Analyzing Christianity Today’s Call For Trump to be Removed From Office

Christianity Today just supported Donald Trump’s removal from office. In an article penned by the influential Evangelical magazine’s editor-in-chief Mark Galli, the magazine unequivocally comes out in support of Trump’s removal in light of the Ukraine scandal and the overall “gross immorality and ethical incompetence” of his presidency.

The editorial goes out of its way to be non-partisan, and even, as much as possible when discussing the ultimate political process that is impeachment, non-political. It notes proudly the magazine’s general hesitancy to wade into political commentary about Trump’s presidency. It argues that “The Democrats have had it out for [Trump] from day one.” It reminds readers that CT also supported impeaching Bill Clinton twenty years ago.

But with all that prefacing and framing out of the way, the magazine does not mince words. It argues that Trump’s removal is not only justified, but that it is the only justifiable option remaining.  As Galli writes:

But 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.

That’s surprisingly straight talk from a magazine trying to “to stay above the fray.”

Particularly striking is that the editorial begins by evoking Christianity Today’s founder, the Reverend Billy Graham, the legendary American preacher who was in his lifetime a confidant to every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama (fittingly, Donald Trump is the first president since 1950 to not meet with Billy Graham, who died in 2018, while in office). Now, of course, many realize that Billy’s son Franklin Graham (who is not involved with Christianity Today, and critics would argue has become somewhat removed from Christianity today) has been one of Trump’s most ardent supporters, which makes it even more bold of Christianity Today to implicitly challenge the younger Graham by explicitly positing Trump as a leader to whom Billy would object.  Franklin Graham, for his part, has already condemned Christianity Today for representing “a liberal element within the evangelical movement” and argues that his father “would be ashamed” of the direction the magazine has taken.  Jerry Falwell, Jr., another son of a wildly influential American Christian leader, has gone farther and actually accused CT of representing the “less than 20%” of Evangelicals who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. Nevertheless, many people appear to be taking the magazine’s condemnation seriously as a moral stance rather than some sort of partisan attack.

The other important thing about this editorial is that it doesn’t just condemn Trump’s Ukraine action in a vacuum, but makes explicit the Faustian bargain (or, if you prefer, the quid pro quo) that Evangelicals have struck with Donald Trump. Noting that Trump has been faithful and quite successful at advancing the Evangelical political agenda – anti-abortion, pro “religious liberty” (a concept now used to push a conservative, religious-based agenda), reshaping the courts, and so on – the editorial argues that it’s immoral to ignore Trump’s misdeeds in exchange for these things.  In making this argument, the magazine is publicly proclaiming the trade-off that many Evangelicals would like to pretend they aren’t making in their support of Trump.  To quote Jesus (we Christians still listen to Him, right?) “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

Skeptics or cynics (and it’s hard to not be skeptical or cynical in the face of the current state of bald-faced malfeasance coming out of the White House, as a recent SNL sketch made clear) have already questioned the motives, timing and likely effect (or lack thereof) of this announcement.  The criticisms:

  • Christianity Today no longer speaks for most American Evangelicals (if, indeed, it ever did).
  • CT only came out with this stance after impeachment was a reality (and acquittal in the Senate seems a foregone conclusion).
  • The reasons CT states for supporting removal are narrow, focusing mainly on the abuse of power surrounding the Ukraine scandal and generalized criticism of dishonesty and moral failures, rather than specifically pointing out the many instances of racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry, etc., that have categorized this presidency.

The criticisms are valid. However, the mere fact that Christianity Today published this editorial, when it could have simply maintained its “above the fray” approach and not commented, speaks to not only the boldness of the CT editors but also to the power of impeachment. Many on the left have been skeptical of the move to impeach Trump. The complaints:

  • Impeachment won’t remove Trump from office (and with declared partial juror Mitch McConnell continuing to carry water for Trump like a Poland Springs truck, acquittal seems to be a predetermined outcome)
  • It will allow Trump to portray himself as a martyr (something that, quite frankly, he always does, even when he wins)
  • It distracts from the efforts to remove him at the ballot box in 2020.

Again, all these complaints have some validity. But the Christianity Today article shows that impeachment has had a different effect. The editorial admits that Trump has a history of morally repugnant behavior, from “immoral actions in business and his relationship with women” [an interesting euphemism for bragging about sexual assault], “about which he remains proud” to Trump’s “Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders.” And yet, it’s noteworthy that all of these things, which have been known for some time, did not inspire CT to call for Trump’s removal.

Rather, it was the specific, detailed account of a particular instance of abuse of power relating to Trump’s pressuring of Ukraine to investigate the Bidens that presented the CT editor with a specific, undeniable example of a morally and legally indefensible (and thus an impeachable) offense.  Nancy Pelosi, long an opponent of impeachment against Trump, decided to go for it on Ukraine, and kept the focus (including the actual articles of impeachment) narrowly focused on this specific abuse of power, and that focus has paid off. It cuts through the noise of endless scandal (which has, ironically, shielded Trump from having any one particular criticism stick). Again, the editorial acknowledges this: “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.”

By making the case so concisely and compellingly, impeachment has presented a clear, unavoidable moral choice:

  • Is what Trump did regarding the Bidens and Ukraine acceptable or not?
  • Is it a proper, defensible use of the office of President, or not?
  • Is it something that would be approved by Jesus, or not?

Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats are forcing our Republican leaders to ask themselves the first two questions, and forcing Trump’s Evangelical supporters to ask themselves all three.  For some Christian voters, the answers to all these questions are a resounding negative.  While this may not lead to a groundswell of Evangelical opposition to Donald Trump, it is further evidence that his Evangelical coalition may be cracking (something I’ve been arguing for a little while) which will make 2020 even more interesting.  For an Evangelical movement that has been accused of selling its soul to Trump, this may be the first step in undoing that transaction.

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