The Progressive Evangelicals That Franklin Graham Calls ‘Godless’

By now Franklin Graham has become as well-known in politics as his famous father Billy Graham. It all started during Barack Obama’s presidency when he questioned the faith and patriotism of the country’s first African American president. But it is his support for the amoral presidency of Donald Trump that has made him a leading spokesperson for the extremist evangelical movement that has taken root in this country.

According to Elisabeth Dias, Graham has set himself quite a lofty goal as a follow-up to his campaign rallies that mobilized white evangelicals in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. He’s starting out with a three-bus tour of California in an attempt to turn the solidly blue state purple. After that, Graham has plans to do similar tours through Oregon and Washington. Then he heads out for the other coast and will travel through New England.

Graham’s message can be summed up with one of his favorite phrases these days: “Progressive?…That’s just another word for godless.” His defense of Donald Trump is offensive. But even more so is the fact that, in one fell swoop, Graham dismisses the faith of anyone who doesn’t agree with him politically. More than anything else, that qualifies as the most un-Christian and divisive aspect of his message.

As far as I can tell, there are three pillars to Graham’s domestic political message: opposition to abortion, marriage equality and the Johnson amendment (which limits the involvement of churches and non-profits in political campaigns). The latter is why, on this bus tour, Graham is prohibited from advocating for specific candidates. But when it comes to abortion and marriage equality, Graham joins a lot of white evangelicals with a focus on sexual morality. In light of his support for Trump, that is what generates charges of hypocrisy.

What has always been interesting to me is that for non-conservative evangelicals and Christians, the view of morality is much more broad than the narrow confines of people like Graham. Recently a group of evangelicals came together to publish a document they titled “Reclaiming Jesus.” It outlines six affirmations of what they believe (i.e., theology), which lead them to “the resulting rejections of practices and policies by political leaders which dangerously corrode the soul of the nation and deeply threaten the public integrity of our faith.” Not one of those statements of morality have anything to do with who a person has sex with—which Graham now calls private behavior when it comes to Donald Trump. Instead, they include moral statements against:

  1. Nationalism and racism
  2. Misogyny, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women
  3. Attacks on refugees, immigrants and people living in poverty
  4. The practice and pattern of lying
  5. Autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule
  6. “America first” as a theological heresy

There is a lot we could say about each one of those. But what is especially striking to me is that they condemn lying as immoral. That is pretty basic. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone who would disagree with that, regardless of their religious beliefs (or lack thereof). And yet, when I’ve seen Franklin Graham interviewed about his support for Trump, he is almost always pressed to defend the president’s sexual infidelity—never his ubiquitous lying. That demonstrates how effective evangelicals like him have been in limiting questions of morality to sex.

The list above has a lot in common with the remarks of Dr. Mark Labberton, who outlined four arenas in which the crisis in evangelicalism has become a “violation of spiritual and moral character.” What we see from these evangelicals is actually a much more expansive view of the moral questions that shape our politics. That is true of Rev. William Barber’s message we well.

These are the kinds of progressives that Franklin Graham calls “godless,” which is one of the lies Republicans and the media tell about liberals. And yet there is a rich tradition in both Catholic and Protestant (as well as African American) churches for a more expansive view of morality based on the teachings of Jesus. More than ever before, evangelicals from those traditions are speaking up now as an alternative to those who want to align with power and dominate our political discourse.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.