I grew up going to Billy Graham crusades. They never failed to move me. Along with my loving family and the Evangelical church community in which I was raised, these events fostered a deep faith in me. But like many Christians, I have watched in horror as Evangelicals first embraced Trump and Trumpism, and then doubled down, assigning to Trump savior-like qualities. Over the past four years and still today, I remain appalled as I watch Franklin Graham, son of the beloved evangelist of my childhood, lead his followers off a cliff of Trump devotion so steep that neither they, nor the church, may ever fully recover.
Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I imagine meeting Franklin Graham in some auditorium (like the one I heard his father preach in). In any scenario I feel angry. I’m not sure I would shake his hand, though my upbringing might prevail. I want to call him out, and the words of Jesus in his rare anger come to mind. They are harsh and piercing, and they don’t come easily because I was raised to be polite. But they linger in the atmosphere and I imagine following the lead of Jesus to declare him a “whitewashed tomb.” Lest you think this would be going too far, “whitewashed tomb” is exactly what Jesus called the Pharisees and Scribes who, like Graham, were the religious elite of the day.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness (Matthew 23:27 NASB).”
Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus condemn any other group or individual in this way (if at all—Jesus isn’t into condemning people); not the Samaritan woman with the stained reputation he meets at a well, not the corrupt tax collector he encounters in an overhead tree, not the Roman centurion seeking healing for his servant, even though part of the military force occupying Israel.
Christians are at their best when they find themselves among the marginalized, the weak, the hungry, and those in mourning.
Jesus delivers the words “whitewashed tomb” to this religious elite with rare fury and contempt. Outraged at these trusted spiritual authorities who are leading their followers astray, it seems that nothing makes Jesus angrier. He warns, “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it is better for him that a heavy millstone be hung around his neck, and that he be drowned in the depths of the sea (Matthew18:6 NASB).”
Since Wednesday’s devastating insurrection, the imagined scene in which I confront Franklin Graham is not an auditorium but a tribunal. This seems appropriate. Graham must answer for what he—the crown prince of the Evangelical movement—has done to Jesus’s precious little ones.
While there is much material to draw on, I’ll confine myself to the evidence of a few public statements (or non-statements) by Graham following November 3rd.
- In late November, Graham parroted the baseline lie, “The presidential election isn’t finalized yet.” While it is true that January 6th had yet to arrive, the outcome was hardly in question.
- In mid-December, Graham went further, valorizing Trump’s claim that the election had been stolen. “The President has been maligned, falsely accused, and attacked on every front since before the election in 2016,” Graham wrote on Facebook. “When President Trump says that this election has been rigged or stolen, I tend to believe him. He has a track record of being right.”
- As Christmas approached, Graham told his followers that he thanked God for Trump’s four years in the White House: “President Trump will go down in history as one of the great presidents of our nation, bringing peace and prosperity to millions here in the U.S. and around the world.” Note the word “peace.”
- On December 28th, even given the powder keg of outrage and malicious intent running riot among Trump’s followers on the internet, Graham nonetheless employed the militaristic language routinely deployed by Trump, who would, in just a few days, use it to incite sedition. Graham said, “I ask you to rally God’s army to PRAY and VOTE in this run-off for the Senate…. If conservatives lose control of the Senate, there is nothing to stop the radical agenda of the left. There will not be another chance to get this right. The nation is depending on you.”
- On the night of January 6th, parroting the talking points of right-wing media, Graham told the Religious News Service that Antifa was probably to blame for the violence at the capital: “Most likely it was Antifa.”
- Since then, nearly every other prominent religious leader and denomination in Nation condemned Trump’s role in Wednesday’s violence, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals, but not Graham.
Frightened and enraged by the apocalyptic vision of American collapse Graham (like Trump) has advanced, many American Evangelicals have embraced the baseless lies their leaders have spread, and some have acted upon them. Jeffrey Goldberg, reporting for The Atlantic, recounts some of what he heard at the Capitol on Wednesday from a group of Trump’s supporters, including, “It’s all in the Bible …Everything is predicted. Donald Trump is in the Bible.” Goldberg writes that “A number of them would profess to me their belief that the 45th President is an agent of God and his son Jesus Christ.”
Really, how different is it to ask one’s followers to “rally God’s army…to stop the radical agenda of the left” than to tell a teeming mob, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore”?
Graham, like so many other Evangelicals, sold his soul for power. Yet scripture instructs Christians not to seek power. Having failed twice already to tempt him, Satan tempted Jesus with power: “The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to him, ‘All these things I will give you, if you fall down and worship me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go away, Satan! For it is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only (Matthew 4:8-10 NASB)’”
Jesus did not seek earthly power, he eschewed it. Christians are at their best when they find themselves among the marginalized, the weak, the hungry, and those in mourning. It is better to find common cause with the poor or seek justice for the powerless than to control the Supreme Court.
Now as the Nation calls out seditious political leaders, I call you out, Franklin Graham, for your political and spiritual sedition as you tragically mislead your flock. Don’t merely give lip service to unity as you have done in recent days. Face your sin squarely and repent. Turn your flock away from lies and destruction toward truth and love.
Your father trod this ground before you, publicly endorsing Richard Nixon and advising him that if North Vietnam’s leaders refused to negotiate, he should bomb levees to flood vast portions of North Vietnam in order to destroy the economy. Eventually he repented of his actions, telling Christianity Today that if he had it to do over again, he “would have steered clear of politics.” Your father said that while honored to have ministered to the spiritual needs of “people in high places … looking back, I know I sometimes crossed the line….”
In a retrospective in Politico on the occasion of Billy Graham’s death, in 2018, Jeff Greenfield asked a provocative question:
“What if [Billy] Graham, with his undeniable magnetism, had chosen a different path? … What if he had found the boardrooms and offices of the political elite less appealing than the injunction to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?’ We might have been remembering him as we do another Southern minister, who led a life 60 years shorter, but who moved mountains.”