The decision by Christianity Today to publish an editorial describing President Donald Trump as “immoral” and calling for his removal drew immediate rebuke from the president himself, who called the outlet “a far left magazine.” The piece drew nearly 3 million unique visitors to the magazine’s website and became the talk of TV news shows over the weekend.
At the same time, the longtime centrist-right evangelical magazine saw a rush of canceled subscriptions – and an even greater wave of new subscribers, magazine President Timothy Dalrymple said. Both he and the author of the editorial, retiring editor in chief Mark Galli, could also face personal and professional consequences, according to interviews with several other conservative Christian leaders and writers who in the past have spoken out critically about Trump.
They described losing book sales, conference attendees, donors, church members and relationships.
Journalist Napp Nazworth, who has worked for the Christian Post website since 2011, said he quit his job Monday because the evangelical website was planning to publish a pro-Trump editorial that would slam Christianity Today. Nazworth, who sits on the editorial board as politics editor, said the website has sought to represent both sides and published both pro- and anti-Trump stories.
“I never got the gist they were gung-ho Trumpian types,” Nazworth said. “Everything has escalated with the Christianity Today editorial.”
Nazworth, who has been critical of Trump and suggested leaders who supported him have “traded their moral authority,” said he doesn’t know what he will do next.
“I said, if you post this, you’re saying, you’re now on team Trump,” he said. He said he was told that’s what the news outlet wanted to do.
“I’m just shocked that they would go this path,” he said, adding that even though he felt “forced” to make the decision to quit, the parting was a mutual agreement between him and the outlet.
Since the editorial, many Trump supporters have decried Christianity Today as irrelevant and even “elite.” On Sunday, 200 evangelical leaders and other Trump supporters issued a letter slamming the publication. It was signed by many on the president’s evangelical advisory committee, pastors of Pentecostal and Southern Baptist churches, and Christian musicians such as Brian and Jenn Johnson and Michael Tait. Other evangelical leaders were planning a letter in support of the magazine that will come out Tuesday.
Dalrymple said Monday that the magazine has lost 2,000 subscriptions but gained 5,000, with the latter coming from a younger, more diverse and more global audience.
“We don’t like to lose anyone,” he said. “We need to stay in conversation with one another even when we disagree.”
Dalrymple, who wrote a piece Sunday about the editorial, said editors have received an “enormous outpouring of notes and messages speaking in deeply emotional terms about their gratitude.”
“Clearly, there was a profound yearning for some evangelical institution or leader to stand up and say these things,” Dalrymple said. “One of the most consistent phrases was ‘stay strong.’ People had rallied to the flag, and they were afraid we would abandon them, afraid we’d buckle under the pressure and bend the knee, and then their disillusionment would be even worse than before.”
Bible teacher Beth Moore tweeted that what Christianity Today did was “costly” for both Galli and the magazine.
“The ramifications are legit,” she wrote. “It would be so much easier to keep your mouth shut. He could’ve just gone on down the road safe and sound. That’s why my hat’s off to him.”
Even the children and grandchildren of the late evangelist Billy Graham, who founded Christianity Today, appear divided over the editorial on social media.
Exit polls from the 2016 election showed that 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. An NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll from this month found that 75 percent of white evangelicals approved of Trump, compared with 42 percent of Americans overall.
Among the small number of prominent evangelical leaders who have openly opposed Trump, many, like Galli, are retired or planning to retire soon. The group includes Minnesota pastor John Piper, who has called the president “unqualified,” and Texas pastor Max Lucado, who said in 2016 that Trump didn’t pass a “decency test.” Spokespeople for Piper and Lucado said they were not available Monday.
Doug Birdsall, an evangelical leader who gathered a group of influential institutional leaders at Wheaton College last year to discuss the Trump era’s impact on the evangelical movement, said his decision to hold the event has affected him personally. Birdsall, who is honorary chair of Lausanne, an international movement of evangelicals that was started by Billy Graham, raised $21 million for a gathering of evangelicals in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010 for “a congress on reconciliation.” Now, he said, many of those donors are alienated from him. He said he has had to self-fund some ministry work he’s doing using $400,000 in savings and home equity.
