The “evangelicals and Trump” news narrative took a turn this week as Christianity Today issued an editorial calling for Donald Trump’s removal as president, either by the Senate or by American voters in November 2020. Overall I think this move by CT is a good development, though it comes with risks inherent to any kind of overt Christian partisanship.
If you get beyond the headlines and read the actual editorial, it becomes clear that CT felt obligated to speak out about Trump because it had spoken out about Bill Clinton on virtually identical grounds 20 years ago. Back then, they said, “Unsavory dealings and immoral acts by the president and those close to him have rendered this administration morally unable to lead.” Now, “unfortunately, the words that we applied to Mr. Clinton 20 years ago apply almost perfectly to our current president.”
Personally, I don’t think it is obvious that an outlet like CT, which is not primarily a political magazine, should have spoken out on either Clinton or Trump’s impeachment. But having spoken out on one, it seems more credible to speak out on the other now.
Where does CT fit on the evangelical spectrum, and does its editorial represent any kind of significant breach in the white evangelical firewall for Trump? One of the main points in my recent book Who Is an Evangelical? (Yale Press) is that Trump’s “evangelicals,” though they are a real and formidable cohort, hardly reflect the whole evangelical community at large, even among white Americans. Because CT has recently positioned itself as a centrist, intellectualist type of evangelical magazine, however, I cannot imagine that its subscriber base is teeming with MAGA devotees of Trump. Its editorial will undoubtedly run off some such devotees, but it may garner a few new anti-Trump subscribers too.
On the evangelical magazine spectrum, CT is not as likely to be anti-Trump as Jim Wallis’s liberal evangelical Sojourners, but CT’s editorial is only a surprise in its boldness, not the basic sentiment. Even WORLD magazine, which is generally more conservative and politically oriented than CT, was critical of Trump in 2016. Relevant, with its reported circulation of 70,000 copies (as compared to CT’s 120,500 and WORLD‘s 100,000), now seems to be the most prominent print mouthpiece for evangelical pro-Trumpism.
I can understand why CT made the statement that it did, and it may remind the news media that not all evangelicals are the same politically. However moderate CT has become politically, there is little question that its origins and current constituency are thoroughly evangelical—they are not EINOs (evangelicals in name only). But all Christian outlets, churches, and leaders need to count the cost of entering the partisan fray. Certain Republican evangelical insiders, of course, have thrown all caution to the wind and inextricably linked their faith to a political party and to Trump himself. I’m sympathetic to CT’s reasons for reacting against the excesses of those Republican insiders, but they have to be careful too, lest they become just another type of Christian partisan outlet.