During an appearance on Fox News, Graham said his father would be “disappointed” in the magazine for criticizing Trump.

“My father supported Donald Trump, believed in Donald Trump and he actually voted for Donald Trump, and if he were here today he would tell you that himself,” Graham said.

Graham also attacked the publication on Facebook, calling it a tool of “the elitist liberal wing of evangelicalism.”

'To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?' -- Mark Galli

 

Yet for all their froth and fury, the attacks on Christianity Today by Graham, Trump and others only served to keep the story alive. As many observers noted, the editorial was published online on Dec. 19, a time when many Americans were preoccupied with the holidays. But it immediately went viral, causing the magazine’s servers to temporarily crash. The editorial dominated the news for a solid week, in part because the magazine’s critics wouldn’t stop talking about it.

Far from wounding the magazine, the editorial actually boosted subscriptions.

“A stereotypical response is ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’ with a string of a hundred exclamation points  — ‘you’ve said what I’ve been thinking but haven’t been able to articulate, I’m not crazy,’” Galli said during an interview with MSNBC. “We have lost subscribers, but we’ve had three times as many people start to subscribe.”

The irony of this was not lost on Galli. As he noted during an interview with The New York Times, the strength of the pushback to the editorial was telling.

“I was a little surprised that Donald Trump and then Franklin Graham thought it was worth commenting on,” Galli said. “And it did strike me as a bit ironic that they both said that it wasn’t significant or going to make any difference. It makes you immediately think that they do think it’s significant, or they wouldn’t comment on it.”

Despite his bluster, Trump seemed to realize he had a problem on his hands. He even bumped up the launch of a group called Evangelicals for Trump to blunt the impact.

Trump kicked off the group during a Jan. 3 event at an evangelical mega-church in Miami. The church, King Jesus International Ministry, is headed by Pastor Guillermo Maldonado, a close Trump ally.

Trump’s evangelical supporters were also quick to issue a statement on his behalf in an attempt to rebut the Christianity Today editorial. In addition, a rival publication, the online Christian Post, rushed ahead with its own editorial praising Trump. But even that move was not without controversy. A Christian Post editor, Napp Nazworth, was so disgusted by the move that he resigned.

“I warned them,” Nazworth told CNN. “If you go down this road and join team Trump, then that will destroy the reputation of The Christian Post. We had reached the impasse and I really had no other choice but to leave.”

Nazworth has indicated that he doesn’t plan to tiptoe away quietly. On New Year’s Day he tweeted, “My New Year’s resolution is to help evangelicals who don’t support Trump have a voice in the 2020 election.”

 In mid-January, a number of Chris­tian nationalist leaders signed a fawning letter to Trump thanking him for his far-right stands. Representatives from the American Family Association (AFA), the Family Research Council, Liberty Counsel, Eagle Forum and Priests for Life signed the letter. Also signing were James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, and Alan Sears, founder of the Alliance Defending Freedom.

AFA President Tim Wildmon, who signed the letter on behalf of the organization, told OneNewsNow, an AFA-run site, that he often disagrees with Trump’s language and tone but supports him nevertheless.

Wildmon and others downplayed the effect of the Christianity Today editorial.

Rob Chambers, head of AFA’s political arm, AFA Action, told OneNewsNow, “I believe that this so-called split with the evangelical base, I believe that’s blown way out of proportion, …You have a small contingency in this camp categorized as Never-Trumpers.”

OneNewsNow blamed the ruckus on “the left-wing media” praising Christianity Today and “claiming the publication was widely read and respected by Evangelicals and hence the stance posed a problem for Trump as he eyes re-election this year.”

But the larger question remains: Will the editorial have an effect on evangelical support for Trump? Plenty of observers are skeptical. Writing in The New York Times on Dec. 22, Sarah Posner, who has tracked the Religious Right for decades and is author of a forthcoming book titled Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump, asserted that it won’t make a difference.

“While many conservative evangelicals respect Christianity Today, it is read by a small slice of them, and is unlikely to make any significant dent in the president’s remarkable popularity,” Posner wrote.

But others have noted that the editorial doesn’t have to draw large numbers of evangelicals away from Trump to have an impact. John Fea, an evangelical Trump critic and history professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that if even a modest number of white evangelicals were to reconsider their support for Trump in 2020, it could have an impact in a close election.

The editorial, Fea noted, also gave voice to “the 19 percent” – the percentage of white evangelicals who did not support Trump in 2016. Fea said he’s had several encounters with such people since the 2016 election.

“What Christianity Today did was give voice [to the same kind of people] who came up to me and said, ‘Thank you, I know I’m not alone,’” Fea said.

Doug Pagitt, executive director of Vote Common Good, a Christian group that opposes Trump, also noted that a slight shift in evangelical voting behavior can have a big effect.

“We know that it doesn’t take all that many people changing their voting patterns to make a significant impact,” Pagitt wrote in an op-ed published in The Hill of Jan. 3. “It doesn’t take all that many evangelicals to change a vote from 2016 to make a Trump re-election mathematically impossible. Moving just 5 percent of the faith voters away from Donald Trump guarantees that he will not be reelected.”

Others were less interested in the possible political fallout from the editorial; they were just pleased to see anyone from the evangelical community speaking out against Trump.

Writing on Newsweek’s website, author and theologian Brian D. Mc­Laren noted his own evangelical upbringing and said, “At the top of my gratitude list: a deep love for Jesus, a deep engagement with the Bible, and a belief that character counts. That’s why, like many other Christians, I have felt particularly betrayed by Evangelical support for Donald Trump and his allies.

“Trump is, you could say, the anti-Jesus – living for pride, power, pleasure, and wealth rather than faith, hope, love, and wisdom,” McLaren continued. “His policies can only be squared with Scripture through the most agonized contortions and intentional ignorance. And as for character – where to begin? Maybe his 15,000-plus lie-count, his bragging about sexual assault and covering up of a payoff to a porn-star he ostensibly had an extramarital affair with, his general viciousness and self-aggrandizement, and his tendency to be an apologist for white supremacists.”