I was intrigued to read the recent Christianity Today article calling for Donald Trump’s removal from office. The global interest in that article ended up crashing their servers for a period as people curiously read through Editor In Chief Mark Galli’s editorial. With the magazine having been founded by the late Billy Graham (and by the article’s explicit connection to him) it wasn’t surprising that Billy Graham’s son Franklin (a loyal Trump supporter) would respond shortly after with a rebuttal in a Facebook post. Both pieces are worth reading in full.
A number of thoughts on Donald Trump, his impeachment, Franklin Graham, the American Evangelical Church, and the Global Church have been marinating in my mind now for a couple months.
This moment in history allows for those thoughts to all come together and provide some additional helpful insights on our world and the state of Christianity through these words.
First, I’ll share a bit about my background to help you understand where I’m coming from.
The first thing to know is that I’m a follower of Jesus. I’ve been a follower of Jesus for most of my life and if there is one thing I would want people to know it is that I love, respect, and follow Jesus and that he is my Lord, Savior, and friend. I’ve studied many religions and many historical figures – and I am solidly on Team-Jesus. All my chips are in on his story, teachings, and resurrected presence in my life. I choose to see Jesus, the apostles, and the early church as normative Christianity.
I also come from a long line of devoted followers of Jesus. I’m a third-generation missionary to the continent of Africa. I come from a community of saints who would eagerly call themselves “evangelical” in the spiritual and historical use of the word. Historian David Bebbington summarized the commonalities of evangelicals being centered on four things: 1. Conversion (being born again in Christ), 2. Biblicism (basing our faith fundamentally on the Bible), 3. The Cross (Jesus died for sinners), and 4. Activism (being involved in proclaiming Good News and ministering to others). This summarizes well the churches and missions organizations and communities I’ve grown up in and have been a part of all of my life. I’m passionate about the work of the global church and am privileged to have been able to worship, pray, share God’s word, and break bread with believers in hundreds of churches all around the world. I’m in awe of what God is doing in his church across this planet. I’m committed to the historic, missional, and global church and to her Lord Jesus Christ.
All of that said, I’m deeply grieved and confused by the response of American Evangelicals in the past several years.
Due to several decades of Democrats excluding (and being in opposition to) the pro-life movement, as well as the progressive Left’s slide into approving immorality, antagonism toward confessing Christians, and generally excluding Biblical and Christian teachings and historical Christian wisdom – I and others around me have often tended toward voting for and supporting Republicans. We saw the immorality and criminal behavior of the Clinton family and were repulsed. In 2016 many of us saw Hillary Clinton beginning to secure the Democratic nomination and we were frightened by the potential of her presidency. We saw her deceitful press briefing regarding her email server, we researched the shady dealings of the Clinton Foundation, and we heard and saw her animosity toward so many Christians around the world.
We also followed closely as the Republicans began their nomination process. From the very beginning of the race the conservative Christians around me who heard and saw Donald Trump would gag. We sat around and watched debates together. We saw his lies, his contempt of others, his lack of grasp of global affairs, his false veneer of Christianity, and his merciless and unChristian attacks on other politicians, women, immigrants, veterans, the press, and even former employees. I was with white Christian evangelicals as they watched in disbelief that an immoral and criminal individual like Donald Trump would even attempt to run for office in the Republican party. Politicians, church leaders, and thinkers all came out with dismissive and accurate critiques of the character and person of Donald Trump. He was so wicked that it all seemed like a joke.
But as the nomination process narrowed and it became a battle between just Hillary and Donald, the conversations of American Evangelicals became more heated and divided. “What a terrible choice!” so many expressed to me. And then… slowly by slowly facts became twisted, sins were glossed over, talking points were solidified, former revulsion was quietly stashed away – and the white Evangelical Church in America began to open up to the possibility of not only voting for Donald Trump but of justifying a narrative of supporting him as well. Donald Trump nursed this along by pledging pro-life justices and judges and by making the rounds to a number of Christian institutions.
On November 8, 2016, the nation, the political system, and the world was stunned to see that the American electoral system had chosen Donald Trump as the new president. This was in large part due to the 80% of white Evangelicals who voted for him.
Over the past three years most white Evangelicals in America have continued to support and even begin to love and praise Donald Trump. It appears as if the support of this voting block will hold steady in the 2020 election.
This brings us to December 18, 2019 and the historic third impeachment of a sitting president of the United States.
A day later Christianity Today published their editorial that pointed to their 1998 decision to support Clinton’s removal and their current decision to support Donald Trump’s removal.
A few hours later Franklin Graham published his Facebook post.
I’m deeply grateful for the courage of the Christianity Today Editor In Chief and the wider team for publishing the piece. I’m going to bet that they will lose some subscribers and gain others. But editor Mark Galli shared that ultimately he isn’t that concerned about the numbers and any fallout.
Franklin Graham’s response was sadly in line with his past positions and with the positions of most people in the white American Evangelical Church. They acknowledge (at least some of them do) the sins and broken character of the president but then quickly point out the good that he has done for the country. The positive benefits outweigh the sin and the work of holding him accountable.
