When Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine long associated with the late evangelist Billy Graham, editorialized on Thursday in favor of Trump’s impeachment and removal from office, the reaction from Trump and his religious-right boosters was swift and harsh—and is ongoing.
Trump lashed out in anger, taking to Twitter to denounce Christianity Today as a “far left magazine”—a ludicrous lie—and to fume that “No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close.”
Religious-right leaders were quick to reassure Trump of their loyalty and denounce Christianity Today. Franklin Graham declared that his late father “believed in Donald Trump” and voted for him. Ralph Reed mocked the magazine as “Christianity Yesterday.” The White House and itsboosters in the conservative evangelical community subsequently announced the January 3 launch of “Evangelicals for Trump.”
Reactions came from across the religious right, from fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell, Jr. to leaders of the dominionist apostles-and-prophets branch of charismatic Christianity that has embraced Trump as God’s anointed. Among those slamming the Christianity Today editorial and its author Mark Galli were New Apostolic Reformation leader Ché Ahn, Bill Johnson, senior leader of the charismatic Bethel Church in Redding, Calif., and prophetic author Lance Wallnau, who published a video portraying Christianity Today as a captive of progressive philanthropist George Soros, the target of authoritarians and right-wing leaders everywhere.
Nearly 200 conservative evangelical leaders, including Trump’s spiritual adviser and White House aide Paula White, signed an open letter slamming the editorial’s author, Christianity Today’s editor-in-chief Mark Galli.
The letter repeats Team Trump talking points on “the entirely-partisan, legally-dubious, and politically-motivated impeachment.” And it claims that the editorial “offensively questioned the spiritual integrity and Christian witness of tens-of-millions of believers who take seriously their civic and moral obligations.”
Oh, please. Religious-right leaders wrote the book (many of them, in fact) on questioning and denouncing the spiritual integrity and religious beliefs of their opponents. They claim that Trump was anointed and put into office by God and that his opponents therefore are demonic agents of Satan fighting against God himself. (Earlier this month, signatory and Trump adviser Pastor Robert Jeffress mocked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi‘s assertion of her Catholic faith during an exchange with a reporter.)
On Sunday, Christianity Today published a response to critics of Galli’s editorial, refuting the claims about the magazine as a repository of leftism made by Trump and his religious-right allies and arguing that “the alliance of American evangelicalism with this president has wrought enormous damage to Christian witness” and harmed perceptions of the “Bride of Christ,” as religious followers sometimes refer to the broader Christian church.
It has alienated many of our children and grandchildren. It has harmed African American, Hispanic American, and Asian American brothers and sisters. And it has undercut the efforts of countless missionaries who labor in the far fields of the Lord. While the Trump administration may be well regarded in some countries, in many more the perception of wholesale evangelical support for the administration has made toxic the reputation of the Bride of Christ.
In the Christianity Today response, the writer argues that the magazine is “happy to celebrate the positive things the administration has accomplished,” which in its view includes Trump’sappointment of vast numbers of conservative judges. But, it adds:
The problem is that we as evangelicals are also associated with President Trump’s rampant immorality, greed, and corruption; his divisiveness and race-baiting; his cruelty and hostility to immigrants and refugees; and more. In other words, the problem is the wholeheartedness of the embrace. It is one thing to praise his accomplishments; it is another to excuse and deny his obvious misuses of power.
Excusing and denying Trump’s abuses of power in fact represents just a tiny bit of the relentless sycophancy of his religious-right boosters, who declare his presidency miraculous, a result of divine intervention in the 2016 election to give America a chance to return to God and save itself from secularism.
There are a few things going on with the massive backlash against the Christianity Today article.
One is that religious-right leaders know that Trump thrives on ego-stroking and cannot abide criticism, and they want to stay in his good graces by making sure he knows that Christianity Today doesn’t speak for them. And they resent the Christianity Today editorial for asking hard questions about the cost of their unwavering support for Trump and Trumpism, knowing that some in their congregations may receive the magazine in their monthly mail.
Perhaps more important, though, is that religious-right leaders want Trump to stay in office as long as possible because they desperately want to keep the unprecedented access to the levers of power that Trump’s presidency gives them. They’re investing in efforts to guarantee a huge conservative evangelical turnout for Trump in 2020. And they’re eager to clamp down hard on anything that might encourage independent-minded Christians inclined to be appalled at Trump’s immigration cruelties or climate recklessness to believe that voting against Trump in 2020 is a spiritually viable option.
The mutually beneficial relationship between Trump and the religious right is grounded in a deal Trump offered at a meeting with hundreds of religious-right leaders shortly after securing the Republican nomination: If they helped put him in the White House, he’d give them the Supreme Court of their dreams and make them more politically powerful by doing away with restrictions on overt politicking by churches.
Religious-right leaders took the deal. They told Christians who were unenthusiastic about voting for the morally bankrupt Trump that it was their duty to do so because he had promised a Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade. They told Christian voters that a Hillary Clinton presidency would mean the end of religious freedom and their ability to preach the gospel.
Religious-right groups spent millions to turn out conservative white evangelical voters for Trump. And they succeeded.
Trump has held up his end of the deal beyond the wildest imaginings of these religious leaders. He has embraced Christian nationalists and welcomed a steady flow of religious-right leaders to the White House. He has not onlyput two right-wing justices on the Supreme Court; he and the Republican Senate are filling the federal courts at a record pace with young far-right ideologues who will shape American law for decades to come. He has turned over federal agencies, like the Department of Health and Human Services, to religious-right activists who are using their power to make the religious right’s agenda the official policy of the United States government. He has embraced the right-wing government in Israel, moved the embassy to Jerusalem, and reversed U.S. policy on the legality of settlements in the occupied territories—a move celebrated by religious-right activists who oppose any land-for-peace plan as contrary to God’s will.
In short, the religious right has gotten what it wanted from a Trump presidency, and it dearly wants more of it. And, like their “anointed” leader, they have little tolerance for dissenting opinions.