Christians, Evangelicals, and Donald Trump
Christianity Today rocked the internet with an editorial titled, “Trump Should Be Removed From Office,” by outgoing editor Mark Galli, one day after the House of Representatives voted to impeach the President. The traffic from the social media buzz crashed the site, as it did when they aired Ed Stetzer’s article, “Evangelicals: This Is What It Looks Like When You Sell Your Soul for a Bowl of Trump,” their most popular article of 2016. Galli’s essay provoked responses from every corner of the Christian world. Donald Trump responded, calling CT a “far left magazine” and claiming that “No President has done more for the evangelical community.”
A group of over 200 evangelical pastors and leaders sent a letter to Christianity Today’s president Timothy Dalrymple criticizing the editorial for questioning their Christian witness and spiritual integrity. The list of signers included Jerry Fallwell Jr., James Dobson, Paula White, Jack Graham, Mike Huckabee, Robert Jeffress, Eric Mataxas, and Michael Tait.
Christianity Today quickly turned the publicity into a fundraising opportunity. As the post went viral, they tweeted, “If Christianity Today’s editor in chief’s remarks resonated with you, consider subscribing.” As the day went on, they asked for subscribers, donations, and partnerships. They even unlocked their digital archives for free access. Though they lost 600 subscribers the day they published the article, they have gained more than a thousand subscribers over the weekend.
The article probably didn’t come as a surprise to those who have been reading Christianity Today over Galli’s seven-year term as editor in chief. Trump-supporting evangelicals are not their target audience. Over the last decade, they have consistently appealed to younger evangelicals drifting away from political and social conservatism. David Neff, Galli’s predecessor at CT came out in support of same-sex marriage shortly after his retirement in 2012. Recently, they have given favorable coverage to Pete Buttigieg when he used Scripture in a Democratic debate and covered all the 2020 Democratic candidates’ favorite Bible verses without a word of criticism over their views on late-term abortion, LGBTQ issues, or their personal conduct. They were silent when Nancy Pelosi defended her Catholic faith in an interview three weeks ago.
It would be accurate to say that CT has stayed out of politics when it comes to the Democratic candidates and the support they carry from progressive Christians and Catholics. They have published dozens of critical articles about the Trump administration in the past year. Trump supporters who are outraged over CT’s stance on impeachment may be cancelling their subscriptions now, but they probably haven’t read Christianity Today recently. The essay may not change the minds of Trump supporters, but it landed with their target audience.
The Argument Against Trump
What did Galli say that sparked such an uproar? The answer lies more in the headline than in the article. In the article itself, Galli makes two main points. First, the President’s immoral behavior has reached a breaking point in the impeachment hearings and Christians can no longer trade judges, Supreme Court nominations, or religious liberty for their support. Second, evangelical support of President Trump has compromised their witness in the country and across the world. Galli ends on this point, “To use an old cliché, it’s time to call a spade a spade, to say that no matter how many hands we win in this political poker game, we are playing with a stacked deck of gross immorality and ethical incompetence.” Taken alone, these are not controversial points. Galli’s insistence that Christians have a moral and biblical responsibility to support the impeachment reaped the whirlwind.
There are two complicating factors. First, most Christians would agree with Galli that the President is immoral and would prefer another option in the White House. Unfortunately, there are no good options. But Galli doesn’t even entertain this point. While he pats himself on the back for his “patient charity” and restraint over the last three years, he gives no indication that he values or understands the reason why many Christians voted for Trump. It’s a tired strawman to group every evangelical in with Robert Jeffress and Franklin Graham. While there are those who support the President with unquestioning loyalty, I think there are far more Christians who struggled with the lack of good options and chose what they thought was the more reasonable of two bad options.
Second, the timing could not have been more incendiary. In an interview for The Atlantic, timed to release right after the post, Galli said he did not view his editorial as a political statement, but as a moral critique of the President’s behavior. Emma Green saw things a little bit more clearly; “Evangelicals just received an ultimatum: Abandon President Donald Trump, or betray your brothers and sisters in Christ.” In the article, Galli explicitly calls for Trump’s removal from office, either by a vote in 2020 or through the impeachment process. But who refers to voting for someone else as “removing Trump from office?” The article could have been titled, “Why Not to Vote for Trump in 2020” but it wasn’t.
