Franklin Graham and the latter-day politicization of the BGEA

Franklin Graham and the latter-day politicization of the BGEA October 23, 2012

Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president, visited the Rev. Billy Graham earlier this month.

Presidential candidates have been doing this since before I was born. They meet with the respected evangelist, he prays for them and with them, they get their picture taken and announce what an honor it was to have met with the old preacher. The end.

Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney (left) meets with Franklin Graham (right) as the Rev. Billy Graham is posed between them.

Candidates have always known better than to seek or expect an endorsement from Graham. That has long been a matter of principle for him and for his ministry. Billy Graham was an evangelist, not a politician. He was called by God, he said, to preach the gospel to everyone — Democrats, Republicans, independents, everyone. And he refused to jeopardize that by taking sides in elections or partisan politics.

Until now.

Romney left North Carolina with Graham’s endorsement.

Graham did not speak publicly in support of Romney, but a statement attributed to the 93-year-old evangelist was released by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, led by Graham’s son, Franklin. And the following week, the BGEA began running newspaper ads in support of Romney. Those ads feature Billy Graham’s picture and words attributed to him by Franklin and the BGEA.

The BGEA took one more step unprecedented in its history — scrubbing its website of every critical reference to Mormonism and backing away from its longtime belief that the LDS Church is not Christian. Along with Romney’s political agenda, the BGEA endorsed his theology. Billy Graham and the BGEA had long characterized Mormonism as a “cult.” They no longer do so. Apparently, since Mitt Romney is a Mormon bishop, the elder Graham’s theological differences with Mormonism could not be allowed to cloud the endorsement of the Republican candidate now being attributed to him.

Here’s a whole bunch of links summarizing the BGEA’s newfound desire to reinvent Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.

David Badash of The New Civil Rights Movement was the first to call attention to the BGEA’s attempt to scrub its website of any criticism of Mitt Romney’s religion: “Billy Graham Endorses Romney Then Scrubs Site Calling Mormonism a ‘Cult.’” And Badash sees Franklin Graham’s grubby fingerprints all over this clumsy political maneuvering:

Billy Graham is 93 years old and in frail health. He’s been in and out of hospitals as recently as August.

It is unlikely that Billy Graham actually wrote the statement his organization released in his name.

Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, earlier this year was widely condemned for comments he made on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” when he strongly questioned President Barack Obama’s faith as a Christian. “I can’t say categorically,” if Obama is a Christian, the younger Graham stated.

Adelle Banks of Religion News Service asks “Why is Billy Graham so involved in the 2012 elections?” Banks interviews Graham biographer William Martin, who says, “I’m reasonably certain that he’s not done this before.”

The new BGEA campaign is “more in line” with the son’s historical behavior than the father’s, Martin said.

“I think that Franklin has an influence in there,” Martin said. “But I can’t say … that he is leading his father to do something that he’s not willing to do.”

… Michael Hamilton, who chairs the history department at evangelical Seattle Pacific University, also sees the son’s hand behind Billy Graham’s political involvement.

“The ‘vote biblical values’ campaign repeats the slogans of the religious right in ways that Billy Graham never did until he was very old and frail,” Hamilton said. “I think it would be more responsible for the media and for Americans to interpret these statements as the statements of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and its current president, Franklin Graham, as opposed to the statements of Billy Graham himself.”

Jason Dye says the same thing, but with more candor and less tact:

[Franklin Graham] is a political hack who only needs to please a certain (and generally white, privileged, male-dominated) evangelical base. But he is shrewd enough to recognize that his father’s legacy is stronger and wider than his will ever be. As long as he can ride those coattails, he will. As long as he can convince his locked-away father — who is losing breath and consciousness — that he is taking care of him and convince his followers that the words that are supposed to be representative of Billy Graham are actually Billy Graham’s … then, glory be! Franklin Graham the scam artist/political hack can get away with destroying a legacy and helping to steal an election at the same time.

Ron Goetz is a bit more harsh — comparing Franklin to Grima Wormtongue, the poisonous, treasonous adviser who exploited the enfeebled King Theoden in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

In two sentences, Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist offers a clearer understanding of Billy Graham’s pre-2012 avoidance of politics — and the reasons for it — than Franklin or anyone else on the current BGEA board seems to possess:

I always thought that Graham’s appeal to most Christians was that he was never about politics; he was always about Jesus.

Now we know better: He’s as much a conservative shill as James Dobson, Bryan Fischer, Mike Huckabee, and all those other Christian leaders who see the government as little more than a tool to advance their faith.

The Burner Blog of Fuller Seminary responds to the BGEA ad in Graham’s name with withering sarcasm.

In The Guardian, Jonathan Wynne-Jones says, “Billy Graham’s lurch towards Mitt Romney risks his legacy“:

[The Grahams] are sending out a message that says God is on the side of the white, conservative Mormon rather than the black, liberal Christian.

By becoming so political they risk damaging the incredible work Billy Graham has done in spreading a gospel that preached forgiveness for all, because it turns out repenting might not be enough.

Instead, you have to ask for your liberal views to be washed away as well because your faith will always be suspect unless you subscribe to a certain brand of Christianity.

All across the board, this deviation from Billy Graham’s previous a-political stance has been seen as a disaster for his legacy and for the BGEA and it’s once-central evangelistic mission.

