The publication is small, reaching just a fraction of the evangelical movement.
But when Christianity Today called for President Donald Trump’s removal in a blistering editorial on Thursday, it met the full force and fury of the president and his most prominent allies in the Christian conservative world. If the response seemed disproportionate, it vividly reflected the nuanced reality of evangelical Christianity in the Trump era.
While evangelicals are the cornerstone of Trump’s political base and their leaders are among his most visible and influential spokesmen, a significant number of people who are followers of the faith remain deeply uncomfortable with the alliance with the president.
Trump, after being impeached this week, has repeatedly insisted that the Republican Party and its voters are unanimously lined up behind him. And on Friday he lashed out on two separate occasions at Christianity Today, erroneously calling it a “far left magazine” that was doing the Democratic Party’s bidding.
“I guess the magazine, ‘Christianity Today,’ is looking for Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or those of the socialist/communist bent, to guard their religion,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Friday. “How about Sleepy Joe? The fact is, no President has ever done what I have done for Evangelicals, or religion itself!”
The president’s reaction was a sign of how critically important the white evangelical voting bloc is to his reelection. And the response from his leading Christian supporters — laced with animosity and mockery that mimicked Trump’s signature style — reflected how he has reshaped the evangelical political movement in his own mold, much as he has done with the Republican Party.
Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said on Twitter that he was “sad” to see the publication “echo the arguments of The Squad & the Resistance & deepen its irrelevance among Christians.”
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, compared Christianity Today to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “CT, like Pelosi, makes claims w/o evidence,” he wrote on Twitter. “We’ve heard this before. Christians should apply a biblical worldview, not a PC worldview, to the current political landscape.”
Franklin Graham, whose father, the Rev. Billy Graham, founded Christianity Today, said in a Facebook post that the editorial was a “totally partisan attack” and said that the elder Graham had voted for the president in 2016, a little more than a year before he died. Graham went on to tally numerous accomplishments that he said Trump had achieved.
For the past three years, conservative American politics, and white evangelical Christianity along with it, has realigned steadily and forcefully around Trump and his coalition. Much like the “Never Trump” voices within the Republican Party, evangelical detractors have receded into the background during the three years Trump has been president.
Their absence from the national conversation was partly why the editorial was so jolting. But it was also a reminder that the evangelical movement is not monolithic and includes people who may appreciate some of the president’s actions, like the appointment of conservative judges, but are repelled by his inflammatory rhetoric on issues like race and immigration.
That sentiment was clearly expressed in the Christianity Today editorial by Mark Galli, the magazine’s editor-in-chief. “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,” Galli wrote. “That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.”
For many Christians who felt the same way, but who felt largely voiceless, the piece was a catharsis.
Peter Wehner, a Christian columnist and author who worked as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, said that Trump’s most outspoken defenders had created a misleading impression that evangelical Christians universally embrace the president.
“They speak as if they define the movement,” he said. “And a lot of people who aren’t familiar with evangelical Christianity see this and say, ‘Well, they must be representing all Christians.’”
“That’s the significance of what Christianity Today did,” Wehner added. “They stood up and they said no. That’s not right. We can’t continue with this charade, this moral freak show anymore.”
No leaders in the evangelical movement see any clear signs of an organized resistance to Trump rising from the editorial. And even dissenters like Wehner acknowledge they are vastly outnumbered.
According to a recent poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, 77% of white evangelical Protestants approved of the job Trump is doing in office, including half who strongly approve. And nearly all — 99% — of Republican white evangelical Protestants said they opposed Trump’s impeachment, the institute found.