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Evangelicals shouldn't be defending Trump in tiff over editorial

When "Christianity Today" issued its editorial last week calling for Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden holds massive cash advantage over Trump ahead of Election Day Tax records show Trump maintains a Chinese bank account: NYT Trump plays video of Biden, Harris talking about fracking at Pennsylvania rally MORE’s removal from the American presidency, I thought evangelicals — including prominent leaders — would sit up and take note.

What I did not expect was for them to rebuff the magazine’s call utterly.

Franklin Graham, son of the magazine’s founder the late Billy Graham, told The Washington Post that his father would have been “embarrassed” by the editorial. “For Christianity Today to side with the Democrat Party in a partisan attack on the President of the United States is unfathomable,” he added in a Facebook post.

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Similarly, Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition and original co-founder of the Christian Coalition, told Fox News that the magazine should be renamed “Christianity Yesterday.”

Late Sunday afternoon, Reed and Graham joined a group of 200 prominent American evangelicals responding to the CT editorial. In a letter to Tim Dalrymple, the magazine’s president and chief executive officer, Reed, Graham, and others – including Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and former House Member Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannEvangelicals shouldn't be defending Trump in tiff over editorial Mellman: The 'lane theory' is the wrong lane to be in White House backs Stephen Miller amid white nationalist allegations MORE — denounced the magazine for insulting the “spiritual integrity and Christian witness of tens-of-millions of believers who take seriously their civic and moral obligations.” 

“Rather, we are Bible-believing Christians and patriotic Americans who are simply grateful that our President has sought our advice as his administration has advanced policies that protect the unborn, promote religious freedom, reform our criminal justice system, contribute to strong working families through paid family leave, protect the freedom of conscience, prioritize parental rights, and ensure that our foreign policy aligns with our values,” the letter continued.

As I read these words, I realized again how complete is the silencing rhetoric among conservative evangelicals in the United States today, and how deeply they indemnify themselves from blame for adverse outcomes.

As I have written before, Republican protestants tend to talk about politics and the American public sphere by emphasizing a duty to participate — to vote — but downplaying what happens next because God is in control.

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In the case of Donald Trump, this means that evangelicals claim credit for helping to elect the New York billionaire, but then deny blame for his immoral acts. Put plainly; these Christians see the things they like or imagine God approves of, and pretend nothing else is going on. This pretending is perfectly evident in the letter they wrote to Christianity Today.

But the time for pretending has passed.

When American evangelicals forsake responsibility for the consequences of their votes by refusing to look at Donald Trump’s harmful acts, they confuse trust in God with democratic participation.

All too often, these Christians quote New Testament scriptures like those in Romans or 1 Peter that urge believers to submit to human authority and pray for human leaders. “Once a ruler is in power, the demands of Romans 13 kick in,” Peter Leithart wrote recently for the Christian journal First Things. “We owe honor to whom honor is due, a tribute to whom tribute.”

But those scriptures were written during a different time, under a different kind of government system, made up of emperors and unelected governors. The United States is a representative democracy, a constitutional republic. The sovereign is the people.

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This means that Donald Trump is answerable to citizens, including and maybe even especially to those evangelicals who have supported him for so long. When they refuse to hold him to account, they countenance his very worse impulses.

When they rely on a misreading of scripture that says he is owed respect, they refuse the essential role of the democracy, which is to engage in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

This is a dangerous moment in American history. Evangelicals in the United States must choose whether to side with a president who refuses accountability or to hold the president accountable to his acts that are causing real harm.

There is no middle ground.

Stephanie Martin is an assistant professor of communication and public affairs at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and author of the forthcoming book “Decoding the Digital Church: Evangelical Storytelling and the Election of Donald Trump." Follow her on Twitter: @politicssam