If you haven’t heard about the now infamous Christianity Today editorial, you probably live in a “wine cave” somewhere. (Sorry, that’s another story.) On the way to Christmas, the evangelical-oriented journal founded in 1956 by evangelist Billy Graham, published a bombshell editorial written by soon-to-retire editor Mark Galli. Coming on the heels of articles of impeachment against Donald Trump by the U.S. House of Representatives, and statistics indicating evangelical support for Trump at 70 to 80 percent, the editorial was a dramatic insider critique of a president and a Christian community.
Galli began by asserting that while Democrats “have had it in for Trump” from the beginning, the impeachment reveals that “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.”
Turning to American evangelicals, Galli noted:
“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. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?”
“The editorial was a dramatic insider critique of a president and a Christian community.”
Responses were fast and furious, with online traffic at one point collapsing CT’s website. President Trump tweeted his denunciation, suggesting that the periodical is failing, and that it had been co-opted by the “radical left.” A group of some 200 evangelical leaders circulated an “open letter” to CT lamenting the editorial’s criticism of Trump’s conservative Christian advocates and accusing the editor of questioning “the spiritual integrity and Christian witness of tens-of-millions of believers who take seriously their civic and moral obligations.”
Alternatively, the “open letter” declared that “we are Bible-believing Christians and patriotic Americans who are simply grateful that our President has sought our advice as his administration has advanced policies that protect the unborn, promote religious freedom, reform our criminal justice system, contribute to strong working families through paid family leave, protect the freedom of conscience, prioritize parental rights, and ensure that our foreign policy aligns with our values while making our world safer, including through our support of the State of Israel. We are not theocrats, and we recognize that our imperfect political system is a reflection of the fallen world within which we live, reliant upon the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is freely given to sinner and saint, alike.”
As the dialogue heated up, Timothy Dalrymple, CT’s president and CEO, entered the fray, writing: “We are happy to celebrate the positive things the administration has accomplished. The problem is that we as evangelicals are also associated with President Trump’s rampant immorality, greed, and corruption; his divisiveness and race-baiting; his cruelty and hostility to immigrants and refugees; and more. In other words, the problem is the wholeheartedness of the embrace. It is one thing to praise his accomplishments; it is another to excuse and deny his obvious misuses of power.”
Assorted journalists, academics and evangelical practitioners predicted that the editorial would doubtless fail to change opinions inside and outside the evangelical community. Yet it clearly struck a nerve, confirming that the nation, churches included, remains deeply, if not irrevocably, divided not only over politics and party, but also over religion in general and Christianity in particular.
CT’s prime editorial concern involved the continuing impact of those divisions on the church’s witness at home and abroad, a sobering consideration for American Christians in general and evangelical Christians in particular. Dalrymple observed, “Out of love for Jesus and his church, not for political partisanship or intellectual elitism, this is why we feel compelled to say that the alliance of American evangelicalism with this presidency has wrought enormous damage to Christian witness.”
“Almost 80 percent of American senior adults are white and Christian while 29 percent of young adults are white and Christian.”
American evangelicalism is certainly no monolith but involves a broad spectrum of participants proceeding from Appalachian Pentecostal serpent-handlers to Calvinist-oriented mega-churches; from Jim Wallis and Sojourners to James Dobson and Focus on the Family. In the broader society, however, those distinctions may be too nuanced, especially because, as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne has written, “we live in a moment when Christianity is losing ground, especially among the young.” Like it or not, the evangelical dilemma has implications for the way much of Christianity is viewed throughout American culture; the CT editorial simply punctuated that reality.
And what exactly is the evangelical dilemma? I’d suggest the following:
- This specific evangelical dilemma is largely that of white evangelicals. Yes, there are some evangelicals-of-color who have joined the evangelical majority, but their numbers are minute. This racial reality has significant implications for issues of diversity, race and the church’s future in the U.S. As Vox co-founder Ezra Klein and others have noted, almost 80 percent of American senior adults are white and Christian while 29 percent of young adults are white and Christian. Will evangelicals lose that younger generation?
- Claiming the moral high ground can become an ethical minefield. From the early days of the Republic, evangelically positioned Christians have not only called Americans to “receive Christ as Savior and Lord,” but to serve as exemplars of and advocates for ethical consistency in church and society. The assertion that they are “Bible-believing Christians” (apparently in contrast to those Christians who are not) was and remains a formidable claim to make, especially by evangelicals who affirmed slavery and white supremacy, or, as CT notes, by those who appear to “brush off” their leader’s “immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency.”
- Make no mistake, the CT editorial highlights an evangelicalism at a moral and theological crossroads in American life, confronted by the meaning of its mission and witness. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson said it like this: “Evangelicals cannot have it both ways. They can’t claim to be a clarion voice of Christian values in the public square while at the same time behaving in politics like amoral secularists. Why should anyone take them seriously if they talk the talk but won’t walk the walk?” A more earthy friend of mine says, “At least we don’t have to let evangelicals tell us how to have sex anymore.”
- Truth is, at this moment in history, questions regarding the nature of a gospel witness challenge all Christian communities in the land of the free and the home of the ethically compromised. Writing in the LA Times, Dartmouth professor and Episcopal clergyman Randall Balmer, asks why CT took so long to address the evangelical dilemma in church and state. He affirms the editorial, while offering a challenge to all American Christians: “Assuming the mantle of prophet is all well and good. But a prophetic voice seeks to avert calamity rather than redress it.”
Averting a church/state calamity in the year of our Lord (?) 2020 will be difficult, requiring as many prophets and as much courage as we can muster. Best get ready.