Trading Principles for Power: The U.S. Christian Right’s Endorsement of Authoritarian Leaders

Building on parts one and two of this series, Cole Parke examines the relationship between the U.S. Christian Right and authoritarian leaders.

On Friday, August 4, Paul Kagame celebrated a landslide victory in Rwanda’s presidential election, securing his third seven-year term as the small, East African country’s leader with nearly 99% of the vote. It was an unsurprising result, given that his candidacy was essentially uncontested. The two individuals who attempted to challenge Kagame’s reign, Frank Habineza, head of the opposing Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR), and Diane Rwigara, a human rights activist, have accused Kagame’s party, the Royal Patriotic Front (RPF), of using “indirect” methods of intimidation to push its opponents out of the political race, effectively nullifying their efforts toward a fair and open democratic process.

As I reported in part two of this series, Kagame set the terms of this victory in motion in 2015 when he successfully altered the Rwandan constitution in order to extend his presidency (he has already been in office since 2000, and unofficially assumed the role six years earlier in 1994). Under the newly amended constitution, he has the option of running for two additional five-year terms. The European Union and the U.S. State Department both condemned the revision, saying Kagame should step down and “foster a new generation of leaders in Rwanda,” but the president continues to be defended, supported, and often times venerated by American religious, business, and political leaders, including megachurch pastor Rick Warren, Chicago-area businessman and multimillionaire Joe Ritchie, and Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe.

Rick Warren with Paul Kagame at Saddleback Church — Saddleback Church Photo

This team of American promoters—all of whom are conservative, evangelical Christians—provides a degree of immunity for a man whose leadership is described as repressive and anti-democratic, and whose actions have earned him accusations of human rights violations from groups such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Global Witness. Warren, Ritchie, and Inhofe have unprecedented access to Kagame (both Warren and Ritchie actually serve on his Presidential Advisory Council, which meets twice a year), and yet none of them have used their positions to confront or protest Kagame’s gross abuse of power.

The Christian Right has a long history of betraying their principles for the perks of power, and Kagame isn’t the only authoritarian leader benefiting from this sort of endorsement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been hailed a hero by a whole cast of American Christian Right leaders. Bryan Fischer, former spokesperson for the American Family Association, has called Putin a “lion of Christianity;” Scott Lively (infamous for his role in bringing about Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” bill), has lavished praise upon him; and the World Congress of Families has positioned Putin as a savior of Christianity.

Nearing the end of his second presidential term (the Russian constitution mandates that a person may not hold the position “for more than two terms in a row”), in a maneuver not unlike Kagame’s 2015 constitutional manipulation, Putin realigned the government’s power structure in order to make the Prime Minister the preeminent position, and at the conclusion of his presidential term he stepped into the role. He subsequently resumed the presidency, having worked around the restriction preventing individuals from serving more than two consecutive terms, and is now nearing the conclusion of his third.

In an early July Facebook post, Franklin Graham, head of Samaritan’s Purse and heir to his father’s legacy as CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, rejected the growing mountain of evidence that Russia interfered with the 2016 U.S. election. “The media and enemies of President Trump have tried to drive a wedge between Russia and the United States,” he wrote. “Our country needs Russia as an ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Join me in praying for President Trump and President Vladimir Putin.”

After the inauguration, Graham proclaimed, “Donald Trump’s there because God put him there,” Despite clear deviations from what a “model Christian” might look like, President Trump (a man who is twice divorced, rarely attends church, and has bragged about assaulting women) successfully garnered the support of numerous right-wing evangelical leaders who undoubtedly influenced the selection of Christian Right golden child Mike Pence as vice president. The effect of these endorsements was starkly evident: exit polls from last year’s presidential election revealed that Trump managed to win over 81 percent of white, self-described evangelicals.

This propping up of authoritarian leaders under the guise of their election being “God ordained” (even when the democratic merits of the process are questionable) serves to perpetuate some of the gravest violations of human rights in the world.

But power is an addictive drug, and human rights are often deemed expendable, especially for those with dominionist aspirations. (As PRA senior research fellow Frederick Clarkson explains, dominionism is the theocratic idea that “Christians are called by God to exercise dominion over every aspect of society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.”)

In 2008, TIME’s David Van Biema profiled Rick Warren, describing him as, “the U.S.’s most influential and highest-profile churchman.” Van Biema also observed that Warren is “near giddy over occupying a globetrotting-catalyst status normally reserved for ex-Presidents.” In the interview, Warren boasted, “It’s the most amazing thing; I’ve had to add a new hat: my statesman hat. I had a call the other day from a President in Africa asking me to contact a President in Asia to set up a meeting.”

