(RNS) — The timing of Christianity Today's editorial calling for President Trump's ouster couldn't have been better. With impeachment voted and Congress gone for the holidays, it dropped into a beautiful D.C. news vacuum.
Front pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times. Interviews on CNN. Commentary everywhere. And why not? Trump's support among white evangelicals has been the biggest religion story of his presidency, so his rejection by their flagship publication had to be news.
As usual, Trump helped the coverage along by flying to his own defense. "The fact is, no President has ever done what I have done for Evangelicals, or religion itself!” tweeted the most transactional of politicians.
Over the signature of outgoing editor Mark Galli, the editorial carefully took that into consideration. Yes, Trump had earned evangelical backing by his Supreme Court appointments and his "defense of religious liberty." However: "None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character."
Citing founder Billy Graham's original injunction that the magazine make its opinions known "with both conviction and love," Galli quoted at length from its condemnation of President Clinton at the time of his impeachment 21 years ago. "The President's failure to tell the truth — even when cornered — rips at the fabric of the nation."
Bottom line: "Unsavory dealings and immoral acts by the President and those close to him have rendered this administration morally unable to lead."
"Unfortunately, the words that we applied to Mr. Clinton 20 years ago apply almost perfectly to our current president. Whether Mr. Trump should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election — that is a matter of prudential judgment. That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments."
Unsurprisingly, Trump's court evangelicals weren't buying.
"Less than 20% of evangelicals supported @HillaryClinton in 2016 but now @CTmagazine has removed any doubt that they are part of the same 17% or so of liberal evangelicals who have preached social gospel for decades!" tweeted Jerry Falwell, Jr. "CT unmasked!"
"The magazine Billy Graham helped to start over 60 years ago in no way resembles its founders vision," tweeted Jack (no relation) Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. "It is increasingly liberal and out of step and out of touch with conservative Christians and churches."
Billy's son Franklin, whose strident partisanship has done much to undermine his father's legacy of pastoral inclusiveness, weighed in heavily. "Yes, @BillyGraham founded Christianity Today; but no, he would not agree w/ their piece," he wrote in one tweet. "He’d be disappointed." Then, in a follow-up, he revealed:
"I hadn’t shared who my father voted for in 2016, but because of CTMagazine’s article, I felt it necessary to share now. My father knew @realDonaldTrump, believed in him & voted for him. He believed Donald J. Trump was the man for this hour in history for our nation."
But the next generation of Grahams pushed back.
Tweeted Billy's grandson Boz Tchividjian (who, it should be mentioned, teaches law at Falwell’s Liberty University), "A heavy hearted bravo to CT! Well said on so many levels. I believe my grandfather would have had a similar perspective. Thank you."
Boz's brother Aram laid on the sarcasm: "I’ll never forget that day in 2016 when my grandfather, @billygraham, shrugged off the symptoms of Parkinson’s and hydrocephalus, got up out of bed for the first time in a year, drove down to the polling station, and cast his vote. What a glorious memory!"
"What strikes me as most significant in the long run, is that everyone is invoking Billy Graham," said Grant Wacker, the retired Duke Divinity School professor whose second book on the foremost Protestant of his age, One Soul at a Time: The Billy Graham Story, came out in September. "CT does it twice: This is what our founder would want us to do."
Leaving aside the vexed questions surrounding Billy Graham's exercise of his franchise the day after his 98th birthday, it's important to recognize that CT's longstanding focus on the moral character of presidents was the touchstone of approval for Graham himself. As late as January of 1974, Wacker notes, the evangelist was defending Nixon on the grounds that "a man of such high moral character" could not have been involved in Watergate.
It was only after reading the transcripts of the White House tapes in April of that year that Graham, saying he "nearly vomited," broke with the president.
And CT followed. In July of 1974, a month before President Nixon resigned in the face of certain impeachment in the House and likely conviction in the Senate, the magazine declared, "The transcripts show him to be a person who has failed gravely to live up to the moral demands of our Judeo-Christian heritage. We do not expect perfection, but we rightly expect our leaders, and especially our President, to practice a higher level of morality than the tapes reveal."
Such personal moralism has been evangelicalism's distinctive contribution to American public life. That so many evangelicals have been prepared to sell it for a mess of Trumpian pottage is a loss for all of us.
In the present case, the obvious rejoinder from Trump's evangelical apologists is to concede his moral flaws but insist these don't outweigh the good they think he's done. Like so many Republicans in Congress, however, they have clearly concluded that if you are not 100 percent with Trump, at least in public, you are against him.
Meanwhile, we can wonder whether the CT editorial will move the needle of Trump's evangelical support down.
"Christianity Today is a dying magazine," Robert Jeffress of Dallas' First Baptist Church told Fox's Lou Dobbs. "It has very little influence in the evangelical world."
By contrast, Wacker points out that while its hard-copy circulation may be only 90,000, the online magazine counts 5 million discrete monthly visits.
"CT has a great influence," he said. "A lot of other evangelicals intensely resent the power of CT. (The editorial) does push the needle. It pushes it a lot."
"It's courageous," Boz and Aram's sister Jerushah told CNN's Erin Burnett. "My grandfather always said that courage is contagious. My hope is that an article like this will be the first step for people to actually stand up and start saying, 'You know what? I'm actually not comfortable.'"
On Sunday, in a backhanded acknowledgement of CT's influence, nearly 200 of Trump's "evangelical faith leaders" sent a letter to publisher Tim Dalrymple protesting the editorial for disrespecting them and their followers.