The shimmering Christmas trees flanked the eight-person band as they belted out a soft-rock version of “Joy to the World.”
Some of the hundreds in the crowd stretched out an arm and swayed with the hymns on Sunday at Riverside’s Harvest Christian Fellowship, the flagship of a booming Southern California evangelical church.
Guests shuffled to their seats. Ushers collected tithes. Then Pastor Greg Laurie — beamed in via video feed — was met with applause after he announced the church saw 19,000 professions of faith last year.
“Our country needs help right now,” Laurie later told the crowd. “I believe that America needs a spiritual awakening.”
For the next hour, there was nary a remark about the divided House of Representatives vote last week to impeach President Trump, or a scathing editorial published Thursday by a prominent evangelical magazine that advocated ousting him from office for such “grossly immoral character.”
“That he should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments,” wrote the author, Mark Galli.
The editorial set off a furor among conservatives. Franklin Graham, son of the late Rev. Billy Graham who founded the magazine, said the editorial falsely invoked his father’s name to bash Trump. “For me as a Christian, the fact that he is the most pro-life president in modern history is extremely important — and Christianity Today wants us to ignore that, to say it doesn’t count?” Graham wrote.
Trump quickly denigrated Galli’s publication as a failing “progressive” outlet that preferred “a Radical Left nonbeliever, who wants to take your religion & your guns.”
Although Laurie was pointedly apolitical from the pulpit on the Sunday before Christmas, his congregation knew where he stood. Laurie has made numerous visits to the White House, including last week for a Christmas party.
It was a great honor to be invited to the White House for Christmas. It was beautifully decorated by @FLOTUS I want you to know that I stand in support of @realDonaldTrump as our President. He has done so much for us as Evangelicals and we all ought to be praying for him. pic.twitter.com/7JInTUtl6z— Greg Laurie (@greglaurie) December 21, 2019
On Twitter, the pastor was unwavering.
“[Trump] has done so much for us as Evangelicals and we all ought to be praying for him,” Laurie wrote.
For his congregation and others across Southern California — in a state where 1 in 5 adults are evangelical Christian, according to the Pew Research Center — the editorial spotlighted fissures among the faithful, but appeared to do little to persuade. In some cases, it offered an occasion to solidify support for the 45th president.
“All of us are human, and none of us are without sin,” said Sandra Ortiz, 45, after the morning service with Laurie concluded. Trump, she said, is “human like the rest of us.”
Ortiz, who voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to again next year, admired that her pastor of nearly two decades had repeatedly visited the White House, likening it to faith in action.
“This way our president will be influenced by people who believe in God and go in that right direction, so he can make the right decisions,” Ortiz said.
At the sprawling Lake Forest campus of Saddleback Church, the Orange County megachurch founded by Rick and Kay Warren, many continued to hold the calculation that Trump’s capacity for good work, such as support for Israel and judicial appointments that opposed abortion, were worth the character blemishes and alleged misconduct.
“God always chose people that had flaws,” said Bob Love, a Newport Beach real estate developer. “I feel people are people — nobody’s perfect.”
Love, 84, learned about the controversial editorial via Franklin Graham’s Facebook page. The dyed-in-the-wool Republican said he doesn’t always like what Trump says, but credited him with supporting Israel “big time” and moving the capital to Jerusalem.
“He’s done so much for the church,” Love added.
Rick Warren’s sermon that day, one of 95 services to occur over more than a dozen Saddleback campuses in the next few days, had focused as much on the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas as his second coming. It was a homily that harped on accountability and divine judgment.
“God will reward or punish,” Warren bellowed. “There are hypocrites everywhere.… Fortunately, God saves hypocrites.”
Afterward, parishioner Queen Udofia, 38, dwelled on this fractious moment in history and Trump’s role in it.
“We’ve never had a president who has gone so far out of order,” said Udofia, a resident of Irvine. “He’s not contrite. He’s loud. He offends everyone, everyone. I don’t have good feelings about him, and I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt.”
She was worried by the “hate he’s spewed” and how the U.S. has become “a laughingstock.”
Udofia, a member of Saddleback for five years, did not hear explicit political exhortations from Rick Warren, although Kay Warren has not been afraid to criticize the president’s caustic language online. Instead, Udofia heard from her leaders a call to “be aware” and to be “good to your neighbor.”
Carrie Dunwoody, 73, a retired teacher from Coto de Caza and a longtime member of Warren’s church, was disappointed that Christianity Today chose to dip into what she called a partisan political fight. She wanted the publication to “encourage us and bring us light and goodness.”
Dunwoody learned that Galli, the author of the Trump editorial, was retiring in January. She was relieved.