Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, and the Selling of the Evangelical Soul | News

Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, and the Selling of the Evangelical Soul

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This post is excerpted from the INDY’s morning newsletter, Primer. To read this morning’s edition in full, click here. To get all the day’s local and national headlines and insights delivered straight to your inbox, sign up here.

Last Wednesday morning, as my plane my taxiing off the runway, a friend texted that Billy Graham had died. The ninety-nine-year-old evangelist was quickly lavished with praise from all corners of America. His body lay in repose in Charlotte yesterday and will do so again today; after that, it will lie in honor inside the U.S. Capitol before returning to Charlotte for his funeral Friday, with President Trump in attendance. The feting usually glosses over some of the more unseemly details of his life—his anti-Semitism, for instance —but it has nonetheless raised a question central to the modern evangelical movement: Has the evangelical movement sold its soul in pursuit of political power? (Spoiler: yes, it has.)
  • From the NYT yesterday: “The Rev. Billy Graham admitted in his later years that he had learned a hard lesson after the Watergate scandal exposed his cozy complicity with President Richard M. Nixon: Pastors should not become too enmeshed with politicians and partisan politics. ‘Looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now,’ he said to the magazine Christianity Today in 2011. Now, the movement that he helped spawn is divided over the very danger that Mr. Graham—who died last week at age 99—had warned about. Evangelicals have become locked in a tight embrace with President Trump and the Republican Party, and some of them are now asking whether they have compromised the Gospel message.”
  • Of course, one of those Republicans who has fawned over the thrice-married, adulterous libertine who currently resides in the Oval Office is none other than Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son. “Franklin Graham has defended the president on television and social media through the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., the crackdowns on immigrants and refugees, the Stormy Daniels scandal, and the slur against Haiti and Africa.”
  • “His funeral is expected to draw politicians from both political parties, showcasing Billy Graham’s success at bipartisanship. The eulogy is to be delivered by his son, Franklin, who has honed a reputation as a polarizing partisan. When Barack Obama was president, Franklin Graham fanned the ‘birther’ conspiracy that claimed the president was not an American citizen. He falsely suggested that Mr. Obama was not a Christian and might secretly be a Muslim.”
  • “Franklin Graham has become a prominent leader of the evangelical faction that is white, older, conservative on immigration, L.G.B.T. issues and guns, and loyal to the Republican Party and Mr. Trump. Some 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump, according to the Pew Research Center. But there is another wing of the evangelical movement whose members are more moderate politically, many of them black, Latino, Asian, or city dwellers, or young. Some of these evangelicals have grown increasingly discomfited by the close association with the Republican Party, and now, with Mr. Trump.”
  • “‘I think that Franklin Graham has failed as a Christian leader, both for what he endorses and for what he has failed to criticize. I speak for a lot of people on that one,’ said Richard J. Mouw, president emeritus and professor of faith and public life at the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, the nation’s largest full-time seminary. ‘A lot of us were deeply grateful to Billy Graham for acknowledging that he aligned himself in unhelpful and actually non-Christian ways with a person in power,’ Dr. Mouw said in an interview last week. ‘We’re grateful that he said, ‘I was wrong, that was a dangerous thing to have done.’ And now, here we see the same patterns repeated, even by his own son.’”
  • When Billy Graham handed Franklin the reins of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 2001, many people in the organization did not think he was ready for the role, Mr. Martin said. ‘Franklin turned out to be better in some ways than they thought he would be’ at running an organization and preaching, [William C. Martin, a senior fellow in religion at Rice University’s Baker Institute] said. ‘People are worried now that Billy Graham’s legacy will be diminished by some of the actions and positions that Franklin has espoused,’ he said. “But I don’t know that that bothers Franklin. Or his supporters.’”

WHAT IT MEANS: This issue is bigger than Franklin Graham, though he is its embodiment. White evangelicals have given themselves over to a demagogue who has promised to crack down on abortion and gay rights and support the Second Amendment and the rights of pastors to politicize the pulpit, turning a blind eye to his lies and vulgarity and history of sexual excess and allegations of misconduct—what the Bible might call “wickedness.” It’s not just that they see the president as a means to end, although they surely do. It’s that he shares their cultural conservative, which permeates everything from race to guns to women’s rights. In this sense, God doesn’t really matter; politics does.

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