Evangelical Leaders Close Ranks With Trump After Scathing Editorial
The publication is small, reaching just a fraction of the evangelical movement.
But when Christianity Today called for President Donald Trump’s removal in a blistering editorial on Thursday, it met the full force and fury of the president and his most prominent allies in the Christian conservative world. If the response seemed disproportionate, it vividly reflected the fact that white evangelicals are the cornerstone of Trump’s political base and their leaders are among his most visible and influential supporters.
In the background, however, is a more nuanced reality that Christianity Today’s editorial hints at: a number of conservative Christians remain deeply uncomfortable with an alliance with the president.
Trump, after being impeached this week, is extremely sensitive to any signs of a fracture in his political coalition and has repeatedly insisted that the Republican Party and its voters are unanimously behind him. And on Friday he lashed out on two separate occasions at Christianity Today, seeking to brand it as a “far left magazine” that was doing the Democratic Party’s bidding.
“I guess the magazine, ‘Christianity Today,’ is looking for Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or those of the socialist/communist bent, to guard their religion,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “How about Sleepy Joe? The fact is, no President has ever done what I have done for Evangelicals, or religion itself!”
Evidently leaving little to chance, Trump’s reelection campaign announced Friday evening that he would go to Miami on Jan. 3 to start an “Evangelicals for Trump” coalition.
The response from his leading Christian supporters was laced with animosity that mimicked Trump’s signature style, and reflected the extent to which they have moved into lock step with him, even in rhetoric.
Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said on Twitter that he was “sad” to see the publication “echo the arguments of The Squad & the Resistance & deepen its irrelevance among Christians.”
Franklin Graham, whose father, the Rev. Billy Graham, founded Christianity Today, said in a Facebook post that the editorial was a “totally partisan attack” and said that the elder Graham had voted for the president in 2016, a little more than a year before he died.
Graham went on to tally numerous accomplishments that he said Trump had achieved, and to ask “Why would Christianity Today choose to take the side of the Democrat left whose only goal is to discredit and smear the name of a sitting president?”
The power of the evangelicals as a voting bloc is in their sheer size, and in their symbiotic relationship with the president. “Because they are a third of the Republican base, Trump needs white evangelical Protestants to get elected,” said Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute. “And because white evangelicals see themselves as a shrinking minority, in both racial and religious terms, they need Trump.”
For the past several years, conservative American politics, and white evangelical Christianity along with it, has realigned steadily and solidly around Trump and his coalition. Much like the “Never Trump” voices within the Republican Party, evangelical detractors have receded into the background.
Their absence from the national conversation was partly why the editorial was so jolting. And for the Christians who felt the same way, the piece was a catharsis.
Peter Wehner, a conservative columnist and author who writes about religion and who worked as a speechwriter for former President George W. Bush, said that Trump’s most outspoken defenders had created a misleading impression that evangelical Christians universally embraced the president.
“They speak as if they define the movement,” he said. “And a lot of people who aren’t familiar with evangelical Christianity see this and say, ‘Well, they must be representing all Christians.’”
“That’s the significance of what Christianity Today did,” Wehner added. “They stood up and they said: ‘No, that’s not right. We can’t continue with this charade, this moral freak show anymore.’”
The editorial is also a reminder that the evangelical movement is not monolithic and includes people who may appreciate some of the president’s actions, like the appointment of conservative judges, but are repelled by his inflammatory rhetoric on issues like race and immigration and his denigration of political opponents.
That sentiment was clearly expressed in the Christianity Today editorial by Mark Galli, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, who wrote that Trump “has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration.”
“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,” Galli wrote.
Galli also expressed a view on impeachment that echoed the Democrats, saying: “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.”
Christianity Today, based in the Chicago suburbs, has about 80,000 print subscribers and publishes news and commentary to appeal to evangelical audiences, in the tradition of Billy Graham.
No leaders in the evangelical movement said they could see any clear signs of an organized resistance to Trump rising from the editorial. And even dissenters like Wehner acknowledge they are vastly outnumbered.
According to a recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, 77% of white evangelical Protestants approve of the job Trump is doing in office, including half who strongly approve. And nearly all — 98% — of Republican white evangelical Protestants said they opposed Trump’s impeachment, the institute found.
In 2016, 81% of them voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton, most likely helping him carry states like Florida and Michigan, which allowed him to win the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote. The Trump campaign is putting an intense focus on turning them out to vote next year, with groups like Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition pledging to raise millions of dollars and deploy tens of thousands of volunteers on his behalf.
Many young evangelicals, however, are more socially liberal on issues like same-sex marriage and troubled by Trump administration policies like separating migrant families at the border and denying climate change.
Galli appeared to reach out to future generations of evangelicals when he wrote, “If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?”
The reaction to the editorial, while perhaps not signaling the beginning of a wave of defections among white evangelicals, could be another sign that the middle is disappearing in American Christianity, just as it is in politics. It was also a reminder that the upcoming presidential election would be a test not only of Trump’s political strength, but also of the future of the faith that abetted his rise.
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Evangelicals who are troubled by the president’s conduct said they feared that he had done long-term damage to their cause, and that the lack of pushback had only hurt them more, especially with young people. Peggy Wehmeyer, a journalist based in Dallas who writes often about her faith, said she heard a lot of “Thank God Mark Galli said this,” among her friends.
“The word evangelical has been sullied in a serious way,” she added. “I don’t like to call myself that anymore.”
Wehmeyer said what she and other evangelicals found so resonant about the piece was the way it drew out the competing emotions that many of them felt.
“What has really troubled me from the beginning,” she said, “is why can’t people say on the one hand, ‘We love what he’s done on religious liberty, abortion and the economy?’ But on the other hand say that ‘As Christians whose allegiance is to Jesus Christ, his behavior is despicable’?”
What the editorial seemed to say, she added, was “You can support this man’s policies, but if the witness of this church is going to survive, you must speak out against sin.”
Recent events may have helped push tensions to a head. A Republican congressman said on the House floor this week that Jesus had received fairer treatment before his crucifixion than Trump did during his impeachment. Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, said in an interview with Fox News that he had told Trump that he was the “chosen one.”
Rick Tyler, a strategist who has served as a liaison between Republican politicians and the evangelical community, said that Trump’s rise had left the evangelical faith with a leadership vacuum.
“I don’t know who represents the evangelical community anymore,” he said. “In the old days, Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell had a stick to swing. They had real power.”
Now, he said, “Trump has their power.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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