Here’s the problem for Galli. He’s right to critique the President for his deeply immoral behavior and to consider the effects the Trump presidency will have on Christian witness in the U.S. and around the world, but was this really the right time and the right issue? Why not argue against reelection? Publishing an article calling for the President’s removal on account of his immoral behavior the same week that House Democrats voted to impeach the President is either disingenuous, irresponsible, or both. It’s disingenuous to say that Christians who believe that Trump is immoral must support his removal on these specific articles of impeachment. Not every Christian - let’s make this even more stark, not every Democrat in the House of Representatives - believes that Trump’s Ukraine call is an impeachable offense and Galli offers no evidence or argument for his claim that the President’s actions regarding Ukraine were a violation of his constitutional duties.
It’s irresponsible to argue for removing the President without a word about the alternatives. Contrary to Galli’s point, these articles of impeachment are not an open referendum on Trump’s moral character. That will happen in 2020, but it won’t be in a vacuum. It would have been better for Christians to support an alternative candidate in 2020, but for the time being, Christians will be faced with another choice between two candidates unfit for high office. Do Christians really have a moral obligation to vote against Trump in that scenario? Surely Christians can disagree about that.
What Are the Alternatives?
The details of the editorial aside, Galli does raise an important question for Christians. He warns, “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.” After a flood of responses, CT president Timothy Dalrymple responded with a follow up article of his own, defending his editor in chief even if he didn’t defend his editorial.
Dalrymple’s article was more thoughtful, balanced, and responsible. If it had been the only thing published it would have been far better for CT, if significantly less viral. Dalrymple recentered the discussion around the witness of the church as the hope of the world, the importance of engaging different views and opinions within evangelicalism and clarified against a couple of misunderstandings. While he reiterated concerns for the damage to Christian witness, he also showed a defter understanding of the spectrum of Christian positions on politics. He made clear that Galli’s essay is not an implicit endorsement of any of the Democratic candidates - although I wonder if Galli would agree with this. Why not add a single sentence making this point? He also added that the Trump administration has taken some very positive steps forward on causes and issues that Christians support. Despite the moral failings of the President and members of his administration, there are Christians working in and with the Trump administration for the good of our country and with their consciences intact. Many of the evangelicals who praised the essay have made this same point about the Obama administration. Can the same thing not be said for Trump? He ended with a call for essays showcasing a variety of responses to the editorial, which will be published on the site in January.
If for no other reason, Galli’s editorial was good for the church because of all the responses it solicited. At First Things, Peter Leithart pointed out that the impeachment process has been conducted by a partisan minority and made the case that Trump is still better than the alternatives. Ross Douthat doubled down on Christian witness and questioned Leithart’s use of Romans 13 for an American President. In this week’s French Press email, David French focused on the growing divide between evangelicals. His discussion of Christian witness is a better version than Galli’s. French looks at the difference between evangelicalism as a voting block and as a set of religious beliefs, a point that Tim Keller made so well two years ago in the New Yorker. Standing by the President often requires those in the latter group to “defend the indefensible.” He asks a powerful question: Are we afraid of a future without Trump? For evangelicals this is the essential point and it separates those who have gone all in with Trump and those who see Trump as a temporary player in a larger agenda. What are we doing to accomplish God’s will in the world that doesn’t depend on who’s currently living in the White House?
Carl Trueman repurposed Galli’s argument without the oversimplification. Politics is complicated, and so is casting your vote. Evangelical elites have overplayed the support for Trump’s personal character among their evangelical brethren and showed they are out of touch with the struggles of those who believe they should vote in the presidential election. Calling this impeachment a matter of fidelity to the ten commandments is foolish and shortsighted. How’s this for a final line: “Evangelical elites are clearly as out of touch with the populist evangelical base as is the case in society in general. And lambasting populist evangelicals as hypocrites or dimwits will simply perpetuate the divide.” Michael Gerson calls the impeachment hearings the last opportunity to redraw the moral lines that have nearly been erased in American politics. The breadth of thoughtful responses has been a pleasant consequence. Hugh Hewitt reminded Galli that the majority of evangelicals do not support Trump without reservation and pushes back on the idea that the government ought to be setting the moral tone for the nation. In one of the truest and most convicting lines in this debate, he writes: “I am absolutely confident that if the church did its job better Donald Trump would never have been elected.”
