Normal people are overestimating the value of Christianity Today’s editorial in which Editor-in-Chief Mark Galli called for President Donald Trump’s removal. In plain English: It’s not what it appears to be.
What it appears to be is a crack in the foundation of the president’s support among white evangelical Christians. A turning point of some kind. A big deal. After all, Mr. Galli’s editorial appeared a day after the House impeached the president on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of justice. After all, Christianity Today was founded by the late Billy Graham, father of Franklin Graham, who is a stalwart Trump supporter. Put these together, and normal people are wondering if the foundation under Mr. Trump’s feet is finally falling away.
I don’t think Mr. Galli’s editorial means nothing. I just think it doesn’t mean what a lot of normal people seem to think it means. It’s not going to change much. For one thing, Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the late Jerry Falwell, the moral majority founder, have a commanding presence among white evangelical Christians. Each of them attacked Christianity Today’s editorial. Franklin Graham even claimed that his dad voted for Mr. Trump. (That, my friends, should be taken with a huge chunk of salt.) For another, Mr. Galli and other religious intellectuals do not represent a broad evangelical constituency. Furthermore, they can’t. It’s impossible.
Mr. Galli and other evangelical Christian intellectuals defer to the authority of empirical fact and universal morality. They believe what Jesus believed: what’s good for me is also good for you, and all of us are equal before the eyes of God. That is deeply contrary to the authoritarian mindset. To the authoritarian mindset, there is no authority independent of God’s will. What is God’s will? Whatever the leadership of the white evangelical Christian community declares it to be. The leadership of that community is almost always men. Therefore, God’s will is what these men say it is. What these men say is what everyone in their group believes. Doing what they say is being good. Being good is being obedient. In this context, there is no room for dissent. You cannot disagree about any religious point without arousing suspicion — whether about your moral character, about your devotion to God, about your Christian faith.
There are, obviously, lots of white evangelical Christian groups with their own ways of thinking. Between groups, but not within groups, there is space for disagreement. That’s where Christianity Today resides, in that liminal space. People like Mr. Galli, whose occupation is serving an array of evangelical perspectives (not just white ones), know how to navigate that space. Knowing how to navigate makes Mr. Galli a “liberal” in that he can recognize the legitimacy of various religious views without losing his sense of self. Being “liberal” in this way requires deference to empirical fact and universal morality. This is why he said Christianity Today’s editorial about Bill Clinton was pretty much a cookie-cooker copy of what it said about Mr. Trump. “The words that we applied to Mr. Clinton 20 years ago apply almost perfectly to our current president,” he wrote.
To many normal people, what Mr. Galli did is what they’d expect from white evangelical Christians. If what Mr. Clinton did was deserving of impeachment and removal, surely what Mr. Trump did is deserving of the same. But that’s not how most white evangelical Christians see it. Most of them are authoritarian to the marrow of their bones. God’s law, in other words, protects us. God’s law punishes them. God’s love, in other words, is not universal. We are unequal before the eyes of God. There is one system of morality and justice for us. There is another system of morality and justice for them. Saying Mr. Clinton deserved impeachment and removal but Mr. Trump doesn’t deserve the same is not hypocritical. It is an expression of a fundamental tribalization of God.
If this sounds incompatible with republican democracy, that’s because it is. If this sounds like it doesn’t make any sense, that’s because it doesn’t. It only makes sense when you remember that the truth is not the truth. Truth is whatever God says, and what God says is whatever the patriarchal authority says God says. The patriarchal authority says Mr. Trump is chosen. Hence, Mr. Trump is chosen.
John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of The Editorial Board, a contributing writer for Washington Monthly and the former managing editor of The Washington Spectator.