People have asked about my take on the news du jour—that Christianity Today magazine called for the impeachment of Mr. Trump. As I write, the story is on the front page of the New York Times, all over cable news, and—surprisingly to me and perhaps important—on the second page of my local newspaper in Maryville, Tennessee. I am somewhat of an odd bird among people in my networks, in that I know this magazine well, but without being an actual member of the evangelical “tribe.” So perhaps my reflections are throwing good energy after bad, and maybe they will wash away in the flood of punditry raging around us, but nevertheless here they are.
I present them in the form in which they first gushed from my fingers, as a riff in a string of letters that I write, on and off, to Lamar Alexander. He is a senator who agrees with me about little. Still I write him because he is smart enough to realize—and probably lives with cognitive dissonance because he realizes—that he could aspire to the integrity of a leader like John McCain, but instead is living down to the degrading example of Trump’s lapdog and enabler Mitch McConnell. CT’s editorial should matter to people like him, and by extension to anyone affected by their decisions.
Dear Senator Alexander,
I have mixed feelings about the impeachment debate, since its two paltry charges are such a small tip of the iceberg of Mr. Trump’s crimes and misdemeanors. I assume you are smart enough to understand this. So I ask you to consider your conscience, your oath of office, and the future of our children as you decide whether you can do the right thing.
As you do this, I ask you to consider the Christianity Today (CT) editorial that is gaining its ten minutes of fame in today’s news cycle for calling Mr. Trump “grossly immoral” and a threat to “reputation of our country…[and] both the spirit and the future of our people.”
Throughout my career as university professor, I have followed the type of middle-of-the-road white evangelicals that CT represents. I know, for example, how CT came around to mildly distance itself from the US debacle in Vietnam, from Richard Nixon’s crimes, from opposition to women’s rights, and (in a qualified way) to hard resistance to marriage equality for LGBTQ people. In each case they were near the caboose of a train of accepting changes that had already become clear for a majority of fellow-citizens. Thus their self-congratulation was not edifying. Yet at least they did accept it, unlike some of their compatriots—and interestingly for our present contemplation they were, in effect, among the “last rats off the sinking ships” just before they sank.
Today I urge you to consider—insofar as you care about evangelical support for Republicans—how many people you may alienate if you do not pay attention to what CT’s editorial represents.
Likely it will turn out that white self-declared evangelicals will stay strong for Trump. Breaking with him is certainly not their majority trend—and some of them who find Trump distasteful would happily vote for you or Mr. Pence, while others might pull a lever for Trump over certain Democrats using a lesser evil calculus.
But this does not yet consider a crucial issue—shrinkage in the baseline group of “100% of white evangelicals,” considered in relation to other religious groups and “nones.” Ex-evangelicals, along with ex-Catholics, are a major feeder for both these latter groups. The widely noted “80% for Trump” calculus—like the datum in today’s news that one recent poll found 99% of white Republican evangelicals opposing impeachment—does not include a large group of people who were formerly evangelicals but now are anti-evangelical defectors on its left. Then of course it also excludes the minority of evangelicals who were raised conservative but are now moderate-to-liberal.
Taken together these two groups—former evangelicals and liberalizing evangelicals—are far stronger than many people realize. In relation to selected cultural issues like lukewarm acceptance of LGBTQ rights or self-styled colorblind multiculturalism, they may represent a majority trend in the subculture of young evangelicals—at least if one’s threshold for “wokeness” is fairly inclusive. This flavor of evangelical has long been a significant minority. Probably a third of all evangelicals broadly support Democratic agendas (either in Jimmy Carter’s mold or a more activist style like William Barber’s.)
Importantly, this minority is much larger if we factor black, Asian, and Latinx evangelicals into working definitions—but meanwhile it is substantive even if we confine our attention to whites.
It is ridiculous to call CT “a far left magazine,” as Trump tweeted (while also stating that CT prefers as president a “Radical Left nonbeliever who wants to take your religion & your guns.”) But it is true that half of CT’s readers are probably “Jimmy Carter type” Democrats or independents, and that many more are “never-Trumpers.” So it is fair to call it liberal by evangelical standards, as well as a minority. What is not fair is to assume that this minority is insignificant—nor to discount how CT people include opinion leaders who preach to rank and file evangelicals.
