Trump’s fiery denunciation (“a far left magazine [that] . . . knows nothing about reading a perfect transcript of a routine phone call,” he tweeted) and the massive news coverage the editorial received Friday suggested it marked a watershed moment. The implicit idea was that evangelicals — one of Trump’s key voting blocs — had finally turned on the president after years of ignoring his trampling of at least a few of the Ten Commandments.
In fact, Christianity Today (known popularly as CT) is just one of a number of media outlets catering to evangelicals and one that speaks for the more centrist faction of them, one of the smallest segment. Evangelicals tend to identify as politically conservative and have remained overwhelmingly supportive of Trump.
As such, despite the attention it received, the editorial might have less practical impact than the news coverage suggests.
As many news stories pointed out, CT has a sterling pedigree; it was founded in 1956 by Billy Graham, the most famous evangelical preacher of the 20th century. Its headquarters is in Carol Stream, Ill., just a few miles from Wheaton College, the Christian institution that Graham and his wife Ruth Bell Graham attended and later endowed. Trump accurately pointed out in his tweet that the Graham family no longer is associated with the magazine.
Graham, who died last year at 99, once told historian George Marsden that he started CT to “plant the evangelical flag in the middle of the road, taking the conservative theological position but a definite liberal approach to social problems. It would combine the best in liberalism and the best in fundamentalism without compromising theologically” and serve as the evangelical counterpoint to the Christian Century, the leading publication of mainline Protestantism.
But the evangelical movement that Graham helped spur is far larger and more fragmented than when CT started, with as many as 40 percent of Americans now identifying themselves as evangelical.
CT reaches a very small fraction of this large and amorphous group. Its print circulation is 120,000 per month (it is published 10 times per year), about 90,000 of which are paid subscribers, according to publisher Jacob Walsh. Like many publications, it reaches more online — between 3 million and 4 million per month, Walsh said.
As a result, it would be “a mistake” to assume that CT’s attitude toward Trump reflected a broader consensus among evangelicals, said a former CT editor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his relations with the publication. “CT represents a certain kind of evangelical — mostly white, mostly northern, many college-educated. [Its readers] probably aren’t huge Trump fans to begin with,” the person said.
CT’s chief executive, Tim Dalrymple, declined to discuss the gestation of the editorial and any internal debate surrounding it.
He also offered no comment on how the editorial, which plainly condemns Trump, squares with an element of the U.S. tax code: As a nonprofit, CT isn’t permitted to endorse or oppose political candidates.
As for the reaction to it, he said, “I would be pleased if it promotes constructive conversations among evangelicals about how we engage in political life. I’d also be pleased if the conversation led to a more effective witness of the church.”
Dalrymple has made his concerns about Trump explicit in CT before. In an editorial in July, he wrote, “I sense a profound frustration among non-white Christian friends that their white brethren keep silent as the president aims ugly and demeaning statements at people of color. These friends don’t like what the silence of the white church is saying, and neither do we. . . .
“So let us not be silent. We are not captive to political party. We are accountable to a higher authority. We expect better of our leaders, and we stand in the foxholes with our brothers and sisters when they are taking fire. We hope . . . Christians of all political persuasions will speak the truth and stand with those who suffer unjustly.”
Few evangelical voters are likely to be swayed by CT’s editorial, he said. “Evangelicals tend to get their political news from Fox News far more than they do from CT or other evangelical media,” he said.