Meet Mark Galli: The Wheaton evangelical who called out Trump

  • Mark Galli wrote a controversial editorial in Christianity Today calling for President Donald Trump to be removed from office. Galli, who recently retired as the Carol Stream-based magazine's editor in chief, said the editorial came after three years of a more unifying approach, trying to get evangelicals on all sides of the political spectrum to find common ground.

      Mark Galli wrote a controversial editorial in Christianity Today calling for President Donald Trump to be removed from office. Galli, who recently retired as the Carol Stream-based magazine's editor in chief, said the editorial came after three years of a more unifying approach, trying to get evangelicals on all sides of the political spectrum to find common ground. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Mark Galli of Wheaton recently retired as editor in chief of Christianity Today magazine, based in Carol Stream. But not before igniting a firestorm in the evangelical community by penning an editorial that called for President Donald Trump to be removed from office because he "acts publicly in such immoral ways."

      Mark Galli of Wheaton recently retired as editor in chief of Christianity Today magazine, based in Carol Stream. But not before igniting a firestorm in the evangelical community by penning an editorial that called for President Donald Trump to be removed from office because he "acts publicly in such immoral ways." Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Some conservative evangelicals voted for President Donald Trump because they saw him as the lesser of evils, said Mark Galli, recently retired editor in chief of Christianity Today magazine. But many on the evangelical right fail to question Trump's public immorality, Galli wrote in a controversial editorial.

      Some conservative evangelicals voted for President Donald Trump because they saw him as the lesser of evils, said Mark Galli, recently retired editor in chief of Christianity Today magazine. But many on the evangelical right fail to question Trump's public immorality, Galli wrote in a controversial editorial. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/11/2020 4:38 PM

Before Mark Galli was the editor of Christianity Today, the evangelical magazine that last month garnered national attention by calling for President Donald Trump to be removed from office, he was a pastor.

And before he was a pastor, he was a 13-year-old who felt pressure to devote his life to Jesus Christ, until he answered the "altar call" during a Sunday sermon and gave himself up for his faith.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But after the controversial Dec. 19 editorial in which Galli raised concerns about Trump's perceived lack of moral fitness for office, he became a lightning rod. His column triggered a political and religious firestorm that included responses on Twitter from Trump, a critical open letter from nearly 200 evangelical leaders and even a rebuke from Franklin Graham whose father, the Rev. Billy Graham, founded the magazine in the 1950s.

Critics suggested Galli and his magazine had drifted far left and become mouthpieces for Democrats eager to undo the results of the 2016 election.

"No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it's not even close," President Trump wrote on Twitter.

"For Christianity Today to side with the Democrat Party in a totally partisan attack on the President of the United States is unfathomable ... Why would Christianity Today choose to take the side of the Democrat left whose only goal is to discredit and smear the name of a sitting president?" Franklin Graham wrote on Facebook.

Galli, a 67-year-old Wheaton father of three and grandfather of six, said he called for Trump's removal only after three years of trying a more unifying approach. In what he refers to as "typical Mark Galli editorials," he previously had called for evangelicals on all sides of the political spectrum to find common ground.

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But after the impeachment hearings concluded, he said he found that tack no longer worked.

"When nothing was said by anybody on the right, I thought, 'Oh my gosh, where are we in our culture?'" Galli said.

So his editorial carrying the voice of the Carol Stream-based magazine where he worked for three decades took a stand that made some fellow evangelicals uncomfortable and rallied others.

"This man is morally unfit for office, and by that, I mean publicly moral," Galli told the Daily Herald in the aftermath of his editorial. "I have no business judging the state of his soul. I have no business judging what goes on in his private life."

The Daily Herald met with Galli after his Jan. 3 retirement to ask about the editorial and the writer behind it. Here is an edited version of the conversation.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Q: Why do many evangelicals align so strongly with Trump?

A: Evangelicals on the far right feel assaulted in what they feel is a cultural war. They feel their beliefs are being assaulted, their values are being assaulted. There used to be a common understanding of what marriage meant; there used to be a common understanding of who sexual relations should be reserved for -- between a man and a woman in a committed relationship of marriage. Some remember the days when there was school prayer.

And then there was a rapid change in our culture in the 1960s and 1970s, and it seemed to be accelerated, certainly on the human sexuality front, in the 2010s. Add to that the recession in 2008 and the way the economy has shifted and left a lot of them unemployed.

There's just a tremendous amount of anger and frustration in the way the American economy and the way the American government has essentially marginalized them. So a great deal of their passion for Donald Trump is, "Here is someone who can be our champion. Here's someone who can stand up as a strongman to the liberal front that is trying to take away the America we once knew."

