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Christianity Today called for Trump’s removal. Here’s why that doesn’t matter.

Trump-supportive evangelicals aren’t likely to change their minds.

Attendees pray during Franklin Graham’s “Decision America” California tour at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds on May 29, 2018, in Turlock.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Christianity Today, an evangelical Christian publication founded by famed minister Billy Graham in 1956, published an editorial in support of impeaching President Donald Trump on its website Thursday.

In the editorial, titled “Trump Should Be Removed from Office,” editor-in-chief Mark Galli, who will retire from the magazine in January, wrote that just as the magazine had argued in 1998, the president of the United States was worthy of impeachment:

... 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.

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.

The response to the editorial came fast and furious. Trump himself responded on Twitter, calling the magazine a “a far left magazine” and adding, “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.”

And some of Trump’s biggest supporters within the world of evangelical Christianity, including Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham), voiced their disdain for the editorial, with Graham saying that the publication represented the “elitist liberal wing of evangelicalism.” Polling shows that the support for Trump from white Americans who identify as evangelicals remains high, regardless of his actions.

On the left, there was palpable excitement about the possibility of an evangelical institution turning on Trump. But Christianity Today is not a good representation of the type of evangelical Christians who support Trump. In fact, this wasn’t even the first time the publication criticized Trump.

For many reasons, including the structure of evangelicalism in the United States, it’s not the kind of editorial or event likely to serve as a watershed moment — one where Trump’s supporters within the evangelical community will turn on him.

Christianity Today is “middle of the road”

Christianity Today is an evangelical publication, but one Billy Graham wanted to be, in his words, “middle of the road,” a magazine that would take “the conservative theological position but a definite liberal approach to social issues,” combining the “best in liberalism” and the “best in fundamentalism.” (“Fundamentalism” is a strand of Christian belief that holds that the Bible should be taken literally.) Galli says the magazine writes for “moderate, center-right, and center-left evangelicals.”

Galli did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But in an interview with NPR, he said, “It’s not like I have any personal animus against the president. I suspect that if I was in a room with him, we could have a very amiable and delightful conversation. But he does display characteristics that I think, as a leader of a great nation like the United States, are deeply problematic.”

He argued that despite actions on abortion, for example, that Galli supported as a Christian, Trump was becoming like an abusive spouse. “It’s like a wife who has a husband who’s verbally abusive, but he’s still a good provider, he’s still a good father to his children. ...When that husband begins to physically abuse the wife and actually become physically dangerous, that doesn’t balance the scale anymore.”

Christianity is a wide-ranging faith with billions of adherents around the world, and about one-fourth of those Christians could be classified as part of the evangelical tradition. But one challenge for both people within evangelical circles and those writing about evangelical Christians is that unlike in other branches of Christianity (say, Roman Catholicism), there are no available “leaders” or authority figures who can determine what believers think or do. There is no pope-like figure of evangelicalism, for example, and no overarching authority that can determine doctrine or specific beliefs. That’s because evangelicals are part of the Protestant tradition, one that holds that Christians don’t need an intermediary (like a priest, for example) to speak directly to God or to have a relationship with Christ.

So when a publication that identifies as evangelical denounces the president, it’s not obvious what that actually means. The evangelical movement in the United States encompasses dozens of individual denominations, from the Southern Baptist Convention to the Pentecostal movement to non-denominational churches and groups. Structures that govern belonging for many faiths (like church attendance, or undergoing specific religious rites like Confirmation or first communion) don’t matter as much for self-identified evangelicals — again, because membership isn’t decided by any outside body or entity.

Evangelicals have different reasons for supporting Trump

Even the question of who calls themselves “evangelical” is up for debate. Many Christians who fall within the evangelical tradition don’t call themselves evangelicals, calling themselves Baptist or Pentecostal or simply “Christian” instead. And evangelicals themselves argue about what it means to be evangelical, with some of the most famous evangelical pastors and thinkers facing harsh criticism from those within their own faith tradition.

For example, one of Trump’s religious advisers, Paula White, has been termed a “heretic” by some conservative evangelicals for her outright embrace of the Prosperity Gospel, which as my former colleague Tara Isabella Burton explained, equates faith with financial success. But there is no overarching evangelical authority that could cast White out of the movement (in fact, thousands of people attend her services). And there isn’t one — no person, no official, and no magazine — that could really shift evangelical opinions on Donald Trump.

Evangelical Christians who support Trump do so for many reasons. But some do so largely because they think Democratic alternatives to Trump would be more unfavorable to them. As one Wisconsin evangelical told the Boston Globe, “The tweets and other things are kind of disgusting and embarrassing but I think I look at the bigger picture of what he’s done in the country, because I still think he’s a better choice of what we would have had.”

The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher (who is an Orthodox Christian, not an evangelical) wrote on Friday:

I think all of the Democrats running for president are far more personally decent than the jackass who made fun of Debbie Dingell’s dead husband the other day. But all of them are for keeping it legal to exterminate the unborn, and to compel religious institutions to accept gender ideology. Nope, I’ll take the personally corrupt short-fingered vulgarian, and won’t apologize for it.

Moreover, some Trump-supportive evangelicals believe that at a time when some Americans who lean Republican think that evangelical Christians face more discrimination than Jewish Americans, Trump stands as a protector. Dreher told me earlier this year that Trump is a “kind of katechon — a force that holds back something much worse.” And pastor Robert Jeffress told the Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig earlier this year:

“As a Christian, I believe that regardless of what happens in Washington, DC, that the general trajectory of evangelicalism is going to be downward until Christ returns,” he explained. “If you read the scripture, it’s not: Things get better and better and more evangelical-friendly or Christian-friendly; it is, they get worse and more hostile as the culture does. ...I think most Christians I know see the election of Donald Trump as maybe a respite, a pause in that. Perhaps to give Christians the ability and freedom more to share the gospel of Christ with people before the ultimate end occurs and the Lord returns.”

As conservative writer Erick Erickson wrote Friday, while he may agree with the basic arguments the Christianity Today article stated regarding Trump’s impact on evangelicalism, “There are no good alternatives.”

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