This week, Franklin Graham—son of famed evangelical Billy Graham and current president of both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and Samaritan’s Purse—begins a 50-state tour of the United States. The “Decision America Tour” will feature prayer rallies across the country, calling on Christians to vote, run for office, and “boldly live out their faith.” He insists that he won’t tell people whom to vote for, and even announced recently that he was formally cutting ties with the Republican Party, opting to declare himself independent instead.
But distancing himself from established political parties doesn’t make him any less political. In December, Graham expressed support for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump following Trump’s comments calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Whereas prominent leaders from across the political and religious spectrum responded with sharp criticism (even Christian Right leader Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called on Christians to denounce the candidate’s “reckless, demagogic rhetoric,” and former Vice President Dick Cheney argued that Trump’s anti-Muslim plan “goes against everything we stand for and believe in”), Graham quickly jumped to the multi-billionaire’s defense. In a Dec. 9 Facebook post, he pointed out that Trump’s proposal is actually similar to what Graham himself has been saying for months.
Jibril Hough, a spokesman for the Islamic Center of Charlotte, called Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump “the political version of Franklin Graham.” Both Graham and Trump are well known for their bombastic diatribes, and the two seem to be increasingly ideologically synchronized.
On social media, at public engagements, and in interviews, Graham regularly rants against Muslims, LGBTQ people, and just about anyone else who doesn’t fit into his specific Christian Right paradigm. Historically, his comments have been filed away as irrelevant and isolated to a particular breed of [dying] Christianity (like those of the late Fred Phelps of “God Hates Fags” infamy), but with Trump making outright bigotry seemingly acceptable in mainstream media outlets, Graham’s previously dismissible rhetoric is increasingly validated.
And unlike the late Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church followers, Graham’s bigotry is backed by some significant capital. With a reported revenue of over $460 million (according to 2013 tax returns), his Boone, NC-based Samaritan’s Purse is a powerful organization with an expansive global reach (the organization currently operates country offices and/or relief programs in over 14 countries. To better understand the potential impact of Samaritan’s Purse on LGBTQ people internationally, consider its local work: in 2012, Samaritan’s Purse contributed over $150,000 to North Carolina’s anti-marriage equality amendment, and more recently, Graham mobilized opposition against an ordinance proposed in Charlotte, NC that would have expanded the city’s nondiscrimination protections to include “marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.” The ordinance did not pass.
In some ways, the Decision America Tour seems inspired by the elder Graham’s ambitious travel schedule—over the course of this career, Billy Graham is said to have conducted more than 400 crusades in 185 countries and territories on six continents. Franklin’s father, however, was comparatively more moderate, and on some issues even took relatively progressive stands. As early as the 1950s, Billy Graham insisted that his revivals and crusades be racially integrated, and he was a strong supporter and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1965, following the brutal attack against Civil Rights activists attempting to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, Graham canceled a trip to Europe in order to host a 10-day, racially integrated crusade in Montgomery.
But as anti-Black violence continues to rage in the U.S. today, BGEA’s Franklin Graham has abandoned his father’s efforts toward a more racially just America. Not unlike Trump’s comments that a Black Lives Matter protester who disrupted a November rally in Birmingham, Alabama deserved to be “roughed up,” in a Facebook post published in March 2015, Graham callously responded to the growing national outrage about racist police brutality by suggesting that Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jessie Hernandez, and countless other victims of police violence were at fault for their own deaths.
“Most police shootings can be avoided,” he wrote. “It comes down to respect for authority and obedience. If a police officer tells you to stop, you stop. If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air.” For Franklin Graham, racism isn’t an issue. For him, the real crisis facing America is that LGBTQ people are emerging from their closets, daring to demand rights and recognition; that women are asserting their bodily autonomy and demanding safe, affordable reproductive healthcare; and that Islam, which he previously described as a “very evil and wicked religion,” simply exists.
If anything, Franklin seems to be following in the footsteps of the late right-wing evangelical Jerry Falwell. In 1976, exactly 40 years ago, Falwell also went on a 50-state expedition called the “I Love America Tour.” The effort is credited with laying the groundwork for the eventual establishment of the Moral Majority, which played a pivotal role in mobilizing conservative Christians into a voting bloc, ultimately advancing a sharp rightward shift in American politics. The fallout of this shift is still deeply evident today, and Graham seems determined to lead a new phase of right-wing Christian influence in local, state, and federal elections across the country.
Graham’s interests and influence also extend far beyond U.S. borders. On a recent trip to Moscow, he met with President Vladimir Putin and discussed “the critical role of the church in restraining evil and fostering biblical values in society.” Lest there be any question as to what “evil” Graham was referencing, he continued: “Thankfully, Russian leaders in the church and government have stood steadfastly against the rising homosexual agenda in their country.”
Specifically, Graham praised Putin’s protection of “traditional Christianity” and for “protecting Russian young people against homosexual propaganda” (a reference to the 2013 “anti-gay propaganda” law which effectively criminalized public LGBTQ advocacy efforts). Graham, who has blamed the Syrian refugee crisis on President Obama’s support for LGBTQ rights, was also full of praise for Russia’s alignment with Syria, and emphasized the importance of protecting Christians there.
Over the last decade, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has flirted with various elements of the U.S. Christian Right (most notably with leaders and affiliates of the World Congress of Families—who convened their latest international gathering of culture warriors in the U.S. for the first time this year), but Graham’s appearance on the scene suggests a whole new level of game-changing developments. Bill Yoder, an American working for the German Evangelical Alliance of Eastern Europe, reported that during his visit, Graham appealed for a new East-West alliance in order to “ward off present-day dangers.”
Yoder indicates that the ROC, which enjoys increasingly friendly relations with President Putin, is endeavoring to form “an alternative global movement” to the historically progressive World Council of Churches. At a press conference in Moscow, it was announced that in the next 12-18 months, BGEA and the ROC will jointly organize an international conference to “discuss the problems of persecution of Christians in different countries of the world.”
So the ROC is aligning itself with Putin, Putin is aligning himself with the Assad regime in Syria, and Franklin Graham is aligning himself with the Putin and now Trump. This can only spell trouble for Muslims, the LGBTQ community, women, reproductive justice, true religious freedom, and for human rights more broadly.