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Pastors Debate Evangelical Community's Support For Trump


We're going to start the program today with a conversation that's been playing out within parts of the evangelical community as congressional leaders consider the next steps in the impeachment process.

Two events in recent weeks have seemed to highlight fractures among evangelical Christians over their support for President Trump. First, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Christianity Today right before his retirement wrote an editorial titled "Trump Should Be Removed From Office." It called out the president's, quote, "generally disreputable moral behavior."

Another conservative Christian publication, The Christian Post, published a response supporting President Trump - but not before one of their editors publicly resigned in opposition. The Trump campaign seems to have taken note of this internal debate. They announced earlier this week that they will launch a new coalition called Evangelicals for Trump with their first event next week in Miami.

We wanted to hear from pastors about how they're thinking about this question and what they're hearing from their congregants, so we've invited Eric Costanzo to join us. He's the senior pastor at South Tulsa Baptist Church in Tulsa, Okla.

Eric, welcome.


MCCAMMON: And Malachi O'Brien - he's a pastor outside of Kansas City, Mo., at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church.

Welcome, Malachi.

MALACHI O'BRIEN: Thanks for having me. Excited to be on the conversation.

MCCAMMON: And we should say we know there is a broad diversity of opinions within the evangelical community. This is in no way representative, but it's meant to be the beginning of a conversation. So thanks again to you both for joining us.

Eric Costanzo, I want to start with you. Do you think there really is a fracture here? And how would you describe that fracturing if so?

COSTANZO: Yeah, I think that's still up for debate, honestly, Sarah. It's - there certainly appears to be some loud voices on either side of not only this argument but several others. At the level of what we'd like to say the pew level has pastors with our church members, you know, I don't see that division as much within our own congregation.

But certainly, I think our folks are afraid there's division with others that perhaps they don't know or are outside of, you know, who we are and what we represent. And so it's just amplified by so many things on social media. It's really hard to know.

MCCAMMON: And, Malachi O'Brien, what are you seeing in the Kansas City area and your church?

O'BRIEN: Well, the conversations I have heard are, man, the economy is doing great. It looks like we'll be able to retire. You know, those are the kind of things that really encourage our people. This is the first time I think in history where everybody's had a chance to voice their own opinion and be seen and be heard. It's not that people didn't have an opinion. The social media has exposed what's always been there, and that's a difference of thought.

And so we have people in our church that like to post about the president or post about their political opinions, and sometimes they don't always post winsomely or lovingly. And so I try to encourage our people when they're online, on social media, to remember there's an audience watching. And don't get into debates that really continue to cause division and animosity but try to speak the gospel into all things.

And honestly, it's kind of funny. I have an 11-year-old son that would love to have a Trump flag in his bedroom, and I have a 16-year-old daughter that says, you better not do that (laughter). So it's an - it's interesting even in our own family.

MCCAMMON: And, Eric Costanzo, what about you? I mean, what kinds of discussions have you heard at your church in the wake of this Christianity Today editorial denouncing President Trump and some of the response to it?

COSTANZO: You know, it's been very interesting because I would look back on this entire year and say there are a lot of things that we could have been having a lot of discussions about that were related to evangelicals and politics, and we just haven't had near as many discussions this year until this happened. And that fascinated me - that so many of our folks were asking me, either emailing me or pulling me aside or, you know, at a Christmas party asking me about, what did you think about Christianity Today article?

And, you know, I had church members who canceled their subscription to CT over the first editorial but then in conversations were willing to kind of back up and especially after the follow-up editorial was written and say, OK. Let's at least have a healthy discussion. Then I had others who came in kind of with a wry smile, you know, very pleased. Our folks are not demonstrating any division that I think is dangerous to the unity of our own church. But they definitely have differing opinions over the right or wrong of each editorial.

MCCAMMON: About this larger overarching question of the president's moral behavior which this editorial raised - you know, setting aside the impeachment question and the politics - how do you think about as a pastor, someone whose job it is to, I would think, uphold a certain moral standard, how to talk about that?

COSTANZO: Well, we're a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Southern Baptist Convention has historically been very conservative theologically, politically, socially, culturally, however you want to say it. It's a conservative base. And we're still that way.