There's some part of that I resonate with. It is frustrating to watch a culture move away from what I think are core values that make a culture strong. It does feel alienating.

There's another group whose key issue is being pro-life. They consider the greatest tragedy in American life is the fact that three-quarters of a million babies are essentially murdered every year, as they put it. I might not put it that strongly, but I'd say that's a great tragedy. They would vote for any Republican that would champion that cause.

They're of the belief that Donald Trump protects that cause better than any previous president. I don't believe that's true, but he's not doing worse than a lot of presidents.

Then there's a third group that saw Trump as the lesser of evils and would just as soon not have anyone know they voted for him.

Q: Why do you think such support is problematic?

A: The group that supports Trump for principled reasons, like on pro-life, tend to be reluctant to criticize the president. The religious right would say his immorality isn't that big of a deal, and I'm hoping they would say, "Yeah, it is kind of a big deal."

In the Bible, the gravity of the teaching when it comes to use of the tongue is pretty sobering. It speaks to the fact that the tongue is this extremely dangerous gift we have been given as humans. It can lead to good, and one little spark of it can lead to a forest fire.

My evangelical brothers don't think that applies to President Trump because they will say, "Well, at least he supports our causes, and if he's a little rough on the edges, we can live with that."

They don't seem to understand that the type of language he uses to denigrate his opponents, the contempt he has for the people who disagree with him -- they don't seem to recognize what that does to the moral fabric of American culture, how powerful and disdaining that is and how dangerous it is, how explosive.

We have a social responsibility, at least to standing up and being consistent on what we say. A common criticism of the right is, "During the Clinton administration, you thought moral authority was so important -- whatever happened to that?" And it's such a tired criticism because it's so true.

Q: Why did you call for Trump's removal now?

A: We at Christianity Today rarely comment on things that have political overtones. So I was reluctant to publish anything on the impeachment hearings because I couldn't think of a purely religious angle that would interest our readers. But we had an editorial calling for Nixon's resignation. We had an editorial saying that Bill Clinton was morally unfit for the presidency. I thought, "Maybe we should say something."

In the impeachment hearings, in my view, it seemed absolutely clear the president had used his office to manipulate a world leader to do work that would undermine one of his political opponents.

Now, I recognize that Trump's moral behavior when it comes to his tweets, the way he talks about people, the way he's often deceptive, that these have been long-standing issues. But I wanted to hear something that he'd done in office as president that was morally problematic before I would do anything.

With the impeachment hearings, it seemed pretty clear the president had done that sort of thing. That was a tipping point for me, especially when I saw the Republicans en masse basically saying, "There's no problem here. He did nothing wrong." And then evangelical conservatives either not commenting or saying the same thing.

Q: Were you surprised by the reaction to your editorial?

A: I honestly did not think it would create the furor it did. On a typical day at Christianity Today, we might have 300 to 500 people on our website. When an article goes viral and we're really excited about it, it might have 4,000 or 5,000. This crashed the website and we had 15,000 to 17,000 on all day. It was just unimaginable to me.

The last I knew a few weeks ago, we had lost 3,000 subscribers after the editorial, and then we gained about 9,000. There were 200 pastors that wrote a letter to Christianity Today severely objecting to the editorial.

But overall, the reaction has been positive in two ways that surprised me. One is the deep-felt enthusiasm for the editorial. Apparently, a lot of evangelicals felt really alone in their criticisms of Trump. I was also surprised by where the support came from -- atheists, agnostics, Jews -- and we've received dozens, if not hundreds, of letters from people that said, "I'm not even a believer, I have not been to church in years, but thank you for writing this."

Q: What do you hope will happen moving forward?

A: The biggest hope I have is that at least we will open up a conversation in the evangelical movement, at least a conversation to say, "Even if we agree that we're going to vote for Trump, shouldn't we have the moral integrity to challenge him when he acts publicly in such immoral ways?"

Q: Why are you retiring now and will you continue to speak out?

A: I have not been a real comfortable fit in journalism since the advent of the internet. When I started in 1989 at the Leadership Journal, it was a quarterly. When I moved to Christian History, it was a quarterly. When I started at the flagship magazine Christianity Today 20 years ago, first as managing editor and later as editor-in-chief, it was a monthly. With the advent of the internet, it became a daily.

Given my interest in history and theology, I'm the type of person who reads about an event and says, "That's interesting, let's think about that for a few weeks." And now we are just pressed to say something or do something every single day, if not, more than once or twice a day. And it drives me crazy. So I will write editorials occasionally on my website, MarkGalli.com.

I will probably step into the arena of political conversation more than I was comfortable with as editor of Christianity Today.

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