President Donald Trump signs a Bible as he greets people at Providence Baptist Church in Smiths Station, Ala., Friday, March 8, 2019, during a tour of areas where tornadoes killed 23 people in Lee County, Ala.
Carolyn Kaster/AP Photos

The problem with Trump’s pushback against Christianity Today

Christianity Today, one of the nation’s leading evangelical publications, published an editorial in 1998 calling on Bill Clinton’s resignation. In the midst of the Democratic president’s impeachment scandal, the magazine argued, “Unsavory dealings and immoral acts by the President and those close to him have rendered this administration morally unable to lead.”

Two decades later, Christianity Today is making a point to remain consistent. The magazine’s latest editorial, written by Mark Galli, the publication’s editor in chief, is pretty brutal toward Donald Trump.

[T]he facts in this instance are unambiguous: 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.

The reason many are not shocked about this is that this president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone – with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders – is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.

It’s worth noting for context that Mark Galli recently announced his retirement, and his last day at Christianity Today is two weeks from today. This matters insofar as the magazine’s editor may feel a greater sense of freedom, given his looming departure, to be even more candid in his assessments.

Nevertheless, what struck me as notable about the editorial, in addition to its striking conclusions, was Trump’s response. Plenty of publications, including the editorial boards of many of the nation’s leading daily newspapers, have run pieces in recent weeks calling for the president’s impeachment and ouster, but all have gone ignored by the Republican.

This one, however, prompted an angry Twitter response.

“A far left magazine, or very ‘progressive,’ as some would call it, which has been doing poorly and hasn’t been involved with the Billy Graham family for many years, Christianity Today, knows nothing about reading a perfect transcript of a routine phone call and would rather have a Radical Left nonbeliever, who wants to take your religion & your guns, than Donald Trump as your President,” he wrote. “No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close. You’ll not get anything from those Dems on stage. I won’t be reading ET again!”

There was, to be sure, an enormous amount of nonsense packed into the pair of presidential tweets. Christianity Today, for example, is not, and has never been, a “far-left” publication. What’s more, Trump’s impeachment was about more than the July 25 call, which was not at all “perfect.” There are also no “radical” atheists, determined to take away anyone’s religion, running for the White House, and even if there were, if the president were removed from office, his replacement would be Mike Pence.

But this was the line that stood out for me: “No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close.”

Note, at no point in Trump’s response did he make any effort to defend his morality, character, or sense of right and wrong. Rather, the Republican’s instinct, once again, was to turn to a transactional model: he’s taken steps to make evangelical Christians happy, so he expects evangelical Christian publications to overlook his corruption – moral, political, legal, or otherwise.

It’s effectively the same as the president’s sudden offensive against the Dingell family: Trump believes he struck a quid pro quo, and he’s outraged by his partner’s willingness to break the perceived agreement. The religious right movement made the bargain – politically active Christian conservative leaders have already said they’ll turn a blind eye to the president paying hush money to porn stars, for example, in exchange for action on their wish list – and Trump seems annoyed by the evangelical magazine’s reluctance to follow suit.

As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent put it, “In an unwittingly self-revealing moment, Trump responded to the magazine’s indictment of his profound moral failings with an argument that is thoroughly transactional and megalomaniacal: How dare you criticize me, after all the power I’ve granted to your movement? You’re breaking our deal, and now you’re dead to me.”

Exactly. The president seems to believe he’s bought the fealty of certain constituencies, and when he learns otherwise, he lashes out angrily.

Unfortunately for Trump, however, in this case, he’s helped prove his critic correct. The Christianity Today editorial characterized the president as a deeply flawed man who is “morally lost and confused.” His response was practically a confession that the assessment is true.