Skip to main content

How Trump Lost an Evangelical Stalwart

The editor in chief of Christianity Today explains his scathing editorial about the president’s behavior—and the damage he argues his fellow Christians are doing to the Gospel.

printer friendly  
, Oliver Contreras / Getty

Evangelicals just received an ultimatum: Abandon President Donald Trump, or betray your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Christianity Today—the magazine founded by the famous preacher Billy Graham, and the longtime forum for mainstream evangelical thought—has published an editorial calling for Trump to be removed from the White House. The editor in chief, Mark Galli, acknowledged that “the typical CT approach is to stay above the fray and allow Christians with different political convictions to make their arguments in the public square.” But the facts are “unambiguous,” Galli wrote. “The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.”

Within hours of the article’s publication, the magazine’s website had crashed and Galli had been invited to speak on CNN and NPR, among other outlets. To be clear, Galli’s editorial in no way signals that evangelicals are about to defect, en masse, from Trump or the Republican Party. Christianity Today, also known as CT, mostly appeals to well-educated readers who are moderate in every way, including politically and theologically. Much of its readership is international, and many older print subscribers might not even register the small, seismic event that just happened on CT’s website. And polling over the past few months has consistently shown that white evangelicals remain among Trump’s staunchest supporters.

What’s significant about Galli’s statement is how directly he makes the case that his fellow Christians have a responsibility to call out Trump’s immoral behavior. Otherwise, he writes, they risk damaging their ability to share the Gospel with the world. Christians have been divided over Trump since he became a serious presidential candidate in 2016. Now, less than a month away from retirement, Galli wants them to unite against the president.

I spoke with Galli shortly after his editorial was published this evening. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.


Emma Green: Why did you feel called to publish this editorial?

Mark Galli: One of my main goals for the last three or four years is to have evangelicals on the left and the right, pro-Trump and anti-Trump, learn to listen to each other, to be caring to one another, to understand one another. I think our unity in Christ is much more important than our fusion in politics.

I have friends who voted for Trump for strong, prudential reasons. They’re very much pro-life, very much pro–religious freedom. They said, “Well, we can put up with his moral problems, because he’s delivering on things that are really important to us.” So, you know, I grant that.

I don’t think it was until the impeachment hearings that there was some sort of smoking gun that was just unambiguously clear. The Mueller investigation was so confusing. It was hard to tell what was legal or illegal, moral or immoral. I just don’t know how that world works. But with the impeachment hearings, it became absolutely clear that he tried to use his power as the president to manipulate a foreign leader into getting dirt on his political enemies. That’s unconstitutional, and it’s immoral. So it was kind of a clear moment.

I’ve been thinking, in the last week, whether we should address that. I recalled that in the Clinton era and the Nixon era, when it became absolutely clear about the immoral improprieties of the president, we said that this person is no longer fit for office. That was weighing on me, and I thought maybe it was time for us to do this.

I started with the notion: Okay, we’re going to do this like CT: “On the one hand. On the other hand ... Let’s try to understand each other.” But then I thought, I’m not going to do that. I’m just going to say what I think the reality is that we have to open our eyes to.

And it was done in an hour.

Green: I was struck by how directly you called on your fellow evangelicals to be honest about what you see as Trump’s misconduct. You wrote, “Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency.” That’s very, very direct. Were you at all worried about how other Christians may hear or read those words?

Galli: Not too much. I know some will read it very negatively. They’ll consider me partisan, that I’m a closet Democrat—which I’m not. I’m independent. They’re going to say that Trump appoints pro-life justices; he’s working for religious freedom. And it occurred to me today, as I was writing the editorial, that the “on the one hand, on the other hand” logic of whether you’re going to support Trump or not—that falls apart at some point.

Imagine, for example, that a woman is being verbally abused by her husband. He’s a great father—he gets along with the kids, and he’s a great supporter. So you think, All right, he’s verbally abusive to me; he has kind of a hot temper. But he’s got these other things going for him, so I’m not going to rock the boat too much. I might try to get him to calm down, but I can live with it.

Then he starts to become violent, and dangerously violent. He’s still a good provider. He still loves the kids. But nobody would say, “You need to weigh this!” They would say, “Get the man out of the house immediately.” The moral balancing no longer applies.

And the same seems to be true of the Trump presidency. Yes, he’s done some good that I am grateful for. But the moral scales no longer balance. It’s time for him to get out of the house, so to speak.

Green: One of the things that you seem most concerned about in the editorial is the reputation of evangelicalism—of Christianity—and the damage that this association with Trump might do to Christian witness.

I wonder how much that motivates you—your belief that the association with Trump is going to do long-term damage to the ability of Christians to share the Gospel.

Galli: Oh my God. It’s going to be horrific.

We’ve been a movement that has said the moral character of our leaders is really important. And if they fail in that department, they can’t be a good influence. That’s what CT said when Nixon’s immoralities were discovered. That’s what we said when Clinton’s immoralities were discovered. And one of the reasons I thought we should say it now is because it’s pretty clear that this is the case with Donald Trump.

