At first glance, it seems obvious that one Christian would pray with another, and that Billy Graham would pray with the President of the United States as he has done since the days of Truman. But, to paraphrase Vice-President Biden, in today’s political and religious climate, this was a “big deal.”
Now, I suspect that Billy Graham and President Obama don’t see eye to eye on everything; but that didn’t prevent them from praying together as fellow Christians. Rev. Graham’s hospitality and prayer with President Obama is both an affirmation and a challenge. In the words of America’s most famous evangelist, “I am pleased to have had President Obama in my home this afternoon. I want to encourage Christians everywhere to pray for our president and for all those in positions of authority and especially for the men and women serving in our military.”
Rev. Graham affirmed the importance of prayer for our leaders. Transformation comes through prayer and dialogue, not hatred and violence. Graham implicitly issued a challenge to conservative Christians whose social and economic beliefs have trumped their faith in Jesus Christ. You cannot carry a placard identifying Obama with Hitler or use hate speech to describe him and simultaneously pray for him. Graham’s words are a challenge to politically conservative Christians to place their Christian faith ahead of their political ideology. The Epistle of John makes it clear that only those who love truly know God. Jesus’ message of hospitality embraced even those who crucified them. The Hebraic vision of Shalom, peace, includes all nations and all creation. Hatred, false witness, and violence are incompatible with the forgiveness and acceptance Jesus taught.
Many persons who denounce court decisions upholding separation of church and state seem to forget about their faith’s ethical requirements as soon as they enter the political arena. Would Jesus tell his followers to “reload” and put bulls-eyes on opponents? Would Jesus spit on those who disagreed with him or bear false witness for political gain or score television ratings? Would Jesus use code-language to encourage alienation, if not violence, toward gays, lesbians, persons of color, and undocumented immigrants. So, if conservative Christians still pay attention to their spiritual parent, Rev. Billy Graham, and his savior Jesus, they should feel convicted. Perhaps, some liberals ought to feel convicted as well; we can disagree, correct falsehoods, and whole-heartedly affirm our positions without demeaning those who oppose our viewpoint.
For sixty years, Billy Graham has been one of America’s spiritual leaders, and his simple prayer with President Obama, reflects the integrity, honesty, and willingness to change, and even repent, that has characterized this man of faith. While Rev. Graham and I may differ on the nature of salvation or the call to repentance, I know one thing for sure: Billy Graham’s altar calls were motivated by love, the desire that no one be lost and that all might experience eternal life with Jesus. My words about everlasting life may differ and my vision of eternity embraces everyone, even the non-believer; but both of Rev. Graham and myself, and many progressives, choose to put love first in our political and cultural involvement.
So, conservative and progressive Christians alike can learn from a simple prayer: don’t hate other Christians; don’t bear false witness for political gain; pray for our leaders that they be wise and compassionate; don’t threaten by word or action; and recognize that embracing theological diversity is not a hindrance to faith, but a sign of spiritual stature.
Bruce Epperly is a professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of an open and affirming emerging congregation in Lancaster, PA, Disciples United Community Church. He is the author of sixteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a progressive spiritual response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life.