“I think people have been waiting for someone of [Christianity Today’s] stature to say something,” Birdsall said. “I think Mark’s piece inspires others to be courageous.”
Greg Thornbury, a Trump critic and the former president of the King’s College, a small Christian college in Manhattan, said he left the school after Trump’s election in part so he could avoid having to interact with major funders who were also major supporters of the president.
“I was raising $10 million a year. Who do you go to?” he said. “Beggars can’t be choosers. It’s making payroll. It’s a hostage situation.”
Mae Cannon, who has worked for major evangelical organizations like World Vision and megachurch Willow Creek and consulted for Compassion International, said that many institutional leaders fear that their organizations could lose support if they criticize Trump.
“The cost for some of these of speaking out would be losing millions of dollars of donors,” she said. “The organizations could crumble. Do you compromise the mission of an organization to stand up for a moral issue?”
Other high-profile evangelicals spoke of the cost of opposing Trump in the past.
“The cost of this is incalculable,” said Nancy French, who has ghostwritten for conservatives, including former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and television personality Sean Lowe.
In 2016, she wrote about being a sexual abuse survivor, questioning how the evangelical community could continue to support Trump after hearing him boast of sexual impropriety on the “Access Hollywood” tapes before he was elected.
Her family has faced costs occupationally, financially and socially, she said. They received threats from white nationalists, after which she purchased a gun and took courses in how to use it. When they lived in rural Tennessee, she said, they were confronted in their Presbyterian Church in America congregation for speaking against Trump. She now declines opportunities to write books with authors affiliated with Trump and has turned more to writing fiction.
“People were emboldened after Trump was elected,” she said. “It feels very lonely.”
Evangelical pastor Tim Keller, who was formerly the head pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, said that pastors are supposed to avoid preaching opinion and focus on scripture.
“The Bible says we must love and care for the poor – and I will preach that with all my heart – but it doesn’t tell me what kind of tax structure and other social policies would be the best way to get to that place,” he said in an email. “This is the reason that most of us preachers in my tradition are so hesitant to speak publicly on political matters and give the impression that I have a biblical text somewhere that tells all Christians who to vote for.”
Many evangelicals have felt that Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who was critical of Trump during his campaign, has been much quieter and since 2016 – perhaps because he knows that Southern Baptists heavily support the president. Before the election, Trump tweeted that Moore was “A nasty guy with no heart!”
On Monday, Moore said that he’s tried to have the same posture toward Trump that he did with Presidents Obama and Bush, critiquing him on issues like family-child separation at the border and various immigration policies while praising him on policy changes that could restrict LGBT adoptions. He said that Christianity Today was doing what magazines do, which is to put issues on the table and let people discuss them.
“I think we should listen to one another and not be at each other’s throats,” Moore said. “People have disagreed and yet don’t view one another as existential threats.”
Johnnie Moore, who does consulting and public relations for several of Trump’s evangelical supporters, said the Christianity Today piece provoked a lot of conversation among influential pastors. Moore, who helped circulate the letter opposing CT, called it a “cultural moment” but said he didn’t think it represented a larger evangelical defection from Trump.
“This is not a game-changing moment,” he said. “It was a grand gesture of preaching to the choir, in my opinion.”
The Rev. A.R. Bernard, a black pastor in Brooklyn, N.Y., who left Trump’s evangelical advisory council in 2017, commended Christianity Today for publishing the editorial, even though he said he did not think there was enough evidence to justify removing Trump at this point.
Many evangelicals, Bernard said, have benefited from their association with the president and fear him at the same time.
“They’re afraid he’s going to remove them from the table of power and shame them,” he said.
“We have a new category of evangelicals: Trump evangelicals,” he said. “They’ve been given a platform in ways that have not been ordinarily raised. They’ve become the image of evangelicalism, and they’re not.”