Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Devil and Dr. Billy Graham?

Christianity Today is raising the question of whether the quotations from Rev. Billy Graham, being used in election ads represent his views or those of his son, Franklin. CT recalls the recent words of Dr. Graham in the following quotation from its October 22, 2011 online edition: 

When asked by CT (Christianity Today) in 2011 if he would "go back and do anything differently," Graham, whose relationship with President Richard Nixon drew considerable controversy, replied: 

I also would have steered clear of politics. I'm grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn't do that now. 

It appears that Dr. Graham has had a change of heart. Or has he? Christianity Today is now asking, “Has Billy Graham  Suddenly Turned Political?”  The article, posted in the October 22, 2012 online edition, questions whether recent ads, created and sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), calling on voters to “vote for Biblical values”; and “to vote for candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and woman, protect the sanctity of life, and defend our religious freedoms,” are authentic representations of  Dr. Graham’s beliefs and concerns. The BGEA, in defense of the ads, stresses that they: 

. . . intentionally do not mention any candidate, political party, or contest, urging instead for readers to cast votes for candidates, at all levels, based on their support for biblical values. [Billy Graham] recently expressed a desire to publicly call America back to God and to prayer, and to draw attention to moral issues that are clearly addressed in the Bible and have increasingly become part of a national political dialog. 

The Christianity Today article consists of three commentaries which address the question of the authenticity of Graham’s endorsement of the ads. They include: biographer of Billy Graham, William Martin, (author of A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story), Michael Hamilton (a historian of the evangelical movement and Graham's influence), and A. Larry Ross who has served as Graham's director of public relations since 1981.

Martin and Hamilton have serious reservations about Graham’s willing, and uncoerced, participation in the creation and dissemination of the ads. Ross, on the other hand, assures readers that they represent the views and wishes of Mr. Graham.

It may never be possible to ascertain the truth because the Graham family (or at least the BGEA) is unwilling to allow access to Mr. Graham due to his frail health. (They did, however, allow Mitt Romney a half-hour audience, followed by a press release with much the same wording as the ads now being run on his behalf. Dr. Graham is pictured, in the press release, with Mitt Romney and with Graham’s son, Franklin, by his father’s side.)

Christianity Today reports that, curiously, shortly after Mr. Graham’s meeting with Mitt Romney the BGEA removed “Mormonism” from its list of cults, which still includes, Unitarianism, Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others.

It would not be surprising to find the BGEA bedding with Mormonism since its current CEO, Franklin Graham, has made no secret of his devotion to conservative politics and his strong aversion to Barack Obama, even suggesting that Mr. Obama’s profession of faith in Christ is insufficient to convince him that Obama is a fellow believer. However, Dr. Graham, as recently as last year made a point of, not only expressing regret at previous times when he “crossed the line” into politics, but clearly stated that he wouldn’t do that again. And, as if to stress that determination, he urged conservative Christian leaders not to involve themselves in partisan issues. Quoting from the recent CT article: 

After the 1984 presidential election, Graham told CT that baldly partisan political lobbying in many of America's churches has exacted a price, and explained that even the perception of partisan political activity weakens his credibility as a preacher. 

There can only be two reasons for Graham’s apparent change of mind regarding political statements and activities by him and the organization he founded and once ran. Either: 1) events in the last year have so dramatically affected his thinking on the matters of homosexuality, abortion, and religious freedom, that he forsook a strongly stated conviction and is speaking out, or 2) as Martin and Hamilton, commentators in the CT article, have suggested, he is being used by his politically motivated son, Franklin, to promote ideas he would not, of his own free volition, have endorsed.

Let’s be clear about two additional things: 1) The Constitution of the United States of America does not prohibit any person of any religion, or of no religion at all, from being elected as the President of the United States. No religious test is to be applied to those seeking that (or any other) political office in the United States. So Mitt Romney’s religious affiliation is, in that sense, irrelevant in this election. 2) Further, there are numerous Biblical principles that voters may rightly choose to support in any particular election; dozens more than the three suggested in the BGEA ads. So Christians may differ in their priorities of Biblical principles leading them to support very different candidates.

The real question for the BGEA (and possibly also for Dr. Graham) is why it (or he) chose, in the name of Biblical principles, to cease to list Mormonism as a cult when Mormon doctrine explicitly violates orthodox Christian beliefs about the Bible and the Christ of the Bible. Mormons have been particularly eager in recent years to present their church as a part of the Christian family while at the same time holding to doctrines that the BGEA would, under other, non-political, circumstances hold to be heretical. Mormons do not explicitly believe in the Trinity, that Jesus Christ is therefore true man and true God. They further elevate the Book of Mormon, and even the modern declarations of their living prophet above the authority of Scripture.

So how is it “upholding Biblical principles” to quietly reverse a position BGEA has long held, that Mormonism is a cult? It seems to many to be a compact with the Devil, as in The Devil and Daniel Webster. It may well be that BGEA, and other Evangelical Christian organizations did themselves no service by branding rival religious faiths as “cults”. It may well be that God alone knows who his “sheep” are and that he can sort them out in the future. But when an organization like the BGEA combines its change of heart about a particular cult with a sleight-of-hand endorsement of a candidate who happens to be a member of that “cult”, it cannot but smell as though there is something rotten in the BGEA.

Dr. Billy Graham has been an honored and respected leader of Evangelicalism through his whole adult life. It is a shame to see his name involved in an affair as shifty as this one appears to be. It is my hope that he had nothing to do with the current attempt to sanctify a particular candidate by excusing doctrinal aberrations that the BGEA would not have excused in Mr. Obama.

It would have been far more honest to simply say, “While our organization continues to disagree with the Biblical understandings of the Mormon Church, Dr. Graham is endorsing Mr. Romney for election as President of the United States." But that would not have had the “spiritual punch” that the author of the ad seeks to deliver. So they must obfuscate.


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