Lessons from the Christianity Today Dust-Up

Mark Galli

As is the case with many observers of religious folks and political matters, I’m wondering how representative the recent Christianity Today editorial is of evangelical opinion. To summarize: the editor of Christianity Today (Mark Galli), a magazine founded by Billy Graham and others to counter the liberal Christian Century and to provide a reasoned evangelical opinion-shaping publication, wrote that President Donald Trump is unfit for office and should be impeached and removed. Given survey data indicating near unanimous unbroken support for the president among white evangelicals, editor Mark Galli’s stance was truly remarkable.

Condemnation from the president’s religious allies was swift and predictable. The president dismissed CT as a “far left” publication, an “allegation” that made me guffaw. Billy Graham’s son Franklin, who has earned a substantially less-respected public persona than his father enjoyed, said that CT was not worthy of his father’s reputation (to which I thought: “Ah, your dad was turned on the impeachment of Nixon by the tapes, tapes that proved both that he lied and used foul language; with today’s president, how much the more so…”) A member of the Christian Post (a conservative Christian news outlet) editorial staff took a similar position to Galli’s; he resigned when he learned the Post would attack CT and support the president (follow the story here).

Two observations.

One. Galli’s editorial expressed the kind of opinion I would have expected from evangelical leaders about this president and, indeed, were expressed by such leaders at least until the president became THE Republican candidate in 2016. Here is the core of Galli’s statement:

[T]his president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. 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…. 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. 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.

The president’s immoral behavior with women and in business is appalling. Using his office for personal gain, at the nation’s expense, is inexcusable.

That opinion used to represent, or so I thought, mainstream evangelicalism. Other interpretations—that the president is like Cyrus the Persian, anointed by God to liberate real Christians from their captivity during the Obama administration, that he is Nehemiah who should build a wall, that he is King David who is immoral but useful to God, that he is specially chosen by God—requires a pretzel logic that was once associated with anti-intellectual theological fringes of conservative Christianity. If one does not live in such narratives, then what Galli said, from an evangelical viewpoint, is perfectly reasonable. But how widely is that opinion really shared? [Note: thus far, subscription cancellations have been far outstripped by new subscribers to CT.] As is the case with the Republican Party looking greatly different today than it did 40 years ago, so may what is now mainstream in white, middle-aged and older evangelicalism.

Second. Galli is concerned that evangelical support for the president is eroding the credibility and power of evangelical Christianity.

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.

We are hearing lots of “soul” talk these days about the American experiment in democracy and society, or at least I’m picking up a lot in my reading. One could argue that “the souls” of lots of institutions and ideas are at stake: the soul of the Democratic Party, the soul of the Republican Party, the soul of democracy, the soul of the nation, the soul of Christianity. Galli recognizes the soul moment for evangelical Christianity, and the real possibility of losing it.

In theological terms, there is an ancient dyad of transcendence and immanence. A completely “other” God is unrelatable. A completely “here” God who is not also “other” may become simply a projection of whatever we want. (Note: I am grossly simplifying complex arguments and insights. And sociologists in the school of Emile Durkheim believed that the second option—group projection—is what religion is.)

In this political, historical moment, I’d judge that the Christian Right, and sometimes religious progressives, are heavily tilted theologically toward collapsing God into the immanent pole—in one party. Lilliana Mason demonstrates how political identity has swallowed up all other identifies, including religious identities.

The current danger, for religious people, is that we baptize political and partisan stances with “God’s” holy waters. However, those stances are not thereby cleansed; to the contrary, holy waters used for partisan purposes lose their sacramental power, and God becomes god or simply irrelevant.

If individuals and community of faith cannot do, say, or imagine differently from the options represented by today’s political positions, then we are dangerous if taken seriously, for the sword of the spirit and the sword of the state are wielded again as one.

And, eventually a political house of cards collapses, and its court prophets and their religion(s) fall with it.

Mr. Galli was speaking to evangelicals, but his point about credibility is apt across the theological spectrum.