Analyzing Franklin’s piece does bring up the important question of what Donald Trump has done that has been beneficial for the nation and for Christians around the world. Here are some points I’m grateful for:
- Nominating pro-life judges and justices
- Encouraging allies to contribute more for international alliances
- Keeping the economy on the steady path of growth that the Obama administration initiated
- Significantly shrinking the presence of ISIS
- Boldly demanding that China play more fairly on the world stage
- Rolling back Obama efforts on redefining sexual morality
- Rolling back Obama efforts on promoting abortions around the world
- Encouraging more protection for Christian faith and practice in the United Sates and around the world and working on behalf of the persecuted church
I would say that those points would be generally appreciated by most Christians I know in the United States (of all denominations, traditions, ethnicities, and skin colors), and also by most Christians I’ve encountered around the world. From my experience and conversations there would be very little debate about the benefit of those accomplishments. There is only a very tiny bubble of a minority of progressive or liberal (primarily white) Christians in North America and Europe who would disagree.
With all of that in mind, I find significant problems with Franklin Graham’s post and revealed worldview. Franklin Graham is acknowledging that Donald Trump is guilty of some sins, but because of the President’s accomplishments on behalf of the nation (and to Evangelical Americans more specifically) he is pushing back against Christianity Today’s call for Trump’s removal. The benefits outweigh the gross immoral conduct and criminal and constitutional violations.
This justification and Faustian bargain is not the way of Christ. I’m convinced that this reveals that Franklin Graham’s Christian faith and witness are in shambles and that he is so deep into partisan politics that he has forgotten who is truly Lord of both his life and of the global church.
I don’t see there being an imperative to choose between only two options – Hillary (or Democrats) and Trump (or Republicans). I see Christianity as a force definitely engaging in the world – but also always being connected to and advancing a much larger purpose than regional political goals or a single politician’s agenda and platform. In that, I can see the important place for critiquing both Bill Clinton (and supporting his removal from office in 1998) as well at Donald Trump today. Both men are exceedingly wicked humans who have a long list of moral and criminal behaviors behind them.
I personally know many of the people who work for and write for Christianity Today. I know many former writers and editors as well. Many are my personal friends. They are devoted followers of Jesus, committed to Christ’s church, and are very thoughtful people.
They do spread across a spectrum of Protestant confessional and orthodox Christian beliefs. Some would tend to support more Democratic perspectives, some would support more Republican perspectives – and many (like the Editor In Chief who wrote the piece) appear to be more Independent leaning.
From my travels and ministry experiences – Christianity Today is very representative of the global missional evangelical (I mean spiritual evangelical – not American political) church. There is a broad group of thoughtful, confessing, rooted, missional, Christ-centered, evangelistic, Biblical, sacrificial, and engaged protestants who very much identify with the regular perspectives and convictions of Christianity Today.
As I’ve traveled and ministered on five continents in dozens of nations since the election of Donald Trump I have never once heard a positive comment about our current American President. I’ve always been passionate about politics and religion from a young age and I’ve personally heard pros and cons spoken about every president from Reagan to Obama. The world is a complex place with many diverse viewpoints. I hear from taxi drivers, pastors, farmers, politicians, missionaries, waiters, bus drivers, journalists, refugees, athletes, and students. I’ve been to many countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, and North and South America. Not once has anyone ever said anything positive about Donald Trump. Not once.
The global church in particular is horrified at our current President and the actions of the white Evangelical Church. Values that the global church holds dear (love for vulnerable people, decency, dignity, temperance, kindness, ministry to immigrants and refugees, forgiveness, meekness, peace, generosity, a stance against torture, humility, respect for journalists, respect for political opponents, a commitment to truth, and a commitment to fighting racial hatred) have all been thrown out the window and trampled on by the American Evangelical Church as they’ve drawn ever nearer to Donald Trump. These values are held dear by the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox branches of Christianity. They’ve been cultivated and nurtured over two thousand years of recent thought and are sourced in Christ Jesus and the historical figures of the Old and New Testaments. Even worse, now local despotic leaders around the world are copying the White House and using the same phases and justifications in order to oppress their local populations. The toxicity is spreading.
It is Franklin Graham who has become lost in bitter, narrow, and local partisan American politics. He represents a segment of Americans who have become unmoored from the faith and perspectives of the global church.
Christianity is laser-focused on the condition of the heart and the need for repentance and discipleship to Jesus. “Repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ!” It preaches against the love of money and power. It speaks against glossing over sins and minimizing the impact of immoral behavior in our lives and world in order to justify worldly accomplishments. It always tells the truth. Christianity is brilliant and sacrificial and Spirit-led and is always seeking the Least, Last, and Lost of our world. It is truly Good News! We Christians have a sacred responsibility to carry on this legacy and testimony.
Right now our faith and witness is crumbling.
Mark Galli in Christianity said it so well:
“To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?”
To turn a blind eye to the terrible moral failings of Donald Trump (and to his recent constitutional violations) just so that American Evangelicals can receive a number of benefits – will cause (and has caused) our American society (and the world at large) to see and smell hypocrisy and to label our faith, practice, and presence as a self-serving sham. We’ve become the hypocritical Pharisees that Jesus so strongly preached against. The message being proclaimed today is that moral goodness and discipleship to Jesus is a negotiable as long as Evangelicals are getting what they want in order to protect their own interests.
I pray for our nation and for the church in the United States. I pray that God will bring profound conviction and revelation to our hearts and show us from his Word where we’ve been straying and how we can repent and turn to the straight, narrow, and righteous path.
I pray that God has mercy on us.