Column: Christianity Today’s Non-Committal Call for Removal

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On December 19, Christianity Today posted “Trump Should Be Removed from Office,” a short editorial by Mark Galli. The date of the post is notable, coming as it did one day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the approval of two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump and two weeks before the scheduled retirement of Galli, who has served as editor in chief of Christianity Today for thirty years.

“The Prayer at Valley Forge” by John C. McRae (1866) [Public Domain]

Galli opens his editorial by citing deceased evangelical Christian minister Billy Graham, who founded the magazine in 1956. Even given the history of the periodical, it’s awkward to begin a jeremiad against a president of “grossly immoral character” by invoking a man who was captured on Richard Nixon’s infamous Oval Office tape recordings slandering Jewish Americans as “the synagogue of Satan,” insisting they push pornography, and calling on the president to “do something” to break their “stranglehold” on the country.

In addition to promoting extreme anti-Semitism while sitting in the White House, Graham pushed intense anti-homosexual propaganda in print and on stage. Four years after Stonewall, he published a nationally syndicated column declaring “Homosexual Perversion a Sin That’s Never Right.” Twenty years later, in a year that saw nearly 42,000 AIDS-related deaths in the United States, Graham stood in front of a crowd of over 44,000 in Ohio and announced he considered AIDS “a judgment of God.” Twenty years after that declaration, he purchased full-page advertisements in fourteen North Carolina newspapers denouncing marriage equality and tying it to “the moral decline of our country.”

It’s difficult for Galli to declare Trump “morally lost and confused” while citing a preacher who denounced any marriage other than that “between a man and a woman” as a grievous moral wrong, but he does it without any sign of self-awareness. The blinders he wears are large enough that he insists the magazine is following the wise counsel of Graham himself by staying out of politics and only reluctantly engaging “from time to time… as Graham encouraged us, doing so with both conviction and love.” The magazine, Galli insists, “welcomes Christians from across the political spectrum.”

Abstaining from political discussion, only engaging in a loving manner, and holding hands with fellow Christians of differing political persuasions seem like wonderful ideals, but they were absolutely not lived in practice by Graham himself. During the 1960 presidential election, Graham gathered two-dozen Evangelical leaders for a secret meeting in Switzerland to discuss how they could manipulate American Protestants into voting against the Catholic John F. Kennedy. One of the collaborators was Graham’s father-in-law Nelson Bell, then the editor of Christianity Today. Graham personally coordinated with candidate Richard Nixon himself to plan his presidential campaign and work with the Protestant leaders and pastors he was inciting against Kennedy with anti-Catholic rhetoric.

Not only was Graham doing the opposite of what Galli reverently credits him for, but Galli’s own editorial predecessor at the magazine was actively engaged in direct political action that sought to defeat a Christian candidate solely for belonging to a different sect while actively coordinating with a candidate who went on to face the impeachment process for engaging in abuse of power, obstruction of justice, and contempt of Congress – charges very close to what have now been approved against President Trump.

A direct line to Nixon

Given the quicksand upon which Galli builds his editorial, his argument is unsurprisingly shifty. The Democrats have long persecuted the president since for partisan reasons, he asserts, even as they promoted suspect factual claims and blocked the president from testifying in the House hearings (!). The president has done much that is good, he claims, such as pushing Gorsuch and Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court, defending “religious liberty,” and personally guiding the nation’s economy.

But the president has acted immorally, Galli argues, in his dealings with Ukraine, his hiring of “people who are now convicted criminals,” “in business and his relationship with women,” and his “mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders” on Twitter. The editor insists that what he considers “the president’s positives” are outweighed by “the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.”

Given the title of the editorial and the strength of this denunciation, grounded by Galli in language of Biblical righteousness, it would be fair to expect a strong endorsement of impeachment, a call on the Senate to convict, or a plea to the president to step down. Instead, the editor offers this evasion of specifics:

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.

Despite this lack of conviction on conviction, the piece was hailed on Twitter not only as “a big deal” but as “A. Big. Hairy. Deal.Slate called it “a surprise editorial” that “sent shockwaves through evangelical circles.” The Independent insisted, against the evidence, that the piece “throw[s] down a gauntlet to those Republicans in the Senate who have indicated they will vote against the [impeachment] measures.” The editorial was generally received and portrayed as doing what the title suggested – calling for Trump to be removed from office.

A direct precedent to the wishy-washiness of the call can be found in a Christianity Today editorial from June 1974, titled “Should Nixon Resign?” Galli has stated that he wrote his Trump editorial in one hour after being inspired by the magazine’s previous pieces on presidential impeachment, and the Nixon piece appears to be its direct spiritual predecessor.

Both editorials center on the moral failings of a president that evangelicals had long supported while simultaneously making direct attacks on Democrats as partisan hacks for shining a light on exactly what the editorial themselves are denouncing. Galli’s insistence that “[t]he Democrats have had it out for [Trump] from day one, and therefore nearly everything they do is under a cloud of partisan suspicion” echoes the 1974 declaration that “those who have mercilessly pursued [Nion] and uncompassionately sought by every means to do him in should examine their own souls.”