And so if you go back to the late '90s when I was in college, that was the last time we had an impeachment. The issue of morality was at the forefront, and our denomination actually passed a resolution at our annual meeting in 1998 addressing morality for public figures and those who are in leadership or public officials. And that was in response to morality and immorality in the highest office.

And so I think we have to be extremely transparent and honest no matter which party we prefer and no matter which issues are most important to us that we don't make the statement that one of the editorials made that, hey, Jesus hung out with tax collectors and sinners, too, only referring to the people who are representative of our preferred party. It can't be something that we just turn a blind eye to.

MCCAMMON: Malachi O'Brien, you were one of nearly 200 evangelical leaders who signed a letter to Christianity Today saying the editorial, quote, "not only targeted our president, it also targeted those of us who support him and have supported you." Are you concerned about what Christianity Today would describe as disreputable moral behavior, things like the way that he talks about his political opponents, his sort of personal life? (Laughter) The list goes on. But the kinds of things that many evangelicals have expressed concern about - do you share some of those concerns?

O'BRIEN: Oh, well, I absolutely do. But I - you know, so I would agree with Eric, you know, because being in the Southern Baptist Convention back in the late '90s, we passed a resolution. And so - and I'm not saying that morality changes, but if you take a look at culture from 1999 to now, the needle keeps shifting, and morality seems to be shifting.

And so many of the things that Christianity Today lobbied against the president from some of just, you know, his moral behavior - some of those things stem back from a decade-plus ago. Since he's been in office, he's been accused of a lot of things, has not been found guilty on several things.

So yeah. Do I disagree with the way he speaks about certain people online, on Twitter and different places? Sure. That's just - that's - we've never seen that before in a political figure, so some of that is disturbing. And so I think that we have to say that - when that happens, we have to say - you know, we have to be honest about that and at the same time say, but here's what we appreciate about President Trump.

I don't - I think there's a lot of things from his past that people are trying to use against him today that I think is unfair. And I think there's just some things he said today, like, I wish he wouldn't say that. But I do appreciate his rigorous determination to fight for evangelicals and what the church believes in. Those are things that I wouldn't say are top-tier moral things. They're things that are concerning.

But this is kind of an all-out fight. And I feel like the Christians believe they've been put in in this election season. And if we thought we saw a fight now, the next nine to 10 months, watch out because it's going to get interesting.

MCCAMMON: Malachi O'Brien, one last thing. When you say that this is an all-out fight and that morality has shifted in the past couple of decades, what do you - I mean, what do you see as the shape of that fight? What are the stakes?

O'BRIEN: Well, so obviously, sanctity of life, religious freedom for citizens, business owners. You know, obviously the Hobby Lobby case, for example...

MCCAMMON: Involving requiring employers to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees.

O'BRIEN: Absolutely. We also consider conservative federal judges standing with Israel. You know, President Trump has made an attempt to make life better for those living in poverty in the largest cities in America. And so those are the values that I think Christians are standing with President Trump on today because he has consistently stood for those things.

MCCAMMON: It seems like every week there is another article written exploring why mostly white evangelicals by and large support President Trump and asking whether that support can continue. Does this Christianity Today editorial feel like a turning point to either of you? And, Eric, I'm going to start with you on that.

COSTANZO: Well, I don't know if I can say that it's going to be a turning point or not. I have no idea what's going to happen in the next few months. And I think we're all loathing the election year a lot just for what we'll see on TV, social media and the things as pastors we will - we'll have to navigate in our churches. But I have not talked to one person who read either editorial on either side and changed their mind.

Now, as I said, some people were able to come into more of a reasonable discussion space. But I think it - from what I can tell, it just caused people to dig in their heels a little bit further on the opinions and presuppositions they already hold.

MCCAMMON: Malachi O'Brien, do you see either of these editorials, the events of the last week or two changing the conversation among evangelicals about President Trump?

O'BRIEN: I don't think it's changed the conversation, but I definitely think it's heightened the conversation. I think we need to learn how to speak to one another in a manner that honors Christ. And I honestly believe the greatest thing that we can do as Christians is to have empathy one towards another when there is a disagreement, try to understand, why do you feel that way?

MCCAMMON: That's Malachi O'Brien. He's a pastor outside of Kansas City, Mo., at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church. And Eric Costanzo, senior pastor at South Tulsa Baptist Church in Oklahoma.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

O'BRIEN: Thank you.


(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS SONG, "GROOVE HOLMES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.