In the interview, Warren also boasts of his business hat: “I put this unbelievably big deal together. The bottom line was $300 million. A guy called me and asked me, ‘Would you call this person?,’ and I said, ‘Well, it’s not my role or anything I aspire to,’ but out of it came this huge deal.”

What Warren—and other Christian Right leaders—fail to ask is, “Who’s served and who’s harmed in the making of these deals, in the negotiation of political priorities, and in the propping up of dictators?” But this is what dominionism looks like: when a leader of the Christian Right starts wearing a “statesman hat” and a “businessman hat” on top of his “pastoral hat,” and insistently ignores the dangerous, anti-democratic cost of his evangelical convictions.

Franklin Graham: Falwell Prodigy, Putin Lover, and Trump Fan

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.

Donald Trump chats with Franklin Graham at Billy Graham's 95th birthday party in 2013. Image by Demoss.

Donald Trump chats with Franklin Graham at Billy Graham’s 95th birthday party in 2013. Image by Demoss.

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.

The Myth of Christian Persecution

Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelical Billy Graham and current president of both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and Samaritan’s Purse, is increasingly taking center stage in the Right Wing’s dramatization of “Christianity under siege”—part of a growing manipulation of religious liberty arguments (e.g. Hobby Lobby’s claim that the Affordable Care Act violates their “deeply held religious convictions”) to further blur the division between church and state.

Franklin Graham

Franklin Graham

Addressing the crowd at the Oklahoma State Evangelism Conference earlier this month, Graham claimed that secularists—whom he refers to as “antichrists”—have taken control of America.

“There are storms that are coming,” Graham warned. “The only hope for this country is for men and women of God to stand up and take a stand. We’ve got to take a stand. We cannot back up. We cannot run. We cannot retreat. We need Christians running for school boards. … We need men and women of God who take local elections serious.”

Emphasizing this point, Graham continued, “Who says we can’t be in politics? The gays and lesbians are in politics, I can tell you that. All the anti-God people are in politics. They’re there. Why shouldn’t the church be there? Who says we can’t speak up? Who says our voice can’t be heard?”

Graham’s call for Christians to “take a stand” echoes the demands of last November’s “I Stand Sunday.” The event, which was simulcast around the country, was organized by a coalition of local churches and national right-wing organizations in Houston, Texas as a response to the City of Houston subpoenaing the sermons of five conservative local pastors who were suspected of engaging in political activities beyond the purview of what is allowed for a church to maintain its tax-exempt status. Sponsors of the event included some of the leading right-wing parachurch organizations in the country, including the Family Research Council (FRC) and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Liberty Counsel and the National Organization for Marriage also signed on as partners.

Reporting on the event (which took place two days before the 2014 midterm elections), FRC’s President Tony Perkins wrote, “Last night, with thousands of people packing the pews of Grace Community Church—and tens of thousands more at nearly 800 churches from all 50 states—Houston sent a message to the nation: ‘Don’t mess with the pulpits of America.’… We pray that our nation, which this event proved is ripe for spiritual awakening, will use I Stand Sunday as a launching off point for greater cultural engagement.”

The subpoenas came as part of the prolonged fight over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), the city’s first housing and workplace nondiscrimination bill protecting LGBTQ people, as well as other targeted classifications, including race, sex, and religion.

Previously one of the only large cities in the U.S. without a nondiscrimination policy, the Houston City Council approved HERO in May 2014 with a vote of 11-6. The ordinance did not pass without a fight, however—groups like Texas Values (an affiliate of Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink network), the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the Family Research Council attacked the ordinance with anti-transgender claims that it would somehow protect predators and sex offenders. There were also threats to recall Mayor Parker and any city council member who voted in favor of the bill.

Following HERO’s passage, an anti-LGBTQ coalition called “No Unequal Rights” led by local and national church groups like the Baptist Ministers Association of Houston and Samuel Rodriguez’s National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference began collecting signatures to challenge HERO with a referendum. When the petition effort failed, opponents of the law filed a lawsuit against the city, demanding the referendum be placed on the ballot.

