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OPINION

Christianity Today: Defender of the faith

By NANCY FRENCH | Special to The Washington Post | Published: December 23, 2019

Mark Galli is retiring in January from his position as editor in chief of Christianity Today, a publication founded by the late evangelist Billy Graham. On Thursday, he decided to go out with a bang by expressing an unpopular sentiment among much of the religious right in an op-ed titled “Trump Should Be Removed from Office,” which took off on social media, briefly caused the magazine’s website to crash and drew this lamentably predictable response from the president:

“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,” Trump said in a series of tweets. “No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close.”

Trump’s defenders are sure to chalk this up as just one more example that shows he is a “counterpuncher,” someone who always “hits back” when attacked. But the op-ed isn’t an attack — Galli concedes that the debate over impeaching and removing Trump is rife with partisanship, and he grants that reasonable minds can differ about whether impeachment or an election should decide Trump’s political fate. Rather, he is defending Christianity after years of its adherents’ moral compromises in the realm of politics.

He is clear that he will not immediately change minds and might lose readers: a December NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll found that 80% of white evangelical Christians oppose the Senate removing Trump from office, compared to 49% of the public overall. But on Friday, Galli explained his real mission: “As a Christian,” he told CNN’s John Berman, “I like to think of myself as a person who has given my ultimate loyalty to Jesus Christ and the gospel he’s called us to proclaim.”

Christians are taught at an early age that earthly desires, power, prominence and even life itself are less important than obeying God. One commonly taught Bible story deals with how God’s people wrongly worshipped the idol Baal instead of the true God. “How long will you waver between two opinions?” a flummoxed prophet Elijah asked in 1 Kings 18:21. “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” Galli, fed up with the way many Christians have treated Trump like a demigod instead of a fallible human, displays some of the same consternation.

He wrote: “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.”

As evidence, he noted that Christianity Today has consistently encouraged its readers to prioritize the eternal — no matter the president and regardless of party affiliation — citing its 1974 editorial describing President Richard Nixon as a “person who has failed gravely to live up to the moral demands of our Judeo-Christian heritage” and its 1998 editorial calling Bill Clinton a president who operated “several commandments short of a decalogue.”

Galli described Trump’s use of political power “to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents” as not just unconstitutional but also “profoundly immoral.” And he went on to say 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.”

Too many evangelicals, Galli said, have taken a transactional approach to Trump, and they “have pointed to his Supreme Court nominees, his defense of religious liberty, and his stewardship of the economy, among other things, as achievements that justify their support.” He asked: “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?”

And he anticipated that Trump’s defenders, such as Billy Graham’s son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, would counter that “all past presidents and as each one of us are” guilty of sin. But, Galli stressed, “none of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.” The message, unmistakably, is that impeachment, and the Ukraine controversy that precipitated it, is a byproduct of a more profound failing. One that, as a Christian, Galli can no longer abide, and that he sees as tainting Christians and their faith so long as they acquiesce to Trump’s leadership.

A Christianity dependent on Trump is a weak faith, indeed.

Christianity has endured and flourished for two millennia, often against unimaginable persecution. When a faith is sustained by God, it has no need to compromise its witness in service of an adulterous, mendacious reality TV star.

In Romans 11:4, the apostle Paul describes those who “have not bowed the knee to Baal” as God’s chosen remnant. In Christianity Today, Galli is asking Christians to join that remnant now to ensure that Christianity is no longer compromised for political expediency.

“When Christians of any stripe support a cause that strikes me as manifestly immoral,” he told CNN, “it does damage to the cause that I’ve given my life to. That’s one part of the equation that all Christians, especially my brothers and sisters in the evangelical world, need to think about more seriously and more deeply.”

Nancy French is a five-time New York Times best-selling author.

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