What Is Christian Witness?
At the center of this debate, there are questions we have to wrestle with: What is Christian witness? How should Christians engage in politics? How should Christians treat immoral leaders? These questions will only get more important as we approach November. Of course, many of the failings and frustrations in the American church have nothing to do with politics or the consequences of cozying up with worldly power. More often than not, frustration in the church stems trying to circumvent the slow process of discipleship and transformation. It’s faster to try to change the world through politics than it is to let the mustard seed grow; and it requires less wisdom, sacrifice, and humility. But if the solution is not to withdraw out of the public square, how should Christians engage politically?
Christians have to keep three things in tension: prophetic witness, care for the common good and the fight for justice, and wisdom to navigate the realities of American politics.
Prophetic Witness. Christians have always stood against the immorality of world leaders. Especially when leaders claim to be Christians, expediency is no excuse for immorality. The prophets didn’t just condemn immorality, they called for repentance. I think a lot about John the Baptist telling Herod that he should not have his brother’s wife. He lost his head over that! What would seem to be commonplace for leaders today was something John the Baptist was willing to risk his life for. Protestants come from a long tradition of criticizing the blatant immorality of the popes. It’s interesting that condemnation is common among Christians but calls for repentance are not. While we shouldn’t assume that every leader in power should stay in power, there is value in calling for repentance within the existing framework. As Christians, we have the responsibility to speak out against immorality when we see it in our leaders and to call for repentance, not because of pharisaical zeal, but because we believe the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and what we read in Proverbs 29:2: “When the righteous increase the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan.”
Care for the Common Good. Regardless of who’s in the White House, Christians are called to accomplish God’s plans in the world. You can hardly read a page of the Old Testament, the Sermon on the Mount, or the second half of Paul’s letters without being pressed to fight for justice in the world. God has always had compassion and love for the oppressed, widows and orphans, the fatherless, and the sojourner. These don’t just refer to spiritual realities. Christians should be helping people, fighting for justice, and contributing to the flourishing of the surrounding culture - even as we have a different vision than the world for what that looks like.
Wisdom to navigate the realities of American politics. It’s a shame that many Christians feel they have no place in American politics, either because they are cynically disinterested or fearful of the hostility they will face for their beliefs. Both of these reasons are understandable, and politics has the tendency to bring out the worst in otherwise decent people. It is a greenhouse for corruption and immorality. But shouldn’t that be an encouragement for reform? It will take a level of political shrewdness largely missing from American Christianity, avoiding compromise on the right or the left and displaying a careful sense of goodness and wisdom. We need more serpent-doves in the church. What would it take for more Christians to ascend into national leadership? While we know that politics is not our primary mechanism for change, it is a worthy calling for Christians to pursue with their character in place. In the coming years, I would love to see more thoughtful engagement on the practical wisdom of navigating American politics as Christians.
As is the case with any tension, it’s easy to gravitate toward one or two of these qualities to the expense of the others. It would be easy to classify the responses to Galli’s article according to this rubric. Christians bear the weight of holding onto all three at the same time. Yes, we do care about Trump’s immorality, and that of all the candidates running for election in 2020. We are unafraid to take a stand against the sins of world leaders and call for repentance. We long to see a more just society, through the efforts of families, churches, organizations, and even the government. That includes working to stop abortion, affirming biblical teaching on sexuality, walking alongside non-believers and sharing the gospel, making inroads for racial reconciliation, taking care of the poor and standing up for the oppressed. We also acknowledge the realities of our political system. We believe in the rule of law, the rights of the accused, the balance of power in the three branches of government, and our constitutional system, not because we believe it is inspired by God but because it is good, fair, lawful, and allows us to do the things God has called us to do.
In the time between now and the new heavens and the new earth, we’ll carry these tensions, longing for the day when we are no longer fighting an uphill battle. On that day, we will need no prophetic witness because the true king will be reigning over all. The nations will bring their glory into the city of God and everything will be made right. The kingdoms, systems, and constitutions of the world will pass away because God will rule, and his law be written on our hearts and his name will be written on our foreheads. Then, we will walk in his light, but until then, we walk in these tensions. Not by our might, or by our political power, but by his Spirit, we will overcome.
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.