It’s been more than a month now since the presidential election and something has been troubling me. Before the year yields to a new one, I want to get something off my chest. It has to do with Billy Graham, the venerable, legendary (and he will be considered legendary) evangelist.
About a month before the national election Billy Graham and his son, Franklin Graham, met with then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney at Graham’s home on Black Mountain in Montreat, NC. Around the same time the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association also, conveniently, removed from their website every reference to Mormonism (Romney’s faith) as a cult. And then, less than two weeks before the election, the Association unleashed an historic media blitz all but endorsing Romney for president. The Association took out full-page ads in major newspapers all across the country, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which offered this statement by Billy Graham: “On Nov. 6, the day before my 94th birthday, our nation will hold one of the most critical elections in my lifetime. We are at a crossroads and there are profound moral issues at stake. I strongly urge you to vote for candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms. The Bible speaks clearly on these crucial issues. Please join me in praying for America, that we will turn our hearts back toward God.”
Another version of their ad campaign read: “The legacy we leave behind for our children, our grand-children and our great nation is crucial. As I approach my 94th birthday I realize that this election could be my last. I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principals and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who support the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman. Vote for biblical values this November 6, and pray with me that America will remain one nation under God.”
Although Graham didn’t explicitly mention Romney, the implication was clear to anyone paying attention, particularly a certain segment of the Christian community. Even for those who are marginally Christian, but politically conservative, Graham’s imprimatur was intended to sway voters; to say that Romney, and not President Obama, was the one who upheld so-called biblical values. To vote for President Obama meant that America would no longer be one nation under God (whatever that means).
I’ll show my cards here. I have the highest respect for Graham’s life and ministry and his gifts as a preacher. When I lived in St. Andrews, Scotland, I went to hear him preach at a revival in Glasgow, back in 1991, and then again in Central Park, New York. I also voted for President Obama. I’m a registered Democrat. I don’t take issue with Graham’s implicit support of Romney (although, for the record, Graham, too, is a registered Democrat), but it’s as a fellow minister of the Gospel and preacher that I am shocked, dismayed, disappointed, and still obviously troubled that Graham threw his pastoral authority behind a particular candidate and, more specifically, behind issues that from a strictly Biblical and theological perspective are marginal.
For a start, as a student of the Bible, Graham has to acknowledge that the modern state of Israel has absolutely nothing to do with ancient Israel. The nation of Israel is an entirely secular state. Graham also has to acknowledge that the biblical definition of marriage has little to do with the institution of marriage as we understand it today, both within and without religious communities. Actually, there are many views of marriage found in the Bible. There are also so-called “values” in the Bible that we categorically reject today, such as the stoning of adulterers (Leviticus 20:10).
But why isolate these politically charged issues – Israel, reproductive rights, and marriage – as the summation of biblical values? In doing so, Graham ignores, to quote Jesus, “the weightier matters of the Law,” which are “justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).
On November 8, Franklin Graham reacted to the American electorate in the following way: He said that the election results send American further down a “path of destruction.” He said, shortly after leaving his father’s birthday party, “Unless we’re willing to repent of our sins, we will stand in [God’s] judgment.” He added, “I want to warn America: God is coming around. He will judge sin, and it won’t be pretty.”
Really, Franklin? Honestly? The deeper biblical values – justice, mercy, faithfulness – for both Jews and Christians are clear and obvious and if we’re going to be judged for sin, God’s judgment is on whether or not we are caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the most vulnerable in our midst; providing for the weakest members of society; caring for the outcast, the excluded, the exile, the alien and the immigrant among us. Jesus himself called his followers to be peace-makers and workers for peace and said to Peter, just as Jesus was getting arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Put away your sword.” Jesus also said love the “other,” whomever the other might be, even the ones who hate you and whom you hate. Love one another. These are biblical values. I can throw out “proof texts” for these values (if requested), but that would miss the point. Those who need justification to do what they know in their heart of hearts is the Holy thing to do are far from the Kingdom of God. The ethical values in the Bible are radical and require risk, they critique and judge the status quo (whomever is in power), they cannot be used to prop up and justify American or Western values or support any political ideology and they raise all kinds of problems for those looking for a so-called “Christian nation.”
Some of our best prophets these days are found on the Comedy Channel – Jon Stewart, a Jew, and Stephen Colbert, a Christian. Colbert, who teaches catechism at his local Roman Catholic Church in New Jersey, has said, “If this nation is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we have to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.” These are the kind of biblical values Graham needs to support with the weight of his authority and the influence of his trusted voice. Doing so would only add to and deepen the legacy of his ministry and witness.
Glad I got that off my chest.