Franklin Graham demonized fellow Americans with election comment

Published 7:55 am Thursday, January 19, 2017


Guest columnist

After the election, The Christian Century included without comment in its Dec. 7 issue the following tweet from evangelist Franklin Graham in its “Century Marks” section:

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“I believe God’s hand intervened Tuesday night to stop the godless, atheist progressive agenda from taking control.”

Candidate Clinton, a life-long Methodist, might have been shocked at this characterization of her religious and political stance unless she considered the source.

The source (Graham) is one of the ministers chosen for a role at the inauguration — probably because of his huge and successful effort on Trump’s behalf with White Christian America, as described in Robert Jones’ recent book, The End of White Christian America.

Maybe he would have made the short list anyway — he has credentials. He is the CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, an organization that has an annual budget of over $100 million. Prior to assuming that position, he had been president and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse, a non-profit Christian international organization with an annual budget of $400 million.

These accomplishments would not have been predicted in his earlier life, when he admittedly sowed some wild oats. However, at the age of 22 he experienced a religious conversion, married, and proceeded to live a changed life.  He is now 64.

His current standing shows how far he has come in evangelical circles — but not all evangelical circles, as we shall see. As Robert Jones explains in his book, he resonates more with the Christian Right than did his father. Jones opines, “It would be difficult to overstate the differences between father and son.”

Father Billy’s huge evangelistic crusades made him perhaps the biggest name in conservative Christianity in the 50s.  His appeal was broadly welcoming and largely apolitical.  He stopped holding segregated revival events in 1952, and he invited Martin Luther King to pray at one of his crusades in 1957.  He held all presidents in high esteem, according to Jones, and he advised every sitting president from Truman to Obama.

Son Franklin has followed a much more partisan political path. His statement about God’s hand in Trump’s election is characteristic of his extreme, even apocalyptic rhetoric.  Two of his attack targets have been abortion (He said the election was about electing someone who would appoint anti-abortion-rights Supreme Court justices) and gay marriage (He said Russia’s rejection of it shows a higher standard than the decadent USA).

High on his disapproval list is President Obama. Having labeled Islam “a very wicked and evil religion,” he has denigrated Obama as having had a strong Muslim influence in his life and as being under the thumb of sinister Muslim advisors who are anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.  He has questioned Obama’s openly Christian faith.  His reelection was, for Graham, a sign that Americans “have turned our back on God.” He warned it would “usher in the largest changes in our society since the Civil War.”  

The racial implications of this assessment are flagged by the Robert Jones observation that Graham “has failed to heed black America’s claim about injustice at the hands of the police and the courts.”

When the hashtags #HandsUpDon’tShoot, #ICan’tBreathe, and #BlackLivesMatter followed the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the strangling of Eric Garner in New York, Graham launched a tirade to his 1.4 million Facebook fans. Blacks, whites, Latinos and everybody else were told to “listen up.”

“Most police shootings can be avoided. It comes down to respect for authority and obedience.” In other words, do as the officer says, even if you think it is wrong, and you will be safe.

Tell that to the person shot by a police officer as he reached in his car for his driver’s license or the man who was killed in his car with his family as he complied with stated instructions about revealing that there was a gun in the car. Graham admonishes parents to teach children to obey authority and instructs Obama to so direct them.  Nearly 200,000 people “liked” the Facebook post, and it was shared more than 83,000 times.

His post struck a nerve with many white Americans, and it generated “an angry open letter from a group of African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American religious leaders, many of whom were fellow evangelicals” (Jones). Calling the post “crude, insensitive, and paternalistic,” the letter continued: “It reveals a cavalier disregard for the enduring impacts and outcomes of the legal regimes that enslaved and oppressed people of color, made in the image of God — from Native American genocide and containment, to colonial and antebellum slavery, through Jim Crow and peonage, to our current system of mass incarceration and criminalization.”  About 4,500 endorsers joined the 31 original signers.      

When Clemson coach Dabo Swinney credited God with his remarkable team’s national championship, he trivialized God by seemingly making the Almighty the decider in athletic contests, but he did not compound the problem by demonizing Coach Saban and the Crimson Tide.

When analysts of the election ponder the possible impact of Vladimir Putin or James Comey on the outcome, it probably would not occur to them to regard either of these men as instruments of God. When the voting percentages of White Christian America (as discussed in my previous column) are coupled with the undeniable influence of Franklin Graham on the Christian Right, one could make a case for Graham as a decisive factor in the election.

He instead makes the case for God. His interventionist God, who apparently decided not to intervene to prevent the Holocaust or the genocide in Rwanda, nor the ongoing war crimes in Syria by the Assad regime, nor any number of other horrors, found “the godless, atheistic progressive agenda” represented by Obama and Clinton so abominable, that divine intervention was required.

That’s the ultimate demonization. A healthy democracy depends on compromises that are only possible when we do not demonize opponents. That’s why Franklin Graham’s influence should give us pause.

Eric Mount is professor emeritus of religion at Centre College.