When Christianity Today published an editorial calling for the removal of President Trump from office, the media seized on the article, pointing to it as proof of a materializing crack in a demographic often painted as Trump’s most loyal base of support.
But, according to several prominent evangelicals who have long been critical of Trump, Christianity Today’s editorial, and the subsequent fallout, was the moment at which a conflict within the evangelical community that had been bubbling up for at least three years — and, according to some, for decades — burst into the open.
“This is ultimately about a community deciding, and really wrestling with whether it’s more committed to these cultural values that have been associated with the faith or the fundamental values of the faith itself,” evangelical author and pastor Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove told TPM Friday.
The anti-Trump faction of the evangelical community has been active since the early days of the Republican primaries, evangelical leaders said. But impeachment was the catalyst that encouraged this section of the population to speak out before 2020.
The controversy of the last week “certainly reveals the turbulent waters of white evangelicalism in the U.S.” Shane Claiborne, an evangelical author who founded the activist group Red Letter Christians, told TPM.
“It’s been said that Donald Trump didn’t change America, he revealed America and I think the exact same thing is true of the evangelical church,” he continued. “Donald Trump didn’t change evangelicalism, but he certainly revealed it and he surfaced some really, really troubling things. For folks like me you go, ‘man, the same people that led me to Jesus have led us to Donald Trump.’ To me, that’s really problematic.”
An Evangelical ‘Civil War’
But first, a recap of the last week: On Dec. 20, Christianity Today’s retiring editor-in-chief Mark Galli published an editorial that was starkly critical of Trump — calling him a “near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused” — but also outlined constitutional issues with Trump’s Ukraine pressure scheme. Galli argued that it was time for the publication to take a stand in favor of impeachment, just like it did when former President Bill Clinton was being impeached. He concluded that Trump should be removed from office, either through impeachment or at the polls in November 2020.
The editorial was the first time a prominent evangelical publication parted ways with Trump in a substantial way, and it made waves far beyond the evangelical community.
President Trump himself responded almost immediately, deriding the publication as “far left.” His high-profile evangelical allies followed suit. More than 200 top evangelicals — including Liberty University President Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham’s son Franklin Graham — signed a letter that was published in a rival publication, the Christian Post, chastising Christianity Today for its stance and reaffirming their support for Trump. The next day the Christian Post published its own version of an impeachment editorial, throwing all of its weight behind the President and criticizing Christianity Today for what many saw as a betrayal of the community’s core policy values. Cable news seized on the messy, public back-and-forth between two widely respected publications as proof of a crack in Trump’s base, with some describing the feud as a “civil war” within the evangelical community.
Now, a week after Galli’s editorial, the administration is still managing the fallout. Trump even ditched his traditional Christmas Eve service and instead attended holiday festivities at an evangelical church in West Palm Beach. Marc Short, Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, pointed out that evangelicals are not “monolithic in their political viewpoints” while defending the President on Meet The Press. The shift in tone was notable for an administration that’s cast white evangelicals as a wholly united front loyal to this President.
“They got spooked and I think they realized, ‘we don’t have a handle on the many factions,'” evangelical author and radio host Doug Pagitt told TPM this week.
“You know you’re in trouble when your argument now is, ‘I don’t have all the evangelicals. We just have some and some are breaking off,'” Pagitt continued. “That’s the beginning of a collapse, and that’s something some of us have been saying all along.”
The Right Moment To Speak Out
Pagitt has spent the years since Trump’s election running a group called Vote Common Good. It’s goal is, in part, to unglue white evangelicals from their decades-old support of the Republican Party.
Along with other progressive evangelical organizations like the Red Letter Christians and Sojourners, Pagitt intended to roll out a declaration of a united front in the fall of 2020 and call on other evangelicals to withdraw their support for Trump.
But as impeachment ground its way to the forefront of the national conversation this fall, there were discussions within their faction of the white evangelical community about speaking out against Trump sooner.
“It feels to a lot of us that the things we were going to say come November 2020 felt like they needed to be said here in December,” Pagitt said. “Impeachment feels like it’s an issue of national crisis, whereas election just feels like it’s part of the natural cycle.”
On the day after Christmas, as the media firestorm around Galli’s editorial continued, Red Letter Christians launched its own petition calling for Trump’s removal from office. The group has become increasingly respected in the evangelical world in the past two years and gained national attention in May 2018 when Liberty University’s public safety department threatened to arrest Claiborne, the group’s founder, if he set foot on campus to speak at a scheduled revival service.
Along with Claiborne, the Dec. 26 pro-impeachment petition was signed by several evangelical heavyweights, including Tony Campolo, who served as former President Clinton’s spiritual adviser (notably throughout his impeachment), and William Barber II, an evangelical pastor and the president of the North Carolina NAACP.
A Conflict Decades In The Making
But the rift on display this week, in all it’s Trump-focused glory, is bigger than the President who’s evoked widespread moral dissonance for evangelical voters. Evangelical leaders TPM spoke with said it’s also a reaction to the decades-long effort to tie evangelical Christian voters to Republican politics.
Since at least the 1970s, Republican operatives have worked to use evangelical language to to try to unify white Christian voters around their agenda, said evangelical author Wilson-Hartgrove, who also signed onto the pro-impeachment petition.
Part of the Republican Party’s Nixon-era Southern strategy — which also weaponized racial dogwhistles to recruit white Southerners in the wake of the Voting Rights Acts and the Immigration and Nationalization Act — the Republican Party’s effort to court southern white Christians has been a point of tension within the evangelical community for years.
The effort, coordinated by preachers, political operatives and conservative donors, sought to mobilize voters around “pro-family” values, most notably evangelicals’ opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
In a recent book, Wilson-Hartgrove credited that movement with fomenting an all-out culture war in the last decade by painting America as a country in moral decline that needed a fighter willing to step up and take America back.
“Trump became a champion of that agenda as a fighter, somebody who was willing to be more extreme than your average Republican in defending that,” he said.
But that lead many evangelicals to feel conflicted, Wilson-Hartgrove said.
“His crassness exposes the reality of what is really going on and that’s forced a lot of Christians, white Christians, who are willing to just go along with it, to have to make a decision.”
It’s good, said Wilson-Hartgrove, for both sides of this community to debate their differences, forcing the Jerry Falwells and the Franklin Grahams and the Rick Perrys of the world to defend their beliefs that Trump is the “chosen one” out in the public sphere.