It was recently announced that Franklin Graham, the son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham, will be touring Australia in 2019.
He’s coming for the 60th anniversary of Billy Graham’s historic 1959 crusades in Melbourne, Sydney, Hobart, Launceston, Canberra, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane, which attracted over 3 million Australians (and another 350,000 across the ditch in New Zealand).
Franklin Graham will retrace his father’s steps to six of those Australian cities as part historical commemoration, part evangelistic campaign.
The ’59 crusades, which lasted four months, were unquestionably historic. Karl Faase, a member of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association Australian board, says it was the closest thing Australia has come to experiencing a religious revival. One hundred and forty six thousand people went forward as “inquirers” at the end of the rallies.
But Karl Faase says the effect could be seen in more than just the size of the crowds.
He says there were appreciable drops in crime, alcohol consumption, ex-nuptial births, and bad debts, as a result of the ’59 crusades. Theological colleges saw a boom in student numbers, as did mission societies. And Bible sales went through the roof.
That all sounds definitely worth commemorating.
And you’d think Franklin Graham should be the one to do it. He’s not only the great evangelist’s son, he’s the current president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and an evangelist in his own right.
Well, not so fast.
New Testament scholar at Ridley College, Melbourne, Michael Bird has written an incendiary piece saying he will not be attending the Franklin Graham crusades in 2019, because of Mr Graham’s generous and often enthusiastic support for President Donald Trump.
“The fact is that Franklin Graham has tethered himself to the Trump administration, and he has used Christianity as a political prop to sanitize Trump for some Christian voters – despite Trump’s egregiously non-Christian character and the dubious moral quality of many of Trump’s policies,” Bird wrote.
Whether you think Michael Bird is being melodramatic here or not, the fact is that Franklin Graham has been ready to praise the American president, saying, “Donald Trump is a good man.”
When asked about Mr Trump’s habit of tweeting cruel attacks on his enemies, he retorted, “I can’t think of anything mean he’s said.”
On the matter of Mr Trump’s multiple affairs and the various bribes paid to women to cover them up, Franklin Graham will only concede, ”These affairs are alleged.” And he’s quick to point out if they did occur it was prior to being elected to the highest office in the land.
For Franklin Graham, the fact that Donald Trump is nominating conservatives to the Supreme Court, and has granted Christianity preferred religion status during his term, is enough to cover a multitude of sins.
“He defends the Christian faith… He speaks the truth… I’m grateful for him,” are all Franklin Graham quotes about Donald Trump.
BGEA’s Karl Faase wrote a response to Michael Bird in which he admitted Mr Graham’s support for Donald Trump but assured his readers that while in Australia the evangelist would stick to the religious script:
“I am confident that the events being planned across Australia in 2019 will be marked by three key qualities: a clear gospel message, a series of fabulous meetings and a politics-free agenda,” Faase wrote.
But this leads me to my concern about this matter.
Even if Mr Graham does forswear mentioning his politics while in Australia, that’s the only thing the press will ask him about.
They will pepper him with questions about the following:
- His statements against Islam in support of Mr Trump’s travel bans;
- His willingness to turn a blind eye to Mr Trump’s extra-marital affairs;
- His support for the birther movement which cast doubt on whether Barack Obama was American-born, and his questions about whether Mr Obama might be a Muslim;
- His praise for Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay laws;
- His criticism of football players for refusing to stand for the national anthem;
- His recent comments that those whistle-blowers who spill the beans about Mr Trump’s indiscretions might incur the wrath of God.
The media will present Franklin Graham as part of the pro-Trump Religious Right precisely because that’s what he is. Even if Donald Trump’s name never passes his lips while he’s here, he will be introduced to the Australian public as the president’s loyal defender.
And I’m concerned that evangelicals in this country will be tarred with that same brush.
Currently, the term evangelical is a bit of a mystery to the average Aussie. They might equate it with a kind of holy-roller Hillsong version of Christianity. Others might be conscious of evangelicals’ involvement in advocacy groups like Love Makes a Way. Still others might connect it to the conservative politics of, say, Cory Bernardi or Tony Abbott (neither of whom are actually evangelicals). Nonetheless, the term doesn’t currently connote anything like the Religious Right in the USA.
Not many Australian evangelicals would identify with the politics of the American gun lobby, or be champions of the Second Amendment, trickle-down economics, states rights, religious liberties for Christians primarily, and aggressive free trade.
I wouldn’t go as far as Michael Bird and pledge not to attend a rally. Neither would I want to openly discourage others from attending. And I’m pleased that the Australian BGEA spokesperson is promising that Graham won’t mention politics in his addresses.
But whereas the Billy Graham crusades of 1959 drew evangelicals together and enhanced the reputation of the church, I’m afraid the Franklin Graham crusades of 2019 are already dividing evangelicals and could send very mixed messages to the community at large.