Christianity Today recently ignited an evangelical firestorm when, in the wake of President Donald Trump’s impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives, it published an editorial calling for his removal from office.
Reaction was swift. Franklin Graham, whose father Billy Graham founded the magazine, said his father voted for Trump and would be disappointed in the magazine’s editorial. The Christian Post, another Christian publication, disputed the editorial calling it “disdainful, dismissive, elitist.” A host of evangelical leaders including James Dobson, who founded Focus on the Family; Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and Ralph Reed, president of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, posted a letter condemning Christianity Today’s stance.
On Monday, Christianity Today doubled down with a second editorial citing Trump’s “rampant immorality, greed and corruption.” More than a dozen evangelicals — including Ron Sider, professor emeritus of theology at Palmer Seminary and George Marsden, professor of history emeritus, University of Notre Dame — signed a letter in support of Christianity Today that was published by the Religion News Service.
So, what does it all mean?
Greg Carey, professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, said Christianity Today’s editorial offers cover for evangelicals who do not support the president.
“There have always been a reasonable number of conservatives and evangelicals who haven’t approved of Trump,” he said. “Those evangelicals who don’t support Trump now can point ... to an official institutional voice to say ‘See, it is possible to be an evangelical and to distrust this president.’ ”
John Fea, professor of history at Messiah College and author of “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump,” said Trump was not an early favorite among evangelicals in the 2016 primary elections.
He noted that the Christian Post, which now defends Trump, published an editorial in February 2016 under the headline “Trump is a scam. Evangelical voters should back away.”
But many evangelicals who once opposed Trump, now support him.
“Since then,” Fea said, “Trump has delivered for evangelicals. He has put the right people in the Supreme Court for them, he’s championed Israel, he has fought for religious liberty.”
The current debate between evangelical publications, he said, has been fueled by social media. But neither he nor Carey believe it will have much of an impact on the 2020 election.
Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016 and, Carey said, "He still holds a 75% approval rating among white evangelicals.”
Added Fea: “You’re going to see an overwhelming majority of evangelicals vote for Donald Trump again.”
That support, Fea said, is likely to have a lasting impact on the religious culture in this country.
“Trump is somewhat changing the landscape of American Protestant Christianity,” he said. “Even after he leaves, the work of reconciliation will be very difficult. I think there’s going to be Trump evangelicals and anti-Trump evangelicals.”