When evangelist Franklin Graham announced that he was coming to Pittsburgh I thought about going — when his father Billy held a crusade here in 1993 I went every night but the first.
But after the first night of the three-day gathering, which I couldn’t attend anyway, and I heard about an interview with Franklin that aired that night on the Fox News Channel complaining about Muslim persecution of Christians in the Middle East, I decided not to (he has made numerous anti-Muslim statements over the years). In fact, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that he insisted — falsely — that Muslims had never spoken out against Islamic-based terrorism.
And of late, that’s not the only pronouncement he’s made that has offended many. Last month, according to his Facebook page and quoted by blogger Bill Chandler, he asked, “Why is [President Obama] seemingly continuing to protect Islam and refusing to open his eyes to the truth?” And just last week he basically told “people of color” that they should obey the police to keep from being roughed up or shot.
What I think we’re seeing is a return to the bad-old days of the 1980s culture war, where enemies real or imagined were played up by media “ministries” for the sake of power, using some bogeyman to raise money to maintain their empires. In 1980 it went from “secular humanism” to communists to “abortionists” to liberals; in the 1990s President Clinton and the media were the whipping boys; these days, of course, it’s President Obama, gays and Islam.
And the problem was the same then as it is now: Just as did Moral Majority and other groups did back then, Graham, with such pronouncements, is neglecting the spiritual war — which is the war in which he’s supposedly enlisted to fight. Doing so actually causes divisiveness in the church.
Graham’s statements about African-Americans and the police have to be especially insulting considering that Billy was one of the few conservative Christians who supported Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement (Billy supposedly said to Dr. King, “You take the streets; I’ll take the stadiums”). Modern political conservatism has a reputation, which frankly is deserved to a certain extent, for racism; while I’m not calling Franklin a racist, he’s probably alienated black supporters of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, under whose aegis Franklin works.
People might be saying, “But Franklin is preaching the Gospel.” I would ask: What kind of Gospel is he preaching? Are we asked to commit to a God Who needs to be propped up by the culture, or is He beyond all that? He is not a tribal deity that we can call upon to defeat perceived enemies; remember that Jesus was crucified in part because He refused to go that route.
A number of people, most notably Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners, have called Franklin out. And I think it was the right thing to do — because he’s making things more difficult for the rest of us.