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Franklin Graham and the Damage to Evangelism

I liked Billy Graham. I’d watch his Crusades on the living room black and white TV. Cliff Barrows leading the massed choir. George Beverly Shea singing “I’d Rather Have Jesus”. And the climactic altar call to people to give their hearts to Christ. “America’s Pastor” was counselor and confidant to every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. I was blissfully unaware of Graham’s efforts to curry favour with Richard Nixon, revealing and later regretting his anti-semitic views. In 1972 he said that "satanic Jews" dominated the news media. After first denying the quote, Graham apologized in 2002 when audio surfaced, and said his remarks did "not reflect my love for the Jewish people."

As a clergyman myself, I attended the Billy Graham School of Evangelism and was part of a group of clergy who investigated the logistics of bringing his son Franklin to our home town for a rally at our new downtown arena.

By then, Billy had stepped down from the pulpit and Franklin had been appointed CEO of the BGEA (Billy Graham Evangelistic Association). And that’s where things went awry.

Despite forming Samaritan’s Purse to bring needed food and medical services around the world “in Jesus’ name”, Franklin took the BGEA in a different direction. To borrow from the common aphorism, the apple fell a long way from the tree.

While his famous father eschewed taking political sides, Franklin leaned hard right to make the BGEA a thinly-veiled promotor of Donald Trump. During his first campaign, in addition to purveying the birther nonsense that helped to propel Trump to political prominence, Franklin Graham suggested that President Barack Obama was not a Christian and might in fact be a secret Muslim.

Along with evangelist Jerry Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr., he helped to elect Trump president by swinging 80 percent of white evangelical voters to his side. And then when Trump was elected, Graham attributed the victory not to a surge of White Christian support but to divine providence.

While Donald Trump couldn’t bother to go to a church on Easter this year, it was been noted that Joe Biden, while in office, has attended church more than any president in the past 70 years. But don’t let someone’s faith or his character interfere when conservative polices are in play. After all, the man who Graham feels is God’s choice for America, was facing 34 felony counts of falsifying business documents to cover up payment to a porn star to buy her silence of their sex when his third wife was home with their newborn son while Trump was running for President.

On social media, Franklin Graham posted, “Today is day 2 of jury deliberations in the NY trial of former President @realDonaldTrump. Pray that God will give members of the jury wisdom and insight to know truth.”

When the jury heard the evidence and decided that Trump was guilty on all counts, Franklin posted, “Our country is at a crossroads. What we saw today has never happened before, and I think for the majority of Americans, it raises questions about whether our legal system can be trusted.”

Franklin obviously wasn’t interested in truth, just the right verdict.

Here’s the damage report. First of all, while the influence of evangelicals as a political force, solidified in the 1980s under the guidance of Jerry Falwell, may remain, its reputation as a force for good in the world is diminishing. As David French, senior writer for National Review, has asserted, Franklin Graham’s harsh rhetoric and narrow political associations illustrate the declining significance of the evangelical witness in the public square.

But secondly, while the mission of the BGEA is to proclaim the gospel to all people, aligning itself with someone whose personality is, shall we say, at odds with any virtue espoused in the Bible, means that the call for conversion falls on deaf ears. Franklin may play to his base. It pays the bills. Everyone else just rolls their eyes.

Or worse, reject the message because of the messenger.