By Danny R. Johnson – Political News Editor
WASHINGTON — The flagship magazine of American evangelicalism, Christianity Today, released a surprise editorial on Thursday calling for the removal of Donald Trump from the presidency. “We believe the impeachment hearings have made it absolutely clear, in a way the Mueller investigation did not, that President Trump has abused his authority for personal gain and betrayed his constitutional oath,” Editor-in-Chief Mark Galli wrote. “None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.”
Founded by Billy Graham in the 1950s, Christianity Today is widely read by pastors, institutional leaders, and churchgoers. The editorial sent shockwaves through evangelical circles on Thursday. The magazine has been critical of Trump in the past, but has avoided a full-throated condemnation of him. In October 2016, executive editor Andy Crouch called Trump “someone who violates all that is sacred to us.” But he stopped short of saying Christians should not vote for him.
The president responded to the editorial in a series of tweets early on Friday morning, writing:
“A far left magazine, or very ‘progressive,’ as some would call it, which has been doing poorly and hasn’t been involved with the Billy Graham family for many years, Christianity Today, knows nothing about reading a perfect transcript of a routine phone call and would rather have a Radical Left nonbeliever, who wants to take your religion & your guns, than Donald Trump as your President. No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close. You’ll not get anything from those Dems on stage. I won’t be reading ET again!”
Christianity Today is not, as the president would have it, a “far left” magazine. It is a thoroughly centrist publication “in which evangelicals center left and center right have a home,” Galli told me by email. The magazine does not avoid politics completely, but it focuses largely on social, cultural, and spiritual matters, preferring to serve as a reminder “that politics is not the end and purpose of our being,” as he put it in the editorial this week. Its current issue features stories about Mary as “the first Christian,” Christian counselors grappling with abuse issues, and Congolese asylum-seekers.
The magazine has long reflected the sensibilities of what sociologist Michael Lindsay has called “cosmopolitan evangelicals,” who are educated, white-collar, and culturally sophisticated. It is headquartered in the Chicago suburbs near Wheaton College, a prominent evangelical school that hosted a meeting last year for leaders alarmed by evangelical alignment with Trump. The New York Times once called this suburban enclave of like-minded Christian institutions the “Vatican of evangelicals.”
But “cosmopolitan” evangelicalism has been marginalized in the Trump era, as populists have taken over white evangelical culture the same way they have taken over the Republican Party. Leaders of the pro-Trump populist faction of evangelicalism responded to the editorial even more quickly than the president did. “@CTmagazine has removed any doubt that they are part of the same 17% or so of liberal evangelicals who have preached social gospel for decades! CT unmasked!” tweeted Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, which has become the institutional capital of Trumpism and has arguably overtaken Wheaton in cultural prominence.
Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, told the Washington Post that his father would have been disappointed in the magazine’s stance. “He would’ve been very embarrassed that the magazine he started would call for something like this when there are no crimes committed,” Graham said. “It’s a totally different magazine than what he started.” He told the Post that he had not read the editorial but had read the headline.
Galli is set to retire on Jan. 3 after 30 years in various roles at the magazine, which means his news-making editorial is something of a lame-duck act. (He will continue to write a newsletter for CT.) Still, the editorial is a significant risk for the magazine as an institution and is likely to be polarizing among readers. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, and almost three-quarters approved of the job he was doing as of this summer. Many of Christianity Today’s readers likely see themselves as having voted for Trump as the “lesser of two evils.”
Galli’s editorial this week called out not just Trump himself, but his evangelical followers. “We have done our best to give evangelical Trump supporters their due, to try to understand their point of view, to see the prudential nature of so many political decisions they have made regarding Mr. Trump,” Galli wrote:
“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. And just when we think it’s time to push all our chips to the center of the table, that’s when the whole game will come crashing down. It will crash down on the reputation of evangelical religion and on the world’s understanding of the gospel. And it will come crashing down on a nation of men and women whose welfare is also our concern.”
Online, many evangelicals expressed gratitude for the editorial. “CT’s statement is unlikely to change anyone’s mind on core issues,” the Rev. Duke Kwon, a D.C. pastor, tweeted. “But what it can do is help rebuild the church’s public witness, give courage to beleaguered Christians, illustrate the heterogeneity of ‘evangelicals,’ model the costliness of integrity for Christian institutions.” “I believe my grandfather would have had a similar perspective,” wrote Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham, refuting his uncle Franklin.
For his part, Galli disputed the president’s characterization of the magazine’s “far left” politics and its financial state, saying that the magazine is currently in “expansion mode.” Nevertheless, “the president and I agree on one thing,” Galli said. “Neither of us read or watch ET.”