Unfortunately, a number of my brothers and sisters will just defend him to the end. They somehow think that’s going to be a good witness to the Gospel. It’s unimaginable to me how they think that, but they do. And I just think it’s a big mistake.

Green: Right after the impeachment vote, two prominent evangelical leaders—Samuel Rodriguez and Johnnie Moore—sent out a statement saying that Democrats have pursued an exclusively partisan impeachment effort. They were not actually impeaching the president of the United States, but the voters who put him in office. They were repeating, basically, the spin from the White House.

Do you feel like you’ve completely lost your connection to the leaders who have made this choice to come out and forcefully defend Trump no matter what, when you see the facts of the case so differently?

Galli: I have a good personal relationship with Johnnie Moore. He and I know we disagree about stuff, politically. He might be surprised about the passion with which I wrote this piece, but I don’t think he’s going to be surprised at the content. I assume he’s going to be amicable towards me when we meet next time, as I will be towards him. Other people who have not met me will have preconceptions about me and what I stand for. That’s fine.

I will acknowledge, and I did acknowledge, that the Democrats are riding on a partisan horse here. They just vehemently hate Donald Trump. And they’ve been trying from day one to get him out of office. There’s no question about that.

But that doesn’t take away from the fact that what they discovered is actually true. That’s the thing that’s disappointing about my evangelical and conservative friends. They just won’t admit it. They just won’t say it. They just say, “It’s partisan.” Well, yeah. It’s partisan. But this partisan effort happened to uncover something that was really bad.

The fact that not a single Republican, and none of my evangelical, conservative friends, has been able to admit that strikes me as a deep and serious problem.

I’m sorry, Emma. I’m going to start preaching—I used to be a pastor. I don’t think the Republican Party or the Democratic Party are exemplars of moral virtue. As most commentators have noted, our country is in a really deeply troubling state when it comes to ethical and moral leadership. I’m certainly not going to say, “Oh, all the politicians are really ethical and Donald Trump isn’t.” No. But he happens to be the president of the United States. He deserves a certain amount of focus.

Green: Do you feel that you’re out of step with the body of evangelicals in the United States—and particularly white evangelicals—who are mostly supportive of Trump?

Galli: Yeah. That’s just a fact of life. At least as long as I’ve been editor in chief, I’ve never imagined that we at Christianity Today speak for all evangelicals. We speak for moderate, center-right, and center-left evangelicals. The far right—they don’t read us. They don’t care what we think. They think we’ve been co-opted by liberalism. So I understand that we do not represent the entire movement. And anyone who thinks that CT does, that’s just not the case.

I look at my brothers and sisters who are supportive of Trump, and I see the other things they’re doing: the life of their churches, the type of causes they support overseas. I can praise and honor them for those things. So I still see them as brothers and sisters. But we’re not in the same world when it comes to this sort of thing, right now.

Green: Are you worried about losing readers because of this editorial?

Galli: Not really. I recognize that that’s a possibility. But to be honest—and I’m sorry if I sound like a person of great moral virtue—those are the types of things I’ve never given a whole lot of thought to. I never weigh what I’m going to say or not say based on whether people will start subscribing or stop subscribing. That just strikes me as a very small-minded way of deciding what you’re going to write about.

I think we’ll gain some readers, too. When we’ve written something controversial in the past and I thought we would end up losing subscribers, we actually ended up gaining. In this case, I’m happy to let the cards fall where they may, and see what happens.

Green: Were there people at CT who knew you were going to write this editorial who cautioned you away from it?

Galli: No, because really only three people saw it before it went up. Ted Olsen is a longtime companion at CT. Anything important, I make sure he goes over with a fine-tooth comb. And then, of course, my president—anything of such a sensitive nature that might affect the entire ministry, I let him look at and comment on. I’m about to retire, on January 3. So I did not want to do something that would explode in such a way that would make his life and the life of the incoming editor in chief unnecessarily hard. So I showed it to him and said, “If you have concerns, let’s talk.” And his only concerns were to add some additional paragraphs that made it a stronger editorial.

Green: Right, your retirement does seem relevant here. You’ve been a writer, thinker, and public figure in the evangelical world for a long time. I wonder how, as you prepare to leave your post, you’re thinking about the divisive, negative environments of both evangelicalism and American politics. Does it anguish you that this is where evangelicalism is today—or, I should say, where Christianity is today?

Galli: One cannot be but unhappy about that. But I don’t have any illusions that if I stuck around a little longer, or tried a little harder, I could somehow solve it. I became editor in chief in 2012, and I can certainly say I haven’t made a dent in that problem.

It isn’t the first time in Church history that the Church has been divided. It’s been divided over very important things. So I am a great believer in the providence of God, and that he will, in his grace, mercy, and mysterious judgment, help us through this period. It’s not my responsibility to heal the breach among evangelicals. It’s not my responsibility to bring peace to the world. My responsibility, given the position I have, whatever it might be, is to speak the truth. If it makes a difference, I am thankful to God. And if it doesn’t make a difference, that’s kind of up to him.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

Emma Green is a staff writer at ​The Atlantic, where she covers politics, policy, and religion.