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Can church ever be separate from state at a Franklin Graham rally?

Spiritual leader’s message of love and unity isn’t reaching all backers of the president he supports so strongly

“We live in a political world, so we can’t avoid politics,” the Rev. Franklin Graham said at a recent Charlotte, N.C., rally. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images file photo)
“We live in a political world, so we can’t avoid politics,” the Rev. Franklin Graham said at a recent Charlotte, N.C., rally. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images file photo)

[OPINION] CHARLOTTE, N.C. — After the Rev. Billy Graham became less a counselor of presidents and more a political player, particularly in the unfortunate case of Richard Nixon, he learned a lesson. The Rev. Franklin Graham, heir to his father’s legacy, has chosen a different path, arguably becoming as well known for his politics as for his role as a spiritual leader.

Considering his remarks as he brought his “Decision America” tour to his hometown this past weekend, it’s a box Graham the younger is not exactly comfortable being placed in. But for the preacher who credited the “God factor,” in part, for Donald Trump’s 2016 win, that narrative is set. Vocal support of the president pre- and post-election exists right alongside his philanthropic and mission outreach — such as recent efforts in the Bahamas — through the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse.

Before he took the stage, and as Christian musician Jeremy Camp warmed up the crowd, I asked Graham about where he stands and about the qualities he admires in Trump, who is making his own news as he battles an impeachment inquiry with increasingly rough and divisive language, on Twitter and at rallies, which is anything but Christian.

“He is our president whether a person voted for him or not, and we need to support the president regardless of who he is, where we can,” Graham told me. But he said that “doesn’t mean we agree all the time.” Trump “stood at the United Nations,” he said, “and challenged the nations of the world to respect religious freedom,” not just for Christians, but for Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. “No American president, no Republican or Democrat, has done that in the past,” according to Graham.

“No, this isn’t a political event,” he told a small group of reporters. “People think I’m a Republican; I’m an independent. I got fed up with the Democratic Party as well as the Republican Party some time ago. The problems that we face in this country are not going to be solved by politicians. Only God can solve the problems of this country.”

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‘A great opportunity’

When the Democratic National Convention hit Charlotte in 2012, Graham said he invited the delegates to tour the Billy Graham Library, and he promised he would extend the same offer when the 2020 Republican National Convention rolls through town next summer. “I think it’s a great opportunity for Charlotte to show off,” he said. “Hopefully, it will have an impact on them.”

He said he does counsel the current president — “I don’t share what I say to any president,” he told me — and slipped in his definite opinion of impeachment troubles facing Trump: “We’ve got these trade problems with China, that’s a huge issue, the immigration issues, the fighting that’s going on in Washington is distracting from solving real problems.”

“They are fighting over telephone calls and things like this and we need to be solving the problems that, all of us as Americans, that affect our lives.”

That’s what you call shade, in any denomination.

Though he has expressed concern over the president’s recent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, Graham has been less critical over the move than others in Trump’s fervent white evangelical base.

Graham last weekend seemed most at ease delivering the message of why he believes people “turn to drugs or sex to fill this void that’s in their life,” when “only God can fill that vacuum.” Then he said, “We live in a political world, so we can’t avoid politics.”

Recently, members of the Trump administration have made news erasing that church-state line, worrying those who acknowledge America as a pluralistic country and stand for the rights of those of different faiths or no faith at all. In a speech at the University of Notre Dame Law School, Attorney General William Barr blamed “militant secularism” for the opioid epidemic and other societal ills. After Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech to the American Association of Christian Counselors conference in Nashville, Tennessee, on “what it means to be a Christian leader,” it was promoted on the homepage of the U.S. Department of State.

At a Values Voter Summit in Washington, Trump told attendees, “All of us here today know that our rights come from God almighty, and they can never be taken away.”

For his part, when he took the Charlotte stage, Graham led some 4,000 attendees in bipartisan prayers for the president, vice president, as well as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. He preached: “There are lots of religions, but there is only one gospel, there is only one Jesus Christ.”

All about the message

Attendees I spoke with were less concerned with Graham’s politics than his message, though for some it was one and the same. Joyce Tucci, 71, had traveled from Lake Worth, Florida, where she is a part of his organization’s prayer ministry, to hear what she called “the truth.”

“The world is a mess,” the former school nurse said. “The Bible says we are to be involved in politics.” Tucci called the Trump administration’s move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem “a biblical revelation.” Is Trump perfect? “He’s a man,” she said. “God is using him.” And she pointed to Brett Kavanaugh, whom she called “a man of Christian values,” on the Supreme Court, as proof.

In the predominantly white crowd, African American couple John Trent, 69, and Jacquelynn Trent, 66, of Charlotte, handed out prayer journals. Jacquelynn Trent, a retired psychotherapist, said that in her former practice, she could only take her clients so far, and offer “Band-Aids” for their problems. “You have to give it to the Lord,” she said. “It’s bigger than us.”

The couple said they could take in Graham’s words, though “he’s not perfect.” They campaigned for Barack Obama, with whom they said they disagreed on some issues. “God will intercede,” she said.

Friends Kathy Boston and Miriam Mburu traveled together from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where they work as nurses. Mburu, originally from Kenya, reflected Graham’s international reach. They said it wasn’t politics that drew them, but the promise of unity and, as Boston put it, “the love of Jesus Christ.”

If love and unity are what Graham is after, that message may not be reaching beyond this tour, to those attending the rallies of the president he has supported so strongly. Graham, too, had an answer for that when asked: “I would hope that all of those people that go to those rallies would come here and listen to what I have to say, and maybe they would change the ways they would act.”

That would be a miracle.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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