This week, the editor of Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine that was founded in the nineteen-fifties by the Reverend Billy Graham, came out against Donald Trump’s Presidency. In an editorial titled “Trump Should be Removed from Office,” the editor, Mark Galli, wrote that Trump’s effort to pressure the Ukrainian government to discredit a political opponent “is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.” Galli, who has announced his retirement in January, 2020, continued, “Whether Mr. Trump should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election—that is a matter of prudential judgment. That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.”
The support of white evangelicals is vital to President Trump’s political survival; exit polls indicated that about eighty per cent of them, around twenty-eight million people, helped elect him President in 2016. A cohort of evangelical leaders and commentators, however, has been critical of the President and warned their fellow-believers that their support of Trump could have dire consequences for the future of the faith. Galli joins their ranks, writing, “If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?”
The editorial has been widely reported, but it is unclear how much influence it will have with evangelical voters. In response, Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and the heir to his ministry, and a steadfast Trump supporter, told Fox News that his father, who died in 2018, “dissociated himself from the magazine years ago” and would have been “disappointed” by the editorial. “My father knew Donald Trump, believed in Donald Trump, and in this last election, he voted for Donald Trump,” Graham said. “And if he were here today, I’m sure he would tell you that himself.” The Trump campaign quickly announced that it will hold an Evangelicals for Trump event in Miami on January 3rd.
To discuss the editorial, the nature of moral judgment, and evangelical support for Trump, I recently spoke by phone with Galli. Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, is below.
You have been critical of Trump in the past. Why did you want to take this step now?
Part of the reason is that one of my roles as the editor of Christianity Today is to help evangelicals on the left and the right charitably understand one another, and enter into a civil dialogue about their political differences. We do share a great deal when it comes to theology and spirituality and when it comes to works of mercy and outreach. But there is a huge divide in how we understand our political responsibilities. So I tried to do my best to charitably understand my brothers and sisters with whom I disagree, and why they would support Trump in spite of his obvious character flaws. And I will say their arguments are somewhat persuasive. Trump has done a great deal for the pro-life movement by nominating pro-life judges. He has done a great deal for religious freedom.
Religious freedom for Christians?
For evangelical Christians in particular. I am passionately pro-life. I am an advocate of religious freedom. I can appreciate why they would be willing to support a President who otherwise seems to be morally deficient in a lot of ways. And it wasn’t until the impeachment hearings that it became clear to me that that argument does not hold water anymore. We have gotten to a point where the deficiencies are so dangerous to the health of our nation, to the office of the Presidency, to the health and reputation of the evangelical church, and, ultimately, to the one we claim ultimate allegiance—to the reputation of Jesus Christ. I felt that something had clicked in me listening to those hearings. There was an unambiguous, clear, and single instance in which the President of the United States used his power to try to coerce a head of state to harass one of his political opponents. It is not only a violation of the Constitution, it is a moral violation.
Just to clarify about religious freedom: he has also proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country.
I am not going to defend his track record in any area in particular. He has huge blind spots when it comes to Muslims. I think Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world today—and there are sectors of the United States where they are increasingly being disenfranchised, in areas that I think are unfair and unjust, and in those areas I think he has done a better-than-average job with.
Did the staff agree with you?
Hard to say. We don’t make decisions on what goes on the editorial page, or an editorial online, as a group. I am responsible for making those calls and crafting those editorials. Of course, I get input from my editorial director. I will check with the president of the company, who in this instance asked some very good questions and helped me to make the editorial even better. I would say most people in the office are sympathetic, more or less, but I think we have some supporters of Trump in the office. But it should be clear that this represents the opinion of the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today.
You write, “Whether Mr. Trump should be removed from office by the Senate or by popular vote next election—that is a matter of prudential judgment. That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.” What exactly is a “matter of prudential judgment?”
A matter of prudential judgment is one on which, as Christians, we would say the Bible doesn’t give clear guidance, or there is nothing we can extract from the Bible to give us clear guidance, and Christians of good will will disagree about it. So they will have to use prudential judgment, they will have to use their wisdom to figure out the best way forward. A classic example is that everybody is against poverty, but is the best way to solve poverty by encouraging a welfare state or by increasing the number of small business? That is prudential judgment. There are no real moral qualities of that argument.
Are you saying that whether Trump should be President is something that the Bible doesn’t give guidance on, or that the way that his Presidency should end—with impeachment and removal or an election—is something the Bible doesn’t have an opinion on?
Certainly the latter. I would say even that, in some sense, the very argument that we have crossed a line and he is now unfit to be President of the United States is, in the end, a prudential judgment. Someone might draw a line in a different place. I tried to make the argument more than prudential, and ground it in Christian convictions about what a human being is about, what they should stand for morally. In fact, a good friend, whose intellect I deeply respect, and who is no fan of Trump, said, “Great article. I don’t think we need to go that far.” Great. Fine.
Is there anything ironic or paradoxical about deciding what is and isn’t a prudential judgment?
I don’t know about ironic or paradoxical, but I think Christians especially are tempted to turn many prudential judgments into moral precepts that go way beyond the evidence available. I think we are wiser to recognize that many things we have to do in life are grounded in prudential judgments. Now, hopefully, they will be well informed by the Christian tradition and the Bible. I don’t think there is anything ironic, it is just difficult. It is a difficult business, this life, and when you get into an area as complex as politics, it is even more difficult. It is one of the reasons I think we should have more humility with one another.
Do you see any danger in saying political matters are about “loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments”?
That’s an interesting question. That’s a good question. I don’t think I was saying that. I see how you could interpret it to say that.
I will just read you the quote: “That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.”
