DEFENDING Franklin Graham

Ok, I can hear the astonishment and outrage. Have you lost your mind, Ron?

Don’t you know that Franklin Graham has said terrible things about Muslims? ( In 2001, he described Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion.”)  He has falsely suggested that President Obama was a secret Muslim. He has compared same-sex marriage to polygamy and incest. He is one of President Trump’s ardent evangelical supporters. He has even said that there is “almost a demonic power” at work in those who oppose President Trump.

He has said all that and more. And I vigorously disagree with and condemn such statements. I wish Billy Graham’s son Franklin would display at least one quarter of the wisdom and love of his wonderful father. 

But here is the problem. As Jim Wallis often tells me, there is a radical “fundamentalist” left in this country which is just as intolerant as the “fundamentalist” right.

Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse ministry accepted the invitation of New York City’s Mount Sinai Health System and erected a huge temporary hospital in the city to treat COVID-19 patients. As the city’s healthcare system was overwhelmed, Samaritan’s Purse budgeted $1.8 million a month and brought in scores of evangelical medical professionals. They treated 333 New Yorkers sick with Covid-19.

Instead of thanking Samaritan’s Purse for their help, Corey Johnson, a gay activist and speaker of the City Council, denounced Graham and wanted the group thrown out of the city. He said their “continued presence was an affront to our values of inclusion. “

What infuriated Johnson and others was the fact that Samaritan’s Purse opposes  gay marriage and only hires staff who share their traditional view of marriage. Is that bigotry? Should New York City throw out people who disagree with the majority of New Yorkers who accept gay marriage?

Let’s be clear. I think  (as I say in my chapter on the topic in  my book THE FUTURE OF OUR FAITH), that evangelicals have handled the issue of homosexuality very, very badly. We should have – – but did not – – lead the battle against gay bashing. Our congregations failed to be a safe place for young people struggling with their sexual identity. Too often we offered hate rather than love to LGBTQ people.

At the same time, I believe that a  careful reading of the Bible leads to the conclusion that God’s will for marriage is one man and one woman committed for life. But our failure to understand and love people who disagree with us (and our colossal failure to model a biblical  alternative to widespread heterosexual divorce) has profoundly undermined our witness to that biblical standard.

But my concern about the attack on Samaritan’s Purse by a gay activist in New York City is not about my disagreement  on marriage. My concern is about religious freedom, choice, pluralism, and respect for those who disagree with us. The key point of our constitution’s first amendment on religious and political freedom is this: Precisely because society is and always will have many diverse views, we  therefore respect and affirm the freedom of those who profoundly disagree with us. We will argue vigorously with each other and explain why we think certain views are profoundly wrong and even harmful. But we will defend the freedom of those who disagree with us—even those who disagree vehemently with us! And we will not try to use government to silence or exclude them.

Jonathan Tobin, the editor in chief of Jewish News Syndicate, rightly lamented the attack on Samaritan’s Purse .  Tobin was grateful for their  good work helping New York City’s overwhelmed health services. And he was saddened by the fact that many used Samaritan’s Purse’s good work “as one more culture war battle line, rather than an opportunity to unite across the old divides.”

I lament and strongly condemn Franklin Graham’s many misguided, unloving statements and actions. But the solution is not to try to silence or expel him. Rather it is, first, to insist that a pluralistic society defends everybody’s right to views that others consider profoundly wrong. And then, second, to argue persuasively to refute misguided ideas. (My next blog will do that with regard to pro-Trump supporters like Franklin Graham!)

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