The equivocal language of the 2019 editorial’s conclusion is prefigured by similar rhetoric in the 1974 piece:

Either Richard Nixon should be removed from office by the Senate or he should be acquitted… In our judgment the President would be well advised to seek the forgiveness of God by repenting privately and then by going to the people publicly and asking for their forgiveness.

Both editorials shrink back from definitely endorsing impeachment while insisting that only their deity can decide this most political of issues. Underscoring the emptiness of Galli’s insistence that Christianity Today stays out of politics and embraces Christians with differing policy positions, the uncredited author of the 1974 essay makes personal attacks on specific Catholic Republicans and Catholic Democrats.

The two editorials are also similar in their timing. The Nixon piece appeared a month after the beginning of nationally televised impeachment hearings by the House Judiciary Committee and Senate Watergate Committee. By that time, an independent special prosecutor had been appointed and testimony had been made regarding the president’s intense efforts to effect a cover-up. The Trump piece appeared a month after the start of live television broadcasts of the public hearings of the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry. But there is a crucial difference between the timing of the two editorials: Galli waited until after the House had approved the articles of impeachment.

Introducing President Pence

In an article published just one day before his editorial, Galli told Religion News Service that no moral failing of President Trump had ever risen to a level that required commentary from Christianity Today. “It’s very much a political story, and it’s hard to find a uniquely Christian angle to it, which is what would be required for us to comment on it,” said Galli. “Certainly there are ethical issues at play, but there are ethical issues at play in every political story. If we commented on each one, we’d be Politics Today.”

What changed in the few hours between the publication of this statement and the posting of the editorial was Pelosi’s announcement of impeachment. Since the core of Galli’s editorial is the issue of moral action, it’s fair question the choice to remain silent on ethical issues in the nation’s highest office until after decisive public actions against immoral and unethical behavior have been taken by members of the very political party that Christianity Today denounced in both 1974 and 2019 as wickedly partisan.

Galli ends his article with an appeal to evangelicals and an attempt to shame them into standing against the “gross immorality and ethical incompetence” of the current president. But what exactly is he suggesting they actually do? Just in case anyone might attempt to read between the lines and interpret this as a call to switch parties, Christianity Today president Timothy Dalrymple posted an “update” that makes absolutely clear that the editorial was not “an endorsement of the Democrats.” He lists what he considers the positives of the Trump presidency – appointing right-wing judges, standing against reproductive freedom, promoting Christianity under the guise of “religious freedom” – and again forwards the vague call that evangelicals somehow stand against Trump without actually doing anything about it.

What’s going on here? There are two important but silent subtexts beneath Galli’s editorial.

First, it was announced back in October that Galli would be retiring at the beginning of January 2020. So, just one week before Christmas and only two weeks before his retirement, the editor in chief spent just one hour writing a Trump editorial that was a spiritual successor to the Nixon editorial of forty-five years earlier – a Trump editorial that attacks Democrats for investigating corruption in the White House, cites the accomplishments of President Trump regarding an evangelical wish-list, and makes no specific call to action while somehow attempting to take a moral high ground in criticizing the commander-in-chief. This is the moral courage of a Jeff Flake or a Paul Ryan, of someone who was a willing part of the machine that long normalized and enabled Trump with full knowledge of his failings but waved a small flag of toothless critique on his way out of the building.

Second, the name of Vice President Mike Pence is never mentioned in either Galli’s editorial or Dalrymple’s follow-up. Given that Pence would become the president of the United States after the very removal of Trump called for in the title of the editorial, and given that Pence is a self-declared evangelical who is loudly outspoken on exactly the issues both Galli and Dalrymple cite as the great successes of the Trump administration, this omission is strange. Or is it? Trump being removed by the impeachment process would mean Pence would finish out this term and go into the next election as the incumbent, offering a new way forward after the moral failures of Trump. If he were to win and then win again four years later, there could legally be nine years of a Pence presidency.

Is this what Christianity Today is advocating? Dalrymple’s “update” makes a slight change to Galli’s list of Trump’s evangelical-approved accomplishments, quietly altering the attribution to the Trump administration rather than Trump himself. Dalrymple gives credit for what he sees as the positives to the administration as a whole and assigns the blames for the negatives – as does Galli – solely to Trump as an individual. Galli closes with worry about “the reputation of evangelical religion,” and Dalrymple ends with a call for loving dialogue with evangelicals who have so far supported Trump, despite his spectacular moral failings.

If this isn’t a setup for welcoming a newly-risen President Mike Pence to – in the words of the 1974 Nixon editorial – “seek the forgiveness of God by repenting privately and then by going to the people publicly and asking for their forgiveness” as he brushes aside the many sins of Donald Trump and ushers in a new decade of evangelical-driven federal government, then Galli and Dalrymple need to say exactly what they are calling upon Trump-loving evangelicals to do besides hate Democrats and pray for Trump’s soul.

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