US evangelism, partisanship and party political ties

US evangelical leader Franklin Graham has said he is considering legal action against some UK venues for cancelling his preaching tour engagements. Graham, who is the head of a large international NGO aid agency and son of the most prominent Western Christian preacher of the last century, was informed by a potential venue that they had been “made aware of a number of statements (by Graham) which we consider to be incompatible with our values.”

Graham is not, as some have said, a hate preacher. But he has inadvertently done great damage to Christianity in the West, in the manner in which he speaks about certain issues, and in his partisanship.

The list of controversies attached to him is long, but there are three areas for which he is particularly known: US politics, his attitude toward homosexuality, and Islam.

It is the second area that is responsible for his cancellations in the UK, and (as is a common theme for Graham), it is probably less his views on the matter than the way he expresses them that makes him so controversial. Much of the way that he expresses these views also relates to US politics, such as in his recent attacks on presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg.

Graham is excoriating on Islam, but also ignorant. In this, he is perhaps typical of many Western Christians – they have never had much interaction with Islam, and the information they base their opinions on is flawed. The gist of the message is that Islam is an inherently violent religion, and therefore, if you are not violent, you are not Muslim. This is a circular argument: If only violent Muslims are true Muslims, then of course Islam could be described as an inherently violent religion! The problem is, circular arguments don’t engage with reality.

But again, some of his comments on Islam relate to US politics, such as previous attacks on President Barack Obama being Muslim because “the seed of Islam passes through the father.”

Graham is not, as some have said, a hate preacher. But he has inadvertently done great damage to Christianity in the West, in the manner in which he speaks about certain issues.

Peter Welby

This takes us to the core of Graham’s controversy. He is an intensely partisan Republican. This isn’t particularly unusual amongst US evangelical Christians (or indeed, among US liberal Christians for the Democrats). And Christian leaders – religious leaders generally – should not stay out of politics. The prophets of the Bible never did. But it is unwise for any religious leader to be political on the basis of party, rather than political on the basis of policy.

Being British, and therefore basically a socialist in American eyes (although pretty right wing by UK standards), I am influenced by the way that the European press views Republican presidents. It is rarely positive. And so I have always been curious, when I meet with my evangelical friends in the US, why so many are Republican.

I was particularly curious in the run-up to the 2016 election, an unenviable choice by many standards. But the answer has always been the same: The Republican party opposes abortion, defends the traditional family model and generally upholds Christian values, while the Democrats do not.

But American parties are broad coalitions, and this argument has always fallen down when a particular Democrat has been a conservative in religious terms, though it is becoming much harder both in the US and the UK to uphold conservative Christian values if you are on the left politically.

The issue is, that in practice, support for a party and its candidates has gone way beyond support for the policies, sometimes in direct contravention of them. Upholding family values led to the evangelical excoriation of Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair. The view was that the nation requires probity in the private as well as public lives of its leaders, as their moral lapses have an outsized impact on the morality of the nation.

This view even retained a shred of coherence during the Obama administration, as although the president was a model of probity, his administration did witness advances in gay marriage and abortion rights. But where Graham’s position, along with some other prominent US evangelical leaders, veered from unwise partisanship to outright hypocrisy was with President Donald Trump.

Trump is no model of personal probity. He appears to revel in his lack of it. But his moral failings have been brushed off by Graham and others as “nobody’s business.” He told the New Yorker magazine: “We’re all flawed, and the Bible says we’re all sinners.” Again, this is an orthodox Christian position – but it is being selectively applied. Buttigieg was attacked by Graham for calling himself a Christian while in a gay marriage.

Religious leaders are sinners too, just like everyone else. But their sins can be worse, because of what they do to the faith of those who follow them. To many American evangelicals, their closeness to Trump may seem justified because of what he can do for the causes that matter to them. But this closeness will cost them, when the president is out of office, and they are regarded as the religious wing of the Republican party. And next time Graham warns the nation on a question of public morality, it won’t matter whether he is right or wrong. No one will listen, because they will have seen his hypocrisy.


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