Religion

Franklin Graham and the High Cost of the Lost Evangelical Witness

President Trump listens to Franklin Graham during a ceremony for the late Rev. Billy Graham in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., February 28, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Graham’s willingness to abandon Christian principles when it’s politically expedient has cost the church dearly.

It’s hard to think of a single prominent American Christian who better illustrates the collapsing Evangelical public witness than Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son. His commitment to the Christian character of American public officials seems to depend largely on their partisan political identity.

Let’s look at the record. In 1998, at the height of Bill Clinton’s sex scandals, the younger Graham wrote a powerful op-ed in the Wall Street Journal combating Clinton’s assertion that his affair was a “private” matter. Clinton argued that his misdeeds were “between me, the two people I love the most — my wife and our daughter — and our God.” Graham noted that even the most private of sins can have very public, devastating consequences, and he asked a simple question: “If [Clinton] will lie to or mislead his wife and daughter, those with whom he is most intimate, what will prevent him from doing the same to the American public?”

Graham was right: Clinton, it turned out, wouldn’t just lie to mislead his family. He’d lie to influence courts, Congress, and the American people.

Fast-forward 20 years. By 2018, Donald Trump was president — and helping to win important policy victories for religious conservatives — and Graham’s tune had changed dramatically. He actively repudiated his condemnations of Clinton, calling the Republican pursuit of the then-president “a great mistake that should never have happened,” and argued that “this thing with Stormy Daniels and so forth is nobody’s business.”

Graham was wrong: Trump, it turns out, doesn’t just lie to mislead his family. He lies all the time to influence courts, Congress, and the American people.

So is this the “new normal” for Evangelicals? Is politics entirely transactional now? Do we evaluate politicians only on their policies and leave the sex discussions to the privacy of their own bedrooms?

Apparently not, according to . . . Franklin Graham. Now that the Democratic primary is gaining steam and a gay candidate is surging forward, Graham has rediscovered his moral voice. Yesterday he tweeted this:

Yes, marriage is the union between a man and a woman, but Trump married a woman, then married his mistress, then married a third woman, then had an affair with a porn star while that third wife was pregnant with his child. Yet Graham says, “God put him” in the presidency and we need to “get behind him and support him.”

The proper Evangelical position toward any president is not hard to articulate, though it is exceedingly difficult to hold to, especially in polarized times when one party seems set on limiting religious liberty and zealously defending abortion: We should pray for presidents, critique them when they’re wrong, praise them when they’re right, and never, ever impose partisan double standards. We can’t ever forget the importance of character, the necessity of our own integrity, and the power of the prophetic witness.

In other words, Evangelicals can never take a purely transactional approach to politics. We are never divorced from our transcendent purpose, which always trumps political expediency. In scripture, prophets confronted leaders about their sin. They understood a core truth, one clearly articulated in the Southern Baptist Convention’s 1998 Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials: “Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.”

All too many of our nation’s Evangelical leaders haven’t just “tolerated” serious wrongdoing by Trump, they’ve rationalized and minimized it. Some have even given the “thumbs up” in front of a Playboy cover. (What would Nathan, who dramatically confronted David over his infidelity and murder, say?) In so doing, they’ve seared the consciences of the culture and the church, and granted their secular opponents all the ammunition necessary to question our sincerity as believers.

Scripture repeatedly warns that Christians should expect to be despised by the world, and in many quarters of our culture (the academy, Silicon Valley, Hollywood), Evangelicals are among the most-hated members of all. But whenever someone hates us, we should ask why. If it’s because of our faith, we should rejoice; if it’s because of our sin, we should be humble enough to repent. Even the best of men are far from perfect, and our troubles can be our own fault.

Franklin Graham is under fire today. He should be. His double standards have cost the church. This mistake should not define him — he has done much good and preached the Gospel faithfully for many years — but it should grieve him. Through his blatant hypocrisy, he has earned his critics’ wrath.

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