Prayer & Politics

May 20, 2016

On Tuesday, evangelist Franklin Graham came to the Missouri Capitol as part of this 50-state "Decision America 2016 Tour." Reports are over 6,000 people showed up for his religious-political rally. But it was hard to really see how many through all umbrellas as it rained pretty hard the whole time. Most of the crowd likely never actually saw him past the sea of umbrellas! I don't have a weather theology so I note the rain to highlight the large crowd despite the conditions. Many people still hold the Graham name in high regard even as Franklin often cuts a path far from that of his famous dad (and as I noted in my first book, I have great respect for Billy Graham).

Taking advantage of the political election, Graham's stump speech at the state Capitols during the tour hits several political messages. He bills this as a nonpartisan speech, and offers a few lines in that direction. He even changed his party affiliation from Republican to Independent before kicking off the tour (although that affiliation shows his general partisan leaning).

"I have zero hope in the Democratic Party. ... I have zero hope in the Republican Party. The only hope for this country is Almighty God."

Yet, he wasn't being apolitical as he urged still people to vote. In fact, he implied it would be wrong to not vote. Thus, he urged the crowd to vote and pray for politicians so that "God will use them for his glory." He also seemed fully committed to the two-party system, suggesting a lack of prophetic imagination.

"In this next election, I want you to vote. I'm not here today to tell you who to vote for. It's not about Republicans or Democrats. ... You might have to go the polls and hold your nose. You might have to vote for the least of the two heathens."

Despite the claim he opposed both parties, his message also set the stage for which of the two candidates he thinks Christians should support. After all, he said vote for one of the two even if you have to hold your nose, so he clearly expects a vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump. The hint of Graham's preference comes in his chosen biblical metaphor.

Graham focused his remarks on the story of Nehemiah rebuilding walls, which seems problematic in this political context. There are tons of biblical metaphors he could have used. But he picked one on building walls, which is the issue one candidate is most known for. Sad!

"The moral and political walls of our nation are crumbling. Walls are meant for protection, to keep bad people out. Gates can be opened or closed, and when threats come, you can close the gates. But our moral walls are down, our gates have been left opened." 

Graham also lamented that the Berlin Wall fell since it allowed communism and secularism to come into the United States. Of course, communists and atheists were in the United States long before 1989. More importantly, the fall of the Wall actually was good for Eastern Europe politically, socially, economically, and spiritually. Perhaps walls aren't so good after all!

Talking about the importance of building walls and calling that a godly task is unlikely to be missed by most of his crowd. Say "build the wall" today and people will think Trump. Graham cannot say he was just reading the Bible because he only quoted from one story. He chose a text and placed it into a new context - that of a political campaign as he talked about the political election during a rally at a political site. The text is not neutral.

As if the chosen biblical allusion was not problematic enough, Graham also echoed Trump talking points about our country and political correctness.

"We are here today because we know that our country is in trouble. ... And now our educators, many of our politicians and, sadly to say, many of our churches are more concerned about political correctness than God's truth and his righteousness. ... We can take this nation back for God. We're losing it but let's get it back. Your vote counts."

If we're looking for the candidate between Clinton and Trump who says our country's "in trouble," attacks "political correctness," and wants to "take this nation back" that we're "losing," the option is clear even on a rainy day. Additionally, when Graham spoke about "biblical issues," he particularly stressed fighting abortion and same-sex marriage (like in the pledge he asked people to sign). Focusing on those issues and avoiding the greater biblical witness skews the pitch dramatically toward one political party. None of this is too surprising since Graham said he thought he could support Trump for president back when Trump flirted with running in 2012!

During his stump speech, Graham also made a pitch for identity politics by arguing we should vote for Christians. He actually focused more time on urging we get more Christians in office (especially for local school boards) than addressing issues and principles. Yet, when he urged each Christian to "be a community organizer for God" and "be a political activist for God," he placed that call as in opposition to the political activism of "the Left." Perhaps when he says "Christian" he actually means "conservative Republican Christian."

"I want you to get involved in the political process. Some of you can go out and run for office. ... We need Christians on the school boards. We need Christian mayors, we need Christian city councils, we need Christian county commissioners."

As I argued in my second book, this type of religious identity politics remains problematic. It actually runs counter to the spirit of our 'founding fathers' (who Graham affirmingly invoked in his speech). The only religious reference in the original text of the U.S. Constitution is a prohibition against the use of religious tests for office. Expecting someone to profess Christianity before we vote for them hurts democracy and religion. 

Graham's identity politics argument also surprised me since I don't think he actually agrees with that philosophy. After all, he publicly backed Republican Mitt Romney (a Mormon) for president over Democrat Barack Obama (a Christian) in 2012. Of course, Graham inaccurately and disgracefully suggested Obama is a Muslim so perhaps that's how he tries to justify his vote. But it's still a dangerous argument since one could make a strong case that the only Christian of the two main 2016 presidential candidates will be Clinton (since Trump mocked communion and claimed he didn't need to ask God for forgiveness).

Unless Graham's religion is Republicanism (or he recants his belief in Christian identify politics), it will be hard for him to justify voting for Trump. Or perhaps Graham will just use a bad biblical metaphor like his sister (Anne Graham Lotz) did in recently endorsing Trump. Sad!

Once Graham's rally ended, many people went inside the Capitol for another prayer event sponsored by some Missouri conservative Christian groups. Despite Graham saying he didn't find hope in either Democrats or Republicans, the follow-up event inside included a lot of politicians currently running for office. The backdrop for the event was from the campaign of Republican gubernatorial hopeful John Brunner, front row seats were reserved for several Republican candidates and one quixotic Democrat, several candidates spoke at the event, and several candidates had literature at booths for the event.

With the event inside, the day quickly took a more political tone (and a mostly partisan Republican tone). This is the type of confessional politics I critiqued in my second book. I didn't stay for this more problematic "prayer" event as my four-year-old son was hungry and ready to go. It was probably better for my soul to leave!

You can see more photos I took of the Graham rally here.