For two decades there has been a strong cohort—spurred forward by Trumpism—of young evangelicals entering not-Republican spaces that are either under the evangelical umbrella or adjacent to it. One subset calls themselves “progressive” or “emergent” evangelicals. (They have long been fed up with CT for not breaking more sharply with Trump—so we must grasp that CT is chasing after them in a hope of not losing them entirely).
Another subset takes this attitude: “If being evangelical means supporting Trump, I guess I’m not an evangelical. I’m out.” Some such people break entirely with identifying as Christians. The well-trumpeted rise of “nones” is fueled by this reaction. Other such people, equally significant but less-trumpeted, move toward liberal Christianity, in forms sometimes sharply distinct from moderate evangelicals and sometimes overlapping.
Framed this way, it is a huge misunderstanding to assume either that the overwhelming majority of Protestants are evangelical, nor that the overwhelming majority of evangelicals are conservative. In fact there is rough parity between left-leaning and right-leaning Christians at the level of grassroots sensibilities and underlying common sense. Almost everyone (including evangelicals, although they often repress the cognitive dissonance) assumes, as a matter of common sense, that trying to square Trump’s policies with Christian values is absurd and grotesque.
The CT editorial is important because it shines it ten minutes of fame on this crack in standard assumptions about how “normal” Christianity relates to Trumpist policies.
Senator Alexander, if the sort of swing voter who supported first Bush, then Obama, then Trump is important to your party, then you really ought to pay attention to this crack.
True, the raw number of defectors in focus today is smallish. And it is natural for educated liberals to be impatient with them: “Bush, then Obama, then Trump, really?!?” Again: “It took them that long to be ‘colorblind’—and then with an analysis that masks structural racism more than addresses it, really?!?”
But we should not underestimate this group’s weight as swing voters. Although the sort of evangelical leaders who read CT may not swing many constituents—especially those who watch 25 hours of FOX for every hour they are in church—still it is easy to imagine CT’s stance as part of a 10% downward swing in evangelical support for Trump. That would be enough to lose a lot of elections for Republicans.
My feelings about this matter are mixed. Part of me wants evangelical allies of Trump to weather the storm and hold their rank-and-file to lower than 10% attrition—say, above 70% support for Republicans, and above 90% opposition to impeachment among evangelical Republicans—because I would expect this to turn out as a pyrrhic victory. Likely it would imply, if we wait and look under the hood after a couple of years, an absolute shrinkage of more than 10% in the “baseline 100%” container in which we can safely project ongoing Republican supermajorities.
In other words, it might well be better in the long run for Democratic agendas if today’s crack in the evangelical front turns out small—because mainstream evangelicalism functions very effectively as a machine to produce disgusted ex-evangelicals. (CT is aware of this dynamic when it says that evangelicals “are playing with a stacked deck of gross immorality and ethical incompetence…the whole game will come crashing down…on the reputation of evangelical religion.”)
Conversely, if the short-run impact of CT’s intervention is larger—if now turns out to be the moment that begins Trump’s house of cards crashing down—it is hard not to welcome that. Yet this might well bode better for the ability of evangelicals to rebrand, as they have often done in the past. Such a scenario might turn out better for Republicans in the long run.
So pick your poison: if you approach the editorial based on cold Republican self-interest, it offers a lose-lose choice.
In this context I insist, as I have often written to you before, that removing the criminal Trump is not a partisan issue. I support it on moral grounds and out of concern for the legitimacy of our system despite the likelihood that (to my mind regrettably) it would help Republicans more than Democrats.
Admittedly the wild card in my train of thought is whether Republicans actually care about destroying the legitimacy of our political system, as opposed to consolidating a de facto one-party authoritarian regime through corruption, voter fraud, and packing the courts. Do you simply plan not to need to care how small a minority you represent, and by extension not to need to worry about moral legitimacy or attrition in your voting blocs?
Senator Alexander, I hope you don’t want to be part of such a destructive and corrupt scenario. I want to think better of you than that. Are you sure you do not want to join the people—now including the most distinguished evangelical journal—who have sufficient moral principle and respect for our Constitution and national interest to break with this terrible trend? I believe you can do this. Remember, CT was among the last mainstream voices to “get off the sinking ship” in the Nixon era. It lived not only to tell its story but to thrive.
Please speak out strongly to remove this disgraceful criminal from office and move us forward in healing our country before it is too late.