One consequence of living in a time of political polarization, echo chambers, and epistemic closure is that it’s rare to be genuinely surprised by any political statement. For example, I struggle to think of any response to the impeachment of Donald Trump that wasn’t predictable — on either side of that debate.
Any response, that is, until yesterday afternoon, when Christianity Today editor-in-chief Mark Galli wrote a scathing editorial calling for the removal of Trump from office:
…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.
…The impeachment hearings have illuminated the president’s moral deficiencies for all to see. This damages the institution of the presidency, damages the reputation of our country, and damages both the spirit and the future of our people. None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.
But Galli didn’t just criticize the president, he issued a stern warning to fellow evangelicals, Trump’s most consistent supporters and the core readership for CT:
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?
“I’m astonished,” I tweeted in response, “but gratified.” And far savvier observers of evangelicalism and its media were just as surprised. Washington Post religion reporter (and former CT online editor) Sarah Pulliam Bailey admitted that “her mouth dropped open” when Galli’s editorial “hit the internet” — and broke it, drawing so much traffic that CT’s site crashed. Galli told Bailey that the site had upwards of 17,000 readers, over four times what it normally gets for a “hot article.”
Of course, part of what made Galli’s editorial surprising is that Christianity Today rarely inveighs so directly on political issues. “The typical CT approach is to stay above the fray,” he acknowledged in the piece, “and allow Christians with different political convictions to make their arguments in the public square, to encourage all to pursue justice according to their convictions and treat their political opposition as charitably as possible.” Galli told Bailey that “initially he thought criticisms of the president were ‘too panicky and fearful’ [surely not this one!] and that it took him some time to decide to draw a line in the sand.”
Of course, one factor in the timing may be that Galli is due to retire from CT early in the New Year. (One of the many topics he talked about with Emma Green of The Atlantic after the editorial went online.) But he clearly had the support of CT’s new president/CEO, Tim Dalrymple, who had introduced himself to readers this summer by lamenting Trump’s “latest in a long line of comments demeaning immigrants and minorities… If white Christians wish to stand on the bridge with brothers and sisters of other colors and backgrounds, they need to stand with them first in the foxhole.” On Galli’s editorial, he simply told Bailey that “We write according to our sense of conscience and calling… We trust that subscribers and audience are in God’s hands.”
Because the editorial came in the wake of the historic House vote on Wednesday night, it’s been easiest to frame this as a “pro-impeachment” argument — and as easy to dismiss it as unlikely to make any difference in the verdicts rendered by a Republican-controlled Senate. But careful readers would note that Galli anticipated and approved a different remedy:
Whether Mr. Trump should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election—that is a matter of prudential judgment. That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments. (emphasis mine)
Given that evangelicals continue to make up such a big voting bloc, one that remained loyal to the GOP even when it nominated Donald Trump, I’ll be curious to see if CT’s editorial stance remains consistent under new editor-in-chief Daniel Harrell, pastor of a church here in the Twin Cities. (Galli told Green that Harrell’s “only concerns were to add some additional paragraphs that made it a stronger editorial.” On October 31 Harrell talked about CT’s future with Christian radio host Carmen LaBerge. Skip ahead to 4:44 for that interview, which doesn’t directly address the question of Trump but does hint at Harrell’s desire for “a deeper, more thoughtful, even more savvy approach” to evangelicals engaging culture, and he echoed Dalrymple’s concern that white evangelicals support their sisters and brothers of color. In February 2017, he had joined other evangelical leaders in signing a World Relief letter urging the Trump administration not to reduce the number of refugees resettled in the U.S.) If the Senate does not remove Trump, will CT editorialize against him next fall — even endorse the Democratic nominee?
Surprising as that would be — surprising as yesterday’s editorial was — color me entirely unsurprised by much of the reaction to Galli’s editorial. I was unsurprised by mainstream media outlets who normally pay little attention to evangelicalism but were quick to pronounce CT’s statement a significant moment that might herald a shift in evangelical opinion. I was unsurprised by “court evangelicals” who were as quick to dismiss CT as being unrepresentative of rank-and-file evangelicals. (As historians of evangelicalism like my Anxious Bench colleague Kristin Du Mez had warned.) I was unsurprised that ex-vangelicals and others who feel personally wounded by evangelical institutions like CT couldn’t offer even faint praise of Galli without criticizing him for waiting too long, or failing to make the argument against Trump in a sufficiently progressive way.
I think anyone could have predicted that Trump himself would dismiss the opinion of Christianity Today — and make clear in the process that he doesn’t know what “ET” is.
And, most of all, I was unsurprised by my own reactions: first, that astonished gratefulness I immediately shared on Twitter; but second, the creeping sensation that I was engaged in wishful thinking.