Yeah, so, I guess what I am trying to refute there is the notion, and it’s a criticism I have got, that I am just siding with the Democrats: “You are being a partisan trying to get rid of Donald Trump because you are liberal.” And what I am trying to say is that I am trying to take the argument above that. There is a realm of argument above partisan politics that has to do with our Creator, and the ethical commands he gives us to live by.
But is there some danger in saying things are about loyalty to the Creator?
If you are still supportive of Donald Trump, then you are not being loyal to the Creator. Yes, that’s exactly what it implies. And that’s a rhetorical move. I will grant that. But it’s what I believe. I believe we have moved to the point where it’s no longer an argument of prudential judgment. I think we have moved to an argument of a higher plane now.
Have you spoken with the Graham family? Did you talk to the Reverend Graham, before his death, about Trump or politics?
No. Franklin is correct that Billy Graham hadn’t had a direct influence with the magazine for a few decades before his death. When Franklin says his father would vote for Trump, everything I know about Dr. Graham post-Nixon era, when he found himself foolishly supporting a man he found morally reprehensible in the end—
And found himself making anti-Semitic remarks, too.
Yeah. He tended to shy away from political involvement, political support of candidates, and it’s just hard for me to imagine he would have lent his support to a candidate like Trump. That’s a matter of my imagination; it’s hard for me to imagine it. [Laughs.] I have no evidence to suggest that is, in fact, the case.
You write, “Let’s grant this to the president: The Democrats have had it out for him from day one, and therefore nearly everything they do is under a cloud of partisan suspicion. This has led many to suspect not only motives but facts in these recent impeachment hearings. And, no, Mr. Trump did not have a serious opportunity to offer his side of the story in the House hearings on impeachment.” Do you really feel that the President hasn’t been able to offer his case? He has decided against coöperating with Congress.
That’s fair. And I understand the House doesn’t have a legal obligation to call him to the witness stand or whatever. What I am trying to respond to there is that when I talk to my conservative religious friends, and say it seems pretty clear to me that he violated the Constitution, they say, “This is just a partisan Democratic attack. And the Democrats are all making this up because they hate him.” There is no question that, probably, for many Democrats, the effort to impeach him is driven by a deep animosity. I recognize the political realities, but something has been revealed in spite of those motives. Something true has been discovered. No matter what the mode of getting there was, it is really true: he is objectively violating the Constitution.
It felt to me as if you were signalling to your readers that you know many of them get news that is extremely suspicious of Democrats generally. Is that correct, and is their access to good information something that concerns you?
You would have to make a distinction between our readers and evangelicals in general. The far right and the far left are not all that interested in the magazine, for different reasons. We are kind of a centrist magazine. I am center-right myself. I think that they do a pretty good job of trying to find a variety of news sources to understand the world. I am convinced by the research that people on the far right, and I think on the far left as well, limit the amount of sources that they receive information from. I know anecdotally from friends that they pretty much watch Fox News, and that is the gospel truth to them, and that is unfortunate. I will be charitable enough to say Fox News reports things that are true and accurate, but there are other sites that report things that are true and accurate that Fox News will never cover, and we need to be reading them as well. [Laughs.]
But you think Fox should be part of a news watcher’s diet?
Yeah, I don’t think it’s harmful to listen to what conservatives are thinking. I don’t think we should be afraid of the conservative right, even the far right. I read socialist magazines. I read super conservative magazines. America is an amazing place.
You are an editor. I think it’s easier for people of our profession to say they read from all sources. But if I started reading medical journals, and some of them were peddling fake cures, I wouldn’t know what I was reading.
That’s a fair comment. I don’t disagree with that. That’s one of the reasons why an editor has huge responsibility. I can’t be upset that everybody doesn’t read a variety of journals. I can help them by saying, “Here is something I have been reading lately.”
You mentioned that your readers or other evangelicals feel that a lot of people just hate the President, and are thus skeptical of what they are hearing. I am curious what you think an appropriate way to feel about the President is. This is someone who makes fun of disabled people, who admits to grabbing women against their will, who is known for racist and misogynistic comments, who seems to delight in cruelty and making fun of people’s weight or appearance, aside from politics.
Just as a human being, I feel very sad when I hear him say things like that. It shows he is a deeply troubled and deeply flawed human being. One of the things I recognize in some of his comments are some of my own prejudices and biases. When they go on and on, and they happen to the depth and degree that they happen with Mr. Trump, it’s especially troubling. We do have to stand in judgment about whether he is fit for office; I don’t think that means we have to be judgmental. No matter the human being we are talking about, we are all subject to these weaknesses and flaws and biases and prejudices. Our best stance is a compassionate sadness, not excusing, but at the same time making decisions that will move us forward and if possible, redeem the person and the situation.
What specifically did you mean when you said you noticed he had some of the same prejudices and biases that you did?
Oh, I mean, I think anybody who says they don’t have biases that come forth about race and other things is lying to themselves. I think human beings are inherently biased and prejudiced, and we work our whole lives trying not to be that way. It’s like greed. If anybody denies that they are dealing with greed or lust or some of the other deadly sins, they are just lying to themselves. But one hopes that a mature human being will recognize them when it happens, and repent or try to do something different, or at least not act on it. I have been in many situations where I had a prejudicial thought about a young man whose pants were hanging low, and I had an immediate negative reaction to who he is. It’s at that point that I bend over backward to not act that way! [Laughs.] I can’t deny it is within me.
I don’t disagree that we have biases we should try to fight, but I also think human beings are products of their environments, and maybe this gets back to our conversation about Fox News or what people are taking in. I think there are powerful forces in society that want to cultivate those bad things that may be within us, and it’s our job to fight those sources, too.
Exactly. So that would be one reason why I think Trump is no longer fit for office. He is inculcating attitudes that are destructive to the health of society.