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Impeachment, Karl Barth, and Christianity Today

In recent days Christianity Today’s editor-in-chief Mark Galli published an editorial calling for the impeachment and removal of President Trump from office. Before I wade into the debate, I want to distinguish two important issues that Mr. Galli raises in his article. First, there is his call for President Trump’s impeachment. Second, there is the way that he characterizes Evangelical supporters of the President. The first issue, I believe, is debatable. Christians can have differences of opinion on this matter because they either believe or do not believe the House Democrats have made a compelling case for impeachment. Some might have serious questions about the President’s moral character but believe that the House Democrats have failed to make their case and therefore do not support impeachment. Others might believe that the House Democrats have indeed made their case and thus support impeachment. The second issue, namely, how Mr. Galli characterizes Evangelical supporters of the President is where I want to focus my attention. My concern is to challenge us all to be consistent in our assessment of public figures, not address the merits or demerits of the case for impeachment. In other words, my concern cuts across the pro- anti-Trump divide and instead engages underlying theological issues that arise in Mr. Galli’s article.

In Mr. Galli’s editorial he calls on Christians to call for impeachment and support his removal from office. He writes that the President’s admissions about immorality with women, his “mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders” on his Twitter feed are “a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.” Therefore, the President should be removed one way or another, whether by impeachment or being voted out of office. Such an outcome “is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.” Mr. Galli opines:

To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?

The implications of Mr. Galli’s argument are clear—if anyone fails to support the President’s removal he is opposed to the Creator of the Ten Commandments. Support of the President supposedly compromises one’s Christian witness. Regardless of the commonly cited reasons for supporting the President (his judicial appointments, opposition to abortion, e.g.), such factors cannot outweigh the President’s moral failings. Mr. Galli was recently interviewed and has doubled-down on his argument and has been surprised by the ethical naïveté of those who have criticized his editorial. He has claimed, “Some evangelicals say he is prideful, abrasive and arrogant — which are all the qualities that Christians decry — but they don’t seem to grasp how serious it is for a head of state to talk like that and it does make me wonder what’s going on there.”

In the interest of answering Mr. Galli’s call for reasoned dialogue on this issue, my question for him is, Why does he give Karl Barth a pass on similar issues? The question requires some explanation so that readers understand what I mean by “give Karl Barth a pass.” Several months ago Mr. Galli wrote an essay, “What to Make of Karl Barth’s Steadfast Adultery?” In conducting the research for his recently published biography, Karl Barth: A Biography for Evangelicals, Mr. Galli uncovered well-documented evidence of Barth’s adultery. Dr. Barth’s on-going long-term affair with his personal assistant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, caused great pain to his wife, Nelly. Mr. Galli notes how Barth’s self-admitted love for Charlotte grieved his wife. Mr. Galli goes on to present a sympathetic analysis that explains Barth’s adultery. He grew up in a home where Barth fell in love with a woman his father forbade him from marrying, which created problems for his arranged marriage with Nelly. As much as Mr. Galli tried to understand the relationship, he was floored by how Barth justified it. Barth was convinced that his relationship with Charlotte was right: “It cannot just be the devil’s work . . . It must have some meaning and a right to live . . . I love you and do not see any chance to stop this.” Barth justified his adultery with his theology of dialectics: some truths are not easily reconciled. In other words, Barth used his theology to justify his sin.

What follows is Galli’s attempt to explain Barth’s actions. First, few theologians live up to their lofty ideals. In Barth’s case, he was likely tempted by his emotions and failed, but such a failure doesn’t amount to a failure of his theological project. Second, theologians can and will use their theological method to justify their illicit behavior. “Self-justification is woven into the fabric of our souls,” writes Galli. Based on these observations, Galli asks a probing question, Does Barth’s behavior tarnish his ideas? Mr. Galli’s answer: “I don’t think so. In fact, it’s their very weaknesses that accent the need for us to steep ourselves ever more deeply in their ideas.” This doesn’t mean that Mr. Galli endorses everything Karl Barth said. Instead, he calls for a discriminating reading: “I still recommend Barth’s theology, but as I said in my book, it’s not because he had the right answer to every theological question. He must be read critically, as we read any great thinker, probing whether his thought it consistent with the teaching of Scripture.”

These thoughts raise several questions. Why can Mr. Galli encourage an appreciative but nonetheless critical reading of the immoral Barth but call Christians to reject the President en toto? Why does Mr. Galli hold the President to a higher moral standard than a minister of the gospel? The book of James, for example, holds teachers of God’s word to a higher standard than the ordinary believer (James 3:1). Why does he give a sympathetic reading to Barth’s adultery but not offer the same to the President’s moral failings? We live in a fallen world and no politician will ever sufficiently observe the Ten Commandments. If the Ten Commandments is the benchmark for a President, then no one, not one, is qualified to serve in the office. But, when it comes to theologians, Mr. Galli readily admits: “Like many, I’ve long hoped to find a heroic human figure whom I can admire unflinchingly. But time and again, I’ve had to discover there is no such person.” Well said.

Given this fact, Mr. Galli should reassess his position and acknowledge that Christians can disagree on politics and take opposing views and that just because someone might support one politician doesn’t mean she is compromising her witness to Christ. Rather, she places the politician in the balance and weighs the positives and the negatives and then acts as best as she knows with what she knows. But on the other hand, perhaps Mr. Galli’s two articles reveal that he likes Barth and dislikes Trump, which leads him to different and inconsistent conclusions. While we may like or dislike different theologians and politicians, we should be circumspect before we drape our personal preferences in the garb of biblical fidelity and then hold others to our own preferred standards. This strikes at the heart of our Christ-wrought Christian liberty, a doctrine codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith. In the end, we are all entitled to differ and charitably debate political questions such as whether a government official should be impeached. Politics, however, also has the prospects of allowing our passions and opinions to distort our theology. In this case, I believe Mr. Galli should be less understanding of Barth’s immorality and more sympathetic to the Evangelical Christians he criticizes.

*Editor’s note: this article was originally posted at Reformed Theology: in Piety, Practice & Preaching.

J. V. Fesko

J. V. Fesko (PhD, University of Aberdeen) serves as professor of systematic and historical theology at RTS Jackson. He has been an ordained minister since 1998 in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a church planter, pastor, and now teacher. Dr. Fesko has authored or edited more than twenty books including Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith, The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, Death in Adam, Life in Christ: The Doctrine of Imputation, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, and The Covenant of Works: The Origins, Development, and Reception of the Doctrine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

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