Coincidentally, Galli’s piece came the same afternoon that I finally finished a long-gestating (and just plain long) reflection on my own relationship to evangelicalism. Mostly, I came to the conclusion that my continuing identification as an evangelical has more to do with older evangelical movements than the mid-20th century wave of which CT (founded, so many noted yesterday, by Billy Graham) is emblematic. But if it’s true that I am “attached to evangelicalism primarily by connection to institutions” like my evangelical employer, then I have to admit that it meant a lot to me that CT published two pieces by me this year and gave a positive review to my last book. To the extent that it lives out its stated commitment to “beautiful orthodoxy” (defined here by Galli), I do appreciate how Christianity Today offers a more broadly evangelical echo of my Pietist commitment to “living orthodoxy” and “the irenic spirit.”
But I also have to admit that I’m inclined to attribute too much influence to CT. Just consider some recent history:
As I watched people on Twitter criticize Galli for not criticizing Trump three years earlier, I thought back to my own profound disappointment in the 2016 election, and in fellow evangelicals for having done so much to elect someone so morally bankrupt as Donald Trump. Why had I expected anything different?, I asked myself, yet again.
Perhaps because one month before that vote, CT’s executive editor went online to share a scathing critique of Trump:
…there is hardly any public person in America today who has more exemplified the “earthly nature” (“flesh” in the King James and the literal Greek) that Paul urges the Colossians to shed: “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry” (3:5). This is an incredibly apt summary of Trump’s life to date. Idolatry, greed, and sexual immorality are intertwined in individual lives and whole societies. Sexuality is designed to be properly ordered within marriage, a relationship marked by covenant faithfulness and profound self-giving and sacrifice. To indulge in sexual immorality is to make oneself and one’s desires an idol. That Trump has been, his whole adult life, an idolater of this sort, and a singularly unrepentant one, should have been clear to everyone.
And therefore it is completely consistent that Trump is an idolater in many other ways. He has given no evidence of humility or dependence on others, let alone on God his Maker and Judge. He wantonly celebrates strongmen and takes every opportunity to humiliate and demean the vulnerable. He shows no curiosity or capacity to learn. He is, in short, the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool.
Andy Crouch anticipated a key argument of Galli’s, that support for such an “idolater” and “fool” would imperil evangelical witness to the Evangel: “Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.” And he rebutted every justification that evangelicals have offered before and after 2016, including the “reluctant strategic calculation” of voting for a dismal candidate who would nonetheless support Christian causes:
…there is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support…. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.
“Strategy Becomes Idolatry” is how I titled my own post praising Crouch — and relating his editorial to a book of his I had just recommended. Just as Galli’s editorial left me “astonished, but gratified,” Crouch’s apparently left me “astonished and thrilled.” Indeed, I could have taken my 2016 response to Crouch, changed the names and quotations, and made it today’s response to Galli. For example, this was written in October 2016, not today:
It’s a remarkable piece for Christianity Today — both overdue and timely. When supposed evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, and Tony Perkins shrug off profane, vicious comments that should only confirm what we already knew about Trump’s misogyny and narcissism, it’s imperative that the historic flagship of evangelical media finally issues a statement like this.
Yet here we are, three years later. If Crouch’s editorial did little to change evangelical opinion in 2016, why should I expect Galli’s to move the needle in 2019?
I shouldn’t. But I’m still going to praise Galli, Dalrymple, and the rest of the CT team for running such an editorial at such a time.
It’s easy enough for people like me to nitpick their effort — that response costs me absolutely nothing. But it took no small amount of courage to write and publish that editorial, since it not only risks CT losing subscribers and donors, but risks demonstrating once and for all that “the historic flagship of evangelical media” actually retains little influence over the vast majority of self-identified evangelicals, maybe even evangelical pastors.
I think it reflects considerable character to make such a statement, knowing that it’s more likely to be costly or futile than influential. What another anti-Trump evangelical, Michael Gerson, wrote yesterday in the Washington Post was aimed at Republican senators, but seems pertinent to Christianity Today:
There is a lot of talk about the historical weight of our political moment. But history is generally not made by people pondering their role in history. It is driven upward by men and women who make a difficult moral choice before them, and then the next, in the faith that doing the right thing is never really the wrong move — that what is sacrificed in a good cause is more than balanced by the admiration of people who matter to you, and the peace of knowing your purpose.
Trump’s removal might be the last, best time to redraw some moral lines — between truth and lies, between selfishness and service, between courage and fecklessness — that have nearly been erased in our politics. And all it would take is 20 Republican senators who heed the call of conscience.
Let’s hope that CT’s editorial will somehow change the political calculus for those 20 men and women. And if it doesn’t, that CT’s new leadership will spend an election year continuing to draw a moral line between faithful Christian witness and ongoing support for an immoral, idolatrous fool.