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Christianity Today’s anti-Trump editorial misrepresents the evangelical masses

The editorial's chief contribution was to pull back the veil on the divide between self-proclaimed 'elite evangelicals' and the mass of Christians who support the president.

President Donald Trump gestures to the audience during a Keep America Great Rally in Tupelo, Mississippi, on Nov. 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

(RNS) — On Thursday evening, I emerged from an elegant Christmas reception at the home of our wonderful vice president and second lady to discover the internet hyperventilating over an editorial published in Christianity Today by its outgoing editor-in-chief, Mark Galli. The editorial hoped for President Trump’s resignation or impeachment, but it would settle for his not being re-elected.

Predictably, the editorial was widely heralded by those who oppose the president and relentlessly criticized by those who support him. I have seen no evidence a single human being changed their minds about anything.

Yet social media was abuzz with pundits and reporters who absurdly took Galli’s editorial as a sign of evangelicals’ mass defection from the president’s side. There were thoughtful exceptions, such as Elizabeth Dias of The New York Times, who aptly noted that Christianity Today’s entire print subscriber base could fit themselves into two or so of the hundreds of mega-churches whose pastors support President Trump. (More, of course, see the publication online.)

RELATED: Christianity Today roils the evangelical waters

The contribution the editorial did make was to pull back the veil on a different divide in our country that undergirds the conflict over our domestic politics, between the elite and the masses, those who feel entitled to their influence, and those who feel despised because of it.

My contrarian friend, Mark Galli, has admitted in the past feeling a certain disconnection with the vast masses of evangelicals in America who support our president. He wrote in 2018 about the 2016 election, “Most evangelicals like me exclaimed, ‘Who are these people? I know hardly anyone, let alone any evangelical Christian who voted for Trump.’”

Kind of an amazing statement, isn’t it?

He went on to describe himself as a so-called “elite evangelical” juxtaposed with “other evangelicals who haven’t finished college, and if they have jobs (and apparently a lot of them don’t), they are blue collar jobs or entry level work.”

While I’m sure he didn’t intend it this way, his wasn’t a far cry from Hillary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” comment in the 2016 election, referring to those who backed her opponent. It’s also a comment that explains why nearly every one of President Trump’s political rallies includes thousands of Democrats who no longer find their party to be the party of the working class.

Galli’s pronounced classism puts him in a difficult spot when it comes to understanding evangelicals and politics. As Matthew Schmitz, an editor at First Things, wrote in the New York Post, the evangelical movement “has always been a populist movement.” It is, he wrote, “tied to a suspicion of religious and political elites,” and it’s this “populist energy (that helps) explain evangelicalism’s broad appeal … (and) causes problems for the evangelical leadership class.”

Schmitz warns that “evangelical leaders who have come up through established institutions tend to acquire the training and tastes of the wider American elite; … whatever their theological convictions might be, these elites have ceased to be evangelical in a sociological sense.”

Schmitz does a good job of explaining what exactly is going on here and why some evangelical leaders have responded to the Christianity Today editorial by declaring that the magazine has left the fold altogether.

Galli’s editorial reflects the gap between the majority of evangelicals and some of those institutions that aim to represent them. The disconnect was made worse by his failure to allow a more reasoned perspective to be represented in his piece or alongside it.

He might have chosen to solicit an immediate, dissenting point of view, perhaps from someone like the Rev. Franklin Graham, whose father founded the magazine. Instead Galli misappropriated Billy Graham’s perspective in order, presumably, to boost his own moral credibility.

While acknowledging how partisan the impeachment efforts were, Galli refused to thoroughly address the entirely legitimate challenges leveled at the Democrats by the Republicans about due process and the actual merits of the accusations against the president.

Moreover, though he purportedly based his thinking on the president’s personal morality, he failed to meaningfully account for the overarching ethical stance of the administration’s policies. Whoever institutes those policies advances certain ideals in the public square, from reducing abortions to supporting the human dignity of religious minorities around the world, to strengthening working families by boosting employment and promoting paid family leave policies and reforming our criminal justice system.

These are only a few of the countless decisions supported by the vast majority of evangelicals and implemented by this president and his administration.

Instead, an editor with too much experience to have an excuse chose to demand the reader trust his perspective alone, even on such a consequential matter. 

Galli is my friend. I respect him. I believe he respects me, and despite our pronounced disagreements on this subject, we agree on many other areas. We share a great personal concern for the underprivileged, especially migrants, and we share a passion for the Jewish roots of our Christian faith.

I believe the great tent of Christendom is big enough for all of us. As Galli has whimsically noted, Jesus himself welcomed a diverse group into his fold of leaders, from Simon the zealot to Matthew the tax collector, one a collaborator with the government of the time and the other a revolutionary who aimed to overthrow it.

But the fact that Mark wrote this piece was perhaps the least surprising event of my week. Sometimes subtle and sometimes not, he has always been a critic of the president and he’s never shied away from expressing his point of view. As I told one reporter yesterday, “he’s just a known never-Trumper, never-Trumping.”

What is surprising to me is that the editorial was given as much credit as it received. It will have no material effect on evangelical support of the president; in fact, it will motivate some to do even more to support him. The many millions of evangelicals who support the president do so because of his policies, not his personality, and they see this impeachment exercise as insincere, exclusively partisan, without legal merit and politically motivated.

(The Rev. Johnnie Moore is president of The Congress of Christian Leaders and an informal adviser to the Trump administration. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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