As New York City passes the grim milestone of 1,100 deaths, the city’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on the urgency of war. This weekend the city opened a 68- bed field hospital in Central Park to catch the spillover from the overburdened Mount Sinai Health System. It’s not the first time Central Park has hosted a military hospital. During the Civil War, a Catholic order called the Sisters of Charity built and staffed St. Joseph’s Military Hospital, which Walt Whitman visited and described as “a well-managed institution.” The efficiency of that 1800s hospital now seems aspirational.
The new field hospital, located in Central Park’s East Meadow, will be managed by Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical aid organization led by Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham. While New York needs all the help it can get, New Yorkers should be aware that Samaritan’s Purse’s work in the city is both humanitarian and missionary, and that the organization carries a checkered history of Islamophobia and homophobia.
The partnership of religion and healthcare stretches back centuries. Driven by an ethos to care for the sick, religious orders have often been the only source of medical care for vulnerable populations. As a stand-in for governments who lack the means or the will to provide for their citizens, religion-based healthcare centers provide essential and often lifesaving support.
The U.S. relies heavily on religiously affiliated hospitals. One in six hospital beds in the country is in a Catholic facility—rising to more than 40 percent of beds in some states. But when hospitals are religiously run, care is often restricted by institutional guidelines. That means in some cases a hospital, an individual medical provider, and even employers and managed care plans can legally deny healthcare based on professed religious or moral beliefs.
This has impacted access to abortion, contraception, sterilization, trans-affirming care, and end-of-life-treatments. When access to health services is denied, it sets up a conflict between religious liberty and the right to health, equality, and non-discrimination. As multiple court cases bear out, this has come at the expense of the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection, meant to shield against discrimination based on race and sex, among other categories.
The Trump Administration has pursued an aggressively pro-Christian nationalist agenda within the healthcare and legal system, setting up multiple mechanisms to advance this agenda both in the U.S. and overseas. This includes a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the Department of Health and Human Services, which protects doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers who refuse to perform medical procedures on religious grounds.
Over the last few years, Franklin Graham has become President Trump’s loudest evangelical cheerleader and the most vocal supporter of his “religious freedom” mandate. Last year at a United Nations Event on religious freedom, President Trump personally thanked him for being “so instrumental in everything we’re doing.”
But Graham has a long history of deeply troubling statements about LGBTQ people, Islam, and other topics. He has called Islam a “wicked” and “evil” religion; he joined Trump in his “birther” attacks against President Obama; he’s stated that Satan is behind LGBTQ human rights campaigns; he supports conversion therapy for gay people. Last year, a seven-city speaking tour he’d planned for the United Kingdom was cancelled when all seven venues dropped him because of his religious intolerance and anti-LGBTQ bias.
Graham claims to support the separation of church and state, but this is belied by his equivocation that the separation is simply institutional, not influential. In other words, he argues that religion must have an active role in influencing government. With a $765 million budget that includes not only Samaritan’s Purse, but also the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, he has plenty of means to ensure that his religious agenda is reflected in both policy and political representation. This was on prominent display during the 2016 elections. Though Graham credited God for Trump’s win, he didn’t leave anything to chance. His 50-state “campaign for God” was designed to “get Christians to vote for politicians that stand for Biblical principles and Biblical truth.” Trump’s infamously irreligious personal behavior matters little compared to the political agenda he shares with Graham—their joint support for the Muslim ban, the ban on transgender people serving in the military, and increasing threats to abortion rights.
Samaritan’s Purse has often been lauded by its boosters for the humanitarian work it does, including during the Ebola crisis, when the organization set up treatment centers and provided training and supplies. But not all medical professionals agree. In a 2020 interview with Gothamist, Jacklyn Grace Lacey, a medical anthropologist who closely monitored Ebola responses, said, “This is a dangerous religious propaganda machine that uses international medical aid to further their agenda.” She added, ”I am tremendously concerned they will hurt far more of our fellow New Yorkers than they will help.”
In the early 1990s, during the Gulf War, Graham was reprimanded by Gen. Norman Schwarzkop for working with U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia to distribute Arabic-language Bibles—a direct violation of a U.S.-Saudi agreement against proselytizing, as well as being illegal in some Muslim majority countries. In 2013, following a devastating earthquake in El Salvador, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), raised concerns that Samaritan’s Purse was holding prayer services before working with residents to build shelter. In response, Samaritan’s Purse’s then-spokesman Mark DeMoss said, “anywhere Samaritan’s Purse works there is going to be on that site religious activity taking place.”
The blurred lines between Samaritan’s Purse’s missionary and humanitarian work raises legal questions, given the organization receives tens of millions in federal grants. But that’s a line the Trump administration has been willing to not just cross, but eviscerate. This January, as the Covid-19 virus was emerging as a global threat, Trump was busying himself rolling out policies to push federal funds into the hands of religious organizations with a mandate to advance prayer in public schools.
Samaritan’s Purse is unambiguous about its primary mission to “share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Staff and volunteers who work with the organization must sign a statement of faith pledging to support marriage and sexuality only for heterosexual couples, and to oppose abortion. This pledge is still required for the organization’s staff and volunteers working in New York, raising concerns about their work in a city that is a historic center of LGBTQ culture and advocacy. New York City council speaker and gay rights activist Corey Johnson tweeted his disapproval, writing, “Franklin Graham has a long history of spewing anti-LGBTQ hate speech and I find it extremely troubling that he and his organization are involved in our relief efforts in any way.”
As New York confronts this unprecedented health crisis, the city is right to welcome all medical aid that is offered, from all reputable medical professionals, including those who work for Samaritan’s Purse. Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s assurances that Samaritan’s Purse will behave in a manner that is “truly consistent with the values and the laws of New York City,” there’s reason to worry that Graham’s staff will privilege its missionary mandate over its medical obligations, making care dependent on first receiving spiritual ministering, or even denying lifesaving services to transgender patients or women in need of abortions.
The lack of support from a dangerously disengaged federal government treating emergency aid as political payback has left New York City and state—the epicenter of the U.S. pandemic—deeply vulnerable. Religious organizations have a key role to play at this time, but humanitarian aid must not be predicated on receiving the gospel or subscribing to any moral code. We must ensure that the care being delivered is medically sound and unbiased, and that it fulfills and protects the human rights of all New Yorkers.