The Charge of the Evangelical Light Brigade: The Christianity Today Editorial

By Paul A. Djupe

At this point in Trump’s term in office, no one expects an evangelical to step out. So when Christianity Today’s (CT) editor in chief Mark Galli offered an editorial that “Trump Should be Removed from Office”, the world took note. As Ryan Burge finds, the Twitter firehose was fully open for a time and major news outlets have coverage today (NYT, WP, Fox, CNN, Atlantic, etc. – everyone is covering it and most are just presenting quotes from the text). While CT has a small circulation of 130k, it is sure magnified today.

Let me offer a few observations about this editorial based on prior work that gets at the question I think we all have – will it make a difference?

Galli has to walk a very tight line in this editorial. In order to not immediately lose the Trump supporter (which he lost with the title), he concedes as many points of the president’s supporters as possible, while portraying CT as above the fray. Regarding this latter point, one argument gave me pause:

We have reserved judgment on Mr. Trump for years now. Some have criticized us for our reserve. But when it comes to condemning the behavior of another, patient charity must come first. So we have done our best to give evangelical Trump supporters their due, to try to understand their point of view, to see the prudential nature of so many political decisions they have made regarding Mr. Trump.

I was surprised by this because I remember their editorial from executive editor Andy Crouch on October 10, 2016: Speak Truth To Trump. Crouch dispels Galli’s future agnosticism about Trump, calling out “Evangelicals, of all people, should not be silent about Donald Trump’s blatant immorality.” And, “We are especially not indifferent when the gospel is at stake.” You can feel the heat radiate from his description of Trump in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape revelation: “[T]here is hardly any public person in America today who has more exemplified the “earthly nature” (“flesh” in the King James and the literal Greek) that Paul urges the Colossians to shed: “sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry” (3:5). This is an incredibly apt summary of Trump’s life to date.”

We thought that this editorial was so strong and from a source with such unimpeachable evangelical credentials – it was founded by Rev. Billy Graham after all – that we needed to see how evangelicals reacted to it. Therefore in the week before the election, Brian Calfano and I included a long snippet of the editorial in a survey to white Christians. There is a detailed examination of this experiment in the first chapter of The Evangelical Crackup? The Future of the Evangelical-Republican Coalition. Despite being a strident statement, white Christians were essentially locked in to their views at this point and showed very little movement.

In that chapter, Calfano and I also examined evangelical perceptions of whether various evangelical leaders supported Trump. They knew where prominent evangelical Republicans (like Mike Huckabee) stood, but on many of the others (e.g., Tony Perkins, Russell Moore, Michael Gerson) they were effectively guessing. Our conclusion was that “evangelicals were on their own in the 2016 election.”

The point is that it would take a groundswell of CT-like statements to reach a broad swath of evangelicals. This is highly unlikely for a reason evangelical author Ed Cyzewski tweeted:

I explored this very thing regarding Trump with other survey data gathered in the run up to the 2016 election in a piece that appeared on the Monkey Cage blog (with very fine coauthors Amanda Friesen, Anand Sokhey, and Andy Lewis). Earlier in the campaign when views were not quite so locked down, an experiment with another strongly worded editorial (this time from Napp Nazworth in the Christian Post) showed movement among evangelicals. Exposure to the statement caused feelings toward Trump to move a bit colder, though not nearly enough to change a vote choice.

But outside of the experimental context, were evangelical clergy speaking out about Trump in the same prophetic manner? Just 9 percent of evangelicals reported hearing their clergy mention Trump and just 6 percent say they mentioned Clinton in late September. By the week before the election, the number hearing about Trump had swelled to 23 percent among evangelicals. But there was little prophetic voice among them that would pair well with the brutal honesty of Andy Crouch’s editorial in CT. Those evangelical clergy who were heard addressing Trump were perceived to be more supportive of him, not less. With so many supporters in the pews, can you blame them for a reticence to engage?

I’d like to point out one other reason that the current CT editorial is unlikely to resonate with evangelicals – they have changed their views of morality in order to support Trump. Robby Jones of PRRI found that evangelicals flipped in their views that an elected official who commits an immoral act can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in public and professional life, going from 30 percent agreement in 2011 to 72 percent in 2016 when Trump headed the Republican ticket. If so many are willing to change their values for Trump, then an appeal to those supposed core values is unlikely to resonate.

If there was no groundswell around Christianity Today in the run up to the 2016 election, it is too late in the day for there to be one now. It is too easy to stay quiet. It is too easy to skirt the moral quandary at the core of Trump’s Ukraine actions. It is too easy to focus on maintaining the flock, especially when friends and families are falling away from each other over partisan differences. The flock is likely to stick to their partisan guns, for which they’ve changed their moral calculus. And a not insignificant number of them believe Trump is anointed by God. For these reasons, the needle is unlikely to move.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (check out his posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.

Note. The title refers to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” about a doomed charge against Russian forces in the Crimean War. A few verses:

Half a league, half a league,

 

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!” he said.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

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