Christianity Today Editor Laments ‘Ethical Naïveté’ of Trump Backers

People have been upset with Mark Galli before. As the editor in chief of Christianity Today, a prominent evangelical magazine, he has printed some controversial editorials. But the people he irks usually do not include the IT department of his own publication.

That is what happened when Mr. Galli published an explosive editorial on Dec. 19 arguing that President Trump should be removed from office. So many readers flocked to read the editorial online that the website crashed, overwhelming those whose job it was to keep it running.

Mr. Galli had been working for Christianity Today for two decades after being a Presbyterian pastor for about 10 years, first in Mexico City and later in Sacramento, Calif., but the response to the editorial was like nothing he had ever seen. The traffic to the website was 50-fold what it is on a typical day.

Mr. Galli’s last day with the magazine will be Friday. He had announced his retirement in October, long before the editorial and the response to it.

In an interview with The New York Times on Thursday, he said he was shocked by the magnitude of the reaction to the editorial — but also by evangelicals’ willingness to stick by Mr. Trump for more than three years. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Did you ever expect the sort of reaction this editorial received?

Not in the least. On a very viral article, we might get 4,000 or 5,000 on the site at one time. Not only did this crash the site almost immediately, but when it came back on, there were between 15 and 17,000 people on our site for hours. I’ve kind of gotten in trouble with my IT department because they said, “Why didn’t you give us a heads up?” and I said, “I had no idea.”

Friday I came into the office, and the desk phone we’re speaking on now literally rang — this is not hyperbole — all day, and I did not pick it up once because I was also getting messages by email, text messages and calls on my cellphone.

There was quite a bit of criticism from evangelicals and others of the piece. What did you make of that opposition?

I was a little surprised that Donald Trump and then Franklin Graham thought it was worth commenting on. And it did strike me as a bit ironic that they both said that it wasn’t significant or going to make any difference. It makes you immediately think that they do think it’s significant, or they wouldn’t comment on it.

I suppose the thing that was most surprising, and which I’m still trying to wrap my head around, was the positive response. People wrote to me and said they had felt all alone and were waiting for someone in the evangelical leadership to say what the editorial said. I wish I could tell you that I had noticed that and wanted to respond to it, but I didn’t see that. There were a lot of people who were feeling alone and they’re not feeling that way now.

Despite that, of course, evangelicals as a bloc largely support President Trump. Is there anything Trump could do to lose that support?

I’ve been surprised by the ethical naïveté of the response I’m receiving to the editorial. There does seem to be widespread ignorance — that is the best word I can come up with — of the gravity of Trump’s moral failings. Some evangelicals will acknowledge he had a problem with adultery, but now they consider that a thing of the past. They bring up King David, but the difference is King David repented! Donald Trump has not done that.

Some evangelicals say he is prideful, abrasive and arrogant — which are all the qualities that Christians decry — but they don’t seem to grasp how serious it is for a head of state to talk like that and it does make me wonder what’s going on there.

Do you think evangelicals’ willingness to excuse Mr. Trump’s behavior will translate to a more broad willingness to forgive bad behavior by politicians, or does it seem to be Trump-specific?

I think his supporters would say it is limited to Trump. But I will say that some of his closest followers are, in a sense, being discipled by him. Mr. Trump’s typical response to a critic is to frame the entire conversation as a competition between success and failure. When the editorial published, the first response coming out of the mouth of some leading evangelicals was “That’s Christianity Yesterday” or “You’re a dying magazine.” They’re taking their cues on how to react in the public square from Donald Trump, whose basic response is to denigrate people.

What’s next for you? Do you plan to engage more with politics?

I’m planning to take advantage of the benefits of retirement: more time with my grandchildren, more time on the stream to do fly-fishing. If I can use religious language to talk about this, it does seem like providence has intervened in my life and made sure I’m not going to relax for the next few months.

I was planning to continue to write and comment, and this just put an exclamation point on it. I feel like I need to keep talking about things on my website and I’ve already been invited to write for The Los Angeles Times and The Guardian and I’m going to do that. I’m going to write as honestly and as charitably as I can about the movement that I’ve been a part of for 50 years.

Have your views about Mr. Trump changed since 2016? And who did you vote for then?

Like many, I was not happy with either candidate, and so I voted for a third-party candidate. And you’re about to ask me who that is, and I don’t remember. The most important thing is, I didn’t want to vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

We published one hard-hitting editorial in 2016 asking if voters had fallen into the sin of idolatry. After Trump was elected, I spent the first three years of his administration just trying to understand why conservatives and why very conservative evangelicals would vote for him and support him so enthusiastically.

The right and the left clearly wanted to excommunicate each other from the movement, so whenever I had the opportunity, I tried to get evangelicals on the left, center and right to have a reasonable conversation. I wanted to continue that when I sat down to write the editorial, but something in me clicked and I thought: That approach doesn’t work anymore. Given what we now know about what the president has done, we need to speak out more directly about this.

Do you view politics or religion differently than you did before Mr. Trump’s presidency?

I’m actually not a political person. I don’t follow political reporting too much. I find it caustic, both to the culture and to one’s own heart. I often say the most political things Christians do is, every Sunday, go to church and say “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

I’ve been thinking more deeply about what the relationship is between Christian faith and political life. I had drawn much more of a separation between politics and faith in my past, and I need to rethink that. I certainly don’t want to do what mainstream Christianity has done and make politics indistinguishable from faith — especially on the left, and now on the right. But is there a way to talk about our nation’s issues that is not merely partisan, but raises questions of ethics and morality and ideals?

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