Christianity Today Gone Viral

By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University

Seemingly out of nowhere, Christianity Today stepped into the political fray. They have, to this point, stayed largely on the sidelines of the political debate. There are good reasons for this primarily because their core constituency is white evangelicals, a group who not only voted for Donald Trump in overwhelming numbers in the 2016 but have continued to approve of his job performance.

In an editorial written by outgoing editor, Mark Galli, Christianity Today argues that Donald Trump should be removed from the office of the President. Galli’s rationale is deeply rooted in a theological argument. Galli believes that the president, “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.” Christianity Today was also quick to note that they did the same thing during the Clinton impeachment trial in 1998, detailing his moral failing with the only appropriate response to be removed from office.

It went viral and I wanted to try to grab an accurate picture of what exactly that looked like on Twitter. So, I started scraping. The free API offered by Twitter only allows me to grab the last 18,000 tweets. When I did my first scrape the velocity of tweeting was fairly low. I thought I was safe to not scrape again for another hour or two. I underestimated how fast things would ramp up. That’s why there’s a missing piece of the graph below. However, the absolute volume of tweets comes through loud and clear.

There were two minutes in the scrape where the article was tweeted at least 700 times. There were thirteen minutes when it was tweeted more than 600 times. The peak tweeting came through between 6:00pm and 6:30pm central time. But, there was an average of 400 tweets per minute for nearly two hours during the early evening of December 19th. And that doesn’t even include all the replies to tweets about the article or mentions of Christianity Today more generally.

So, what did these tens of millions of tweets say? It’s hard to parse nearly 90,000 of them in any other way than through natural language processing. I took a sentiment dictionary (afinn) which scores many words in the English language on a scale of -5 (very negative) to +5 (very positive). Then I cleaned up the tweets and matched them to words in the afinn lexicon. I calculated the total positive sentiment score, the total negative sentiment score, then the sum total of both of them.

As the velocity of tweets increased, so did the positive and negative sentiment of the terms being used. However, notice the gray line, which represents the overall word sentiment. Here we can ascertain that the sentiment, by and large, was tepidly positive. This stayed relatively consistent regardless of how many tweets were being sent per minute. However, it’s crucial to note that the overall sentiment began to move back toward zero as the evening wore on. This is some evidence that more negative voices were entering the discussion about the article.

To give a sense of those positive and negative terms being used, I did a quick count of the top 25 words of each sentiment. Most telling is that the top two negative terms, “lost” and “confused” are lifted directly from the article. Galli writes that Trump is, “a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.” Many of the other terms that show up in this list were also taken directly from Galli’s prose including “failure” and “danger.” However, “shocked” is one that was typically used as a reaction to this editorial. Many users were shocked that CT would take such a controversial stand.

What about the positive terms? Many of these did not come directly from the Christianity Today editorial. Over 12,000 times members of Twitter used the term “support.” Oftentimes that was used in the context of “I support Christianity Today…” Another term in this vein is “wow,” expressing astonishment that Christianity Today would publish such an editorial.

The debate among scholars of American Chrisitanity on Twitter seems to center around what kind of impact that this will have on the support of Donald Trump by white evangelicals. I look at the data about evangelicals voting behavior, and I think that for almost all evangelicals there is no changing their minds. They are more committed to Trump now than they were before he was impeached. And, as Paul Djupe clearly shows with the data – evangelicals are not changing on Donald Trump – he’s their guy, for good or for ill. Persecution is part of the ethos of white evangelical Christianity. What the House of Representatives did was ignite this narrative yesterday, and what CT did today was just throw another log on the fire. But, symbols still matter. Sometimes, we do things for posterity. Maybe that’s the only thing Christianity Today can do at a time like this.

Ryan P. Burge teaches at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. The syntax for this post can be found here.

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