As part of the discovery process of the Religious Right’s lawsuit against them, the city’s outside counsel issued subpoenas to five pastors in Houston who were suspected of overreaching their tax-exempt restrictions, to collect information related to how the pastors communicated with their congregations about the petition process. Backed by a team of ADF lawyers, the pastors (dubbed the “Houston 5”) claimed their rights were being violated. On both the Left and the Right, many critics (including the ACLU) agreed that the subpoenas were too broad, and they were ultimately withdrawn, but I Stand Sunday—organized to “stand with pastors and churches to focus on the freedom to live out our faith free of government intrusion or monitoring”—went ahead as planned, and the Houston 5 seem likely to the join the cast of bakers and wedding photographers cited by the Christian Right as evidence of allegedly widespread and growing persecution.

I Stand Sunday speakers included FRC’s Tony Perkins; former Governor of Arkansas and then Fox News personality Mike Huckabee; Eric Stanley from the ADF; and Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Local Houston pastors Magda Hermida, a Cuban immigrant, and Khanh Huynh, a Vietnamese immigrant, also spoke, comparing their experiences of Communist violence and oppression to Mayor Parker’s “marching boots of tyranny.”

Despite the fact that the majority of Americans—and an even greater majority of elected officials—identify as Christian (a recent study by the Pew Forum found that 73% of Americans identify as Christian, and that 92% of current Congressional members identify as such), this mantra of “Christian persecution” is gaining traction around the country.

The City of Charlotte, NC—Franklin Graham’s hometown—is currently considering an expansion to its own nondiscrimination ordinance to include sexual orientation and gender identity. A statement released by BGEA echoed the same anti-transgender claims that were used in Houston, claiming that such protections would give “sexual predators access to children.”

Another Charlotte resident, David Benham, is also working to prevent the expansion of equal rights protections for LGBTQ people there (the vote is scheduled for March 2). Benham has become a leading spokesperson for the “Christian persecution” camp since the HGTV television series that he and his twin brother, Jason, were scheduled to host was canceled after reports emerged of David Benham making anti-gay statements at a prayer rally in 2012 outside of the Democratic National Convention. (Right Wing Watch posted a recording of Benham discussing “homosexuality and its agenda that is attacking the nation.” HGTV also took fire from their viewers over an interview with anti-LGBTQ activist Michael Brown, where David Benham claimed that LGBTQ people were possessed by “demonic forces” and that once he succeeds in recriminalizing abortion, he will next defeat the “homosexual agenda” and Islam.)

Defending his comments, Benham reasserted the theme of persecution, arguing, “[T]here is an agenda that is seeking to silence the voices of men and women of faith.”

In BGEA’s statement about the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance in Charlotte, Benham declared, “What’s going to end up happening, with the result of the language (of the ordinance) is our religious liberties are going to come under attack. … Not only do Christians need to stand up for what’s right, but America needs to protect our children and our children’s children.”

David and Jason Benham also spoke at the I Stand Sunday event in Houston.

Earlier this week, the American Family Association—another I Stand Sunday sponsor—released its new “Anti-Christian Bigotry Map,” which features groups and organizations that “are deeply intolerant towards the Christian religion. … [groups whose objectives are] to silence Christians and to remove all public displays of Christian heritage and faith in America.”

In a press release, AFA’s President Don Wildmon warned, “Across our nation there is a concerted effort to silence Christians who believe in the time-honored definition of marriage and who believe that imposing dangerous and harmful sexual behaviors such as homosexuality or transgenderism on the public and, particularly, on young children is not something that society should encourage.”

Will U.S. prisons soon be overflowing with leaders of the Christian Right? PRA senior fellow Frederick Clarkson reports that any leaders of the Christian Right, from megachurch pastors like Rick Warren to the top prelates in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have repeatedly threatened civil disobedience (and worse) over marriage equality, reproductive rights, and nondiscrimination laws:

“The notion that freedom is obedience to their particular notion of God’s order … reveals their theocratic world view and sheds light on their preposterous claim that Christianity is ‘unanimous’ with regard to marriage.

“Christian denominations, notably United Church of Christ, Alliance of Baptists, and increasingly others (not to mention other religious traditions) recognize and celebrate same-sex marriages all the time.”

If there is a “concerted effort” to be wary of, it is the Christian Right’s attempt to co-opt the language of religious liberty and the advancement of their myth of persecution, which ultimately serves as a strategy to trump the rights of others and justify discrimination.

UPDATE: Thanks in large part to the support of Franklin Graham and the Benham Brothers, the Charlotte City Council rejected the proposed non-discrimination ordinance on Monday, March 2. Writing from his missionary travels in South Sudan, Graham encouraged his supporters to resist the non-discrimination ordinance, which he referred to as “dangerous” and “preposterous.”
 Share on Twitter Button  Share on Facebook Button