Who Benefits when Evangelicals Publicly Ridicule Other Evangelicals?

Who Benefits when Evangelicals Publicly Ridicule Other Evangelicals? April 3, 2020

Jonathan Merritt thought the readers of the Daily Beast needed to know how bigoted Franklin Graham is (apparently his editors at the website agreed). At the same time that Graham’s humanitarian organization is setting up health care facilities to treat COVID-19 illnesses, Merritt reminds readers that Graham is unworthy of admiration:

New Yorkers have plenty of good reasons to feel uncomfortable about this new coronavirus hospital.

Of chief concern is the person overseeing the Central Park ward: Samaritan’s Purse’s president and CEO Franklin Graham. He is the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham and a spiritual adviser to President Donald Trump who has a surprisingly long history of controversial comments and hate speech.

Graham seems to harbor a special level of disdain for followers of Islam, which he characterizes as a “wicked and evil religion” that encourages adherents to beat their wives and murder their disobedient children. In 2015, he recommended banning all Muslims from immigrating to America and suggested our government treat them like the Japanese and German during World War II. As rationale, he argued that Muslims have “the potential to be radicalized” and participate in “killing to honor their religion and Muhammed.”

That’s the man running Samaritan’s Purse’s coronavirus hospital, so yes, Muslim New Yorkers are right to be skeptical.

Graham’s hate speech is also often aimed at LGBTQ people. He has called same-sex marriages “detestable” and has drummed up fear toward gays and lesbians—whom he believes should burn in hell—by claiming they want to “drag an immoral agenda into our communities.” In an article that has mysteriously disappeared from the Decision Magazine website, Graham wrote that the architect of the LGBTQ rights movement was “none other than Satan himself.” And when Vladimir Putin initiated a violent crackdown on LGBTQ rights in Russia, it sparked a wave of beatings, abduction, public humiliation and other forms of violence against sexual minorities there. Graham responded by praising Putin’s policy, lauding the authoritarian leader for “[protecting] his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.”

Given such history, it makes complete sense that Mount Sinai Hospital asked Samaritan’s Purse to “sign a written pledge to treat all patients equally.”

Some conservative Christians have dismissed this as harassment, claiming that a scenario in which evangelicals discriminated against gays and lesbians is ridiculous to imagine. But our fair city has a long memory. We remember all the gay men who fled communities across America where evangelicals pastors condemned them as “abominations” and found safe harbor in New York. We remember that when masses of them contracted HIV/AIDS and filled our hospital beds, evangelical preachers on TV called it God’s judgment. We remember Jerry Falwell and the religious right lobbying against HIV research and relief in the ’90s, leading to untold deaths.

Of course, that litany of bad taste and ill will would get Graham cancelled from a host of public speaking venues in New York City. The pandemic will not allow for that sort of purity. New Yorkers cannot refuse much needed medical assistance even if it comes from the bigoted. So Mayor Bill De Blasio has put Graham’s organization on notice.

Merritt’s piece is another one of those odd instances of evangelicals-hate-other-evangelicals hate-crimes. It is somewhat different from what Fred Clark called the evangelical faculty lounge, or “where professors can relax and speak candidly amongst themselves without worrying about who else might be listening in.” Some have expressed discomfort or outright hostility to the apparently secretive nature of such a gathering. Obviously, Merritt, who may qualify as a member of the faculty lounge if he ever read Mark Noll, is not all that secretive about his views of Graham.

What is more likely is that as a contributing editor at Atlantic Magazine, Merritt occupies a sector of evangelicalism, that (in an earlier iteration) was typical of:

that the academic and clerical wing of white evangelicalism represented by its universities and seminaries, by seminary-educated clergy, credible publishing houses and periodicals, and educated lay people. Alas, the evangelicals of the faculty lounge cannot speak for most white evangelicals, or what some call the evangelical faculty lounge perspective on non-faculty evangelicals.

In which case, the question is not so much about the secrecy of discussions in the evangelical faculty lounge as it is about the ties between these evangelicals and the other kind, the ones who like Jerry Falwell and support Donald Trump. (Hint, just abandon evangelicalism and be whatever kind of Protestant you are — from independent to Anglo-Catholic.)

The tension between ordinary or Red-State evangelicals and the faculty kind may explain outbursts like Merritt’s (and others from evangelical historians who regularly deride Trump, his supporters, tacky evangelical expressions, and signs of bigotry among popular white male evangelical pastors and theologians).

When you look at this just on the surface, you have to wonder who benefits from Merritt attacking Graham at the Daily Beast. Was it really the case that readers of DB, which is the creation of Tina Brown, formerly of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, needed to know who Graham is and Merritt was the guy to write the piece? If DB readers did not know Graham or his famous father, Billy, were they in danger of thinking the head of Samaritan’s Purse was the person Bill De Blasio was about to head the New York City Health Department?

Were DB readers confused that Graham was one of their own, someone who reads regularly the website but harbors views the rest of the readers and editors find deplorable?

Did Graham have designs on starting a rival news-opinion outlet with the purpose of cutting into DB revenues and readership? Could Graham even be recruiting Tina Brown to start a rival publication?

Do DB readers have no understanding of evangelicals and conservatism or their support for Donald Trump, which leaves Merritt performing a sleuth exercise to expose the hypocrisy of born-again Protestants — that is, after three years of stories in mainstream journalistic outlets about the hypocrisy of born-again Protestants?

Or could it be that Merritt benefits (as do other faculty lounge evangelicals who write for non-evangelical outlets about the horrors of evangelicals) from this piece? Could Merritt himself have another entry on his resume with proof that he can write for secular and progressive audiences? And could this be an indication that even though Merritt identifies as an evangelical he is not an Graham evangelical? Could it be that this indicates that even though an evangelical, he has the right hostility to the other kind of evangelicals?

If so, then this sort of writing is not virtue signaling. It is really abhorrence signaling. It shows that Merritt’s dispositions are closer to Tina Brown’s than to Franklin Graham’s. Meanwhile, all the readers of DB are edified. Author, editors, and readers know, in unison, they are not like those evangelicals who hold Graham’s views.

I’m sure anthropologists have some sort of term for making a figure like Graham a scapegoat for failures of a society embody its progressive convictions. But the better term may come from the world of comedy. Here are two options. Is Merritt punching up or punching down?

When we talk about “punching down” vs. “punching up” in comedy, we are talking about where the cultural power of a joke is weighted. The idea that humor should “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” has been a sort of moral directive for comedians for some time. Dorothy Parker argued that ridicule was best used as a shield rather than a weapon – in other words, as a defense mechanism for the victimized instead of a tool deployed by the powerful. George Carlin echoed this sentiment, observing that “comedy has traditionally picked on people in power.”

Merritt (and other faculty lounge evangelicals) may think they are punching up when they bring down a figure like Graham, David Barton, Robert Jeffress, or John MacArthur. If they did so at an evangelical publication like Christianity Today or World or First Things they might actually be punching up because in those settings someone like Graham may have more standing than someone like Merritt (but not by much). But in the world of Daily Beast, New Republic, the Nation, or the New Yorker, can anyone tell me that Graham has more cultural clout than Merritt (who is, again, a contributing editor at the Atlantic)?

So punching up or down depends on the setting where you are punching. And, by all means, if you are in the evangelical faculty lounge punching Franklin Graham you are clearly directing your punches down, thereby joining the ranks of “performers who made careers out of ridiculing the most despised and misunderstood social groups – in Carlin’s words, ‘the underdogs.'”

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