Mark Galli, the editor-in-chief of “Christianity Today,” penned a courageous piece titled “Trump Should be Removed from Office” in the Dec. 19 issue of his magazine. This must have caused an earthquake in the White House, since “Christianity Today” is America’s foremost evangelical Protestant publication, called “Evangelicalism’s flagship magazine” by the Washington Post. Unfortunately, it has a circulation of only 130,000.
In 2014, the Pew Research Center estimated there are a bit more than 62 million evangelicals in the U.S., which is almost 20% of our country’s population. The only other denomination in that range is Catholicism, which has somewhere between 51-69 million followers in the U.S., depending on who’s doing the counting. Also to be noted is the fact (according to the Pew Research Center) the Catholic vote in our last presidential election was split roughly 50/50 — meaning it, in effect, cancels itself out in reference to Trump, to use an unfortunate turn of phrase. However, the white evangelical vote came in and seems to be remaining at 81% favoring Donald Trump — by far, the highest ratio of any denomination in the country.
Simply stated: If Trump doesn’t keep more than 80% of the evangelical vote, he stands almost no chance of remaining president. So Mark Galli’s op-ed piece was an earthquake event. It remains to be seen if it is going to cause a tidal wave. However, other important evangelical voices have already come forth in support of Galli’s demand for removal, including Napp Nazworth of “The Christian Post” and Billy’s Graham’s own grandchildren — especially significant because it was Billy Graham who founded “Christianity Today.”
And herein lies the conundrum. It is clear from the above that there is beginning to be a wide division of opinion about Trump among at least a portion of the American evangelical community. Of course, there are also many, many other Protestant denominations in the U.S. Apart from the old “Main Line” Protestant churches, there are hundreds and hundreds (or thousands) of splinter Protestant churches in the U.S. The vast majority of American Protestant churches, today in the 21st century, are “congregational,” in the sense each congregation determines, autonomously, its own interpretation of the Christian religion and how to read the Bible.
When you allow for the above splintered characteristic of American Christianity, together with the small circulation number for “Christianity Today,” it would seem to lead to this conclusion: Who the heck knows what’s going to happen with the evangelical vote in 2020?
Sure, evangelicalism’s “flagship magazine” printed an op-ed calling for the removal of President Trump, but do most evangelicals read their own flagship magazine? Honestly, that seems unlikely. Part of the DNA of evangelical Christianity is each and every congregation is a world unto its own, and answers to no one and no oversight other than its own “elders” in each congregation. This is why Southern Baptists do not call themselves a denomination; they are actually members of “The Southern Baptist Convention” — a convention of independent churches, independent congregations.
The route of autonomous-self-identity-and-self-government, which is the cornerstone of almost all evangelical churches, sounds on the surface like the perfect system for religion in American democracy, but that is merely a surface appearance. Going all the way back to our Founding Fathers and to the French commentator Alexis de Tocqueville (his masterpiece “Democracy in America”), the Achilles heel of American democracy is the easy way the system can be undermined by the disease of misguided populism and opportunist populist leaders who do not necessarily have the true welfare of The People foremost in their agenda. In a similar fashion, church governance is all too easily subverted and manipulated when a populist model is employed by congregations and preachers.
Websters English Dictionary defines populism as “the political doctrine that supports the rights and powers of the common people in their struggle with the privileged elite.” In modern parlance, populism has come to carry associations of “democratic erosion” and “de-democratization,” because populism so often tends to undermine the role of the media, the judiciary and the legislative branch of government. One doesn’t need a doctorate in Political Science to recognize this populist attitude is an important plank in the platform of American evangelical Christianity. It is also obvious Trump takes every opportunity to undermine and belittle the media, the judiciary and Congress. This is textbook populism run amok.
And further, when The People make the claim “God is on their side and only on their side” and when populist preachers and politicians start making that claim for themselves, as they are doing regularly now, our form of government is in severe peril. Just last week, this God-is-on-our-side mantra was openly and loudly proclaimed by Trump and evangelical leaders in Miami, during a kick-off rally titled “Evangelicals for Trump” held at the 7,000-seat mega Latino church El Rey Jesus.
American evangelicals are at a crossroads in 2020. They literally hold the fate of our nation in their hands. I tend to be an optimist. I tend to think there are enough evangelicals with enough of an open mind that a meaningful percentage will, over the next 10 months, realize the path Trump has taken us down is not “God’s will,” but the will of a terribly flawed ruler, who is not a King Cyrus but rather a King Herod — and he must be removed from office before it is too late.
Let no one say “religion is dead.” As a force in American politics at the national level, religion is going strong. I have no doubt that our Founding Fathers, if they could see us now, would say way too strong. A goal striven for in our founding documents was to keep an arm’s length between church and state — this wasn’t just a casual, private opinion of Thomas Jefferson. Our founders knew religiously fueled populism was a fire that could burn our house down.
This very issue is very much at stake in the 2020 election.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.