But it hasn’t been a disaster for everyone. As Graham’s hometown paper, the (Asheville, N.C.) Citizen-Times, notes, the BGEA’s spastic lurch toward partisan activism may have given Romney a boost with white evangelical voters:

The meeting was aimed at improving Romney’s image with conservative Christians, especially in the South where he will need strong turnout to win the White House.

Romney has faced some difficulty with evangelical voters, in part because some believe his Mormon faith means he is not a Christian.

And as the local TV news, CBS Charlotte, reports:

Romney’s embrace of Franklin Graham draws in an evangelical leader who has been criticized for his harsh views of Islam. The younger Graham has described Islam as evil and offensive and has said Muslims should know that Christ died for their sins.

This, I think, is the core of the story. Romney needed white evangelicals to embrace him as part of their sectarian tribe. And Franklin needed a prominent Republican to help restore his standing after a string of talk-radio-style incontinent gaffes. So they worked out a deal.

Two sons desperate for the power once wielded by their more-famous fathers — both unable to display the integrity their fathers displayed by pursuing something other than power. But they were able to help each other.

The oddest aspect of this story is that Billy Graham hasn’t just abandoned his long-standing principled opposition to taking partisan sides in an election. He has also purportedly abandoned his long-standing theological disagreement with Mormonism.

Whatever the merits or demerits of Graham’s view of Mormonism prior to late this year, the salient point here is that he believed it to be a “cult” — something other than Christianity. Now he and his BGEA are just treating it like one more denomination. (And — as Mark Silk points out — Romney, a former stake president in the LDS Church, took an unusual step from his side by agreeing to pray with non-Mormon Graham.)

As Chaplain Mike wrote at Internet Monk, “I think they just sparked a theological debate.”

And they did so, ironically, by pretending that there is no theological debate — or at least no theological differences equal to their political affinities.

Scot McKnight quotes from BGEA’s chief of staff, Ken Barun, who said the description of Romney’s religion was removed because “we do not wish to participate in a theological debate about something that has become politicized during this campaign.” McKnight notes:

This is precisely what has not been done; BGEA has politicized theology by removing it.

Elsewhere, McKnight noted: “Over the years Billy Graham has made mistakes in connections with the White House; this one appears to be another mistake in the political realm.”

The clumsy Franklin-ness of this whole business is that it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him or to anyone at BGEA that America has a secular government in a religiously pluralistic society. They seem to think that they couldn’t endorse Romney without endorsing Romney’s religion, and so — because they decided politics was more important than theology — they chose to give Mormonism a big sloppy kiss of BGEA-approval. Weird.

As Tony Jones writes:

Evangelicals say that the Bible and theological orthodoxy are the most important things for a Christian to abide by. And yet, time and time again, evangelicals will forsake these tenets for political expediency.

… It seems that Graham, like many other evangelical leaders, is supporting Romney. That’s totally fine. But to sweep under the rug their long-standing teaching that the LDS Church is a cult is not only disingenuous, it’s downright deceptive.

And finally, Alan Bean provides a terrific bit of historical perspective in a post titled “Why Billy Graham is down with a Mormon president.”

“Billy Graham reflects the best and the worst of the culture that produced him,” Bean writes, speaking of mid-20th century Southern white evangelicalism. You should read the whole thing, but this part is particularly good:

If you can get past theology, white evangelicals and Mormons are cut from the same bolt of cloth. Both groups are highly patriotic, endorse hard work and personal responsibility, believe in a small government and insist on a dominant military. Truth be told, both groups have backed away from their  traditional embrace of white supremacy gradually and with a marked lack of consistency or sincerity.

This racial ambivalence is easily explained. Jim Crow enthusiasts took a terrible psychological thumping during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Men and women who had traditionally seen themselves as the conscience and moral heartbeat of America, suddenly found themselves denounced as bigots and haters, a loathsome cancer that should be excised from the body politic.

Southern evangelicals never recovered from the shock.

… Over three decades later, the specter of “liberalism” has grown to monstrous proportions in the evangelical imagination. If you hate liberals, the religious Right is willing to be your friend.

This explains why Billy Graham and other evangelicals are making peace with Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Their theological opposition to the Latter Day Saints hasn’t dimmed in the least, but anti-liberal ideology, not Christian theology, calls the tune in this brave new world of ours. The Religious Right inhabits a Manichaean world. They can only be bathed in light if their opponents are shrouded in darkness. If evangelicals represent the salvation of the world, liberals must spell the damnation of all things good and lovely. They simply must.

See also:

• Religion News Service: “After Romney meeting, Billy Graham website scrubs Mormon ‘cult’ reference”

• Raw Story: “Billy Graham website admits scrubbing ‘Mormons’ from ‘cult’ list after endorsing Romney”

• CNN: “Billy Graham buys election ads after Romney meeting”

• David Badash: “Billy Graham, Even After Endorsing Romney, Still Believes Mormonism Is a Cult”

• Bruce Wilson: “Graham’s Romney Endorsement Accidentally Spreads ‘Mormonism Is a Cult’ Meme to Millions”

• Pastor Chris: “Billy Graham Sells Out Before Checking Out – Mormonism No ‘Cult’”

• A Life in Juxtaposition: “Dear Franklin Graham: DBAA With Your Family Legacy”

• Alise Wright: “Billy Graham, politics and promoting the gospel”

• Frank Schaeffer: “Franklin and Billy Graham Sell Their Souls for a Mess of Republican Pottage”

• Frank Schaeffer: “Billy Graham Endorses Romney’s Secret Conversion to Islam — Says ‘At Least He’s Not a Homosexual!'”

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