“The framers of our Constitution meant we were to have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”
That is from the infamous Billy Graham. The argument is that the founders weren’t serious when they talked about the separation of church and state. It’s amusing in its silliness. It would be like saying that the framers of our Constitution meant we were to have freedom of oppressive monarchy and aristocracy, not freedom from oppressive monarchy and aristocracy. He is playing a word game to push an agenda. But many of the founders, such as Thomas Jefferson, were quite clear in what they meant about separation of church and state. Religious freedom most definitely does not entail the constitutional right to enforce theocratic laws onto others.
Graham has a long history of political involvement and influence. This has been true across every presidential administration since the 1950s. He was particularly close with Richard Nixon. After Nixon’s scandalous resignation, Graham expressed more wariness toward politics. He went so far as to later on criticize Jerry Fallwell’s politicized “moral majority” (Parade Magazine, 1981), stating that:
It would be unfortunate if people got the impression all evangelists belong to that group. The majority do not. I don’t wish to be identified with them. I’m for morality. But morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak out with such authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists can’t be closely identified with any particular party or person.
Referring specifically to Falwell, he made himself even more clear:
I told him to preach the Gospel. That’s our calling. I want to preserve the purity of the Gospel and the freedom of religion in America. I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. Liberals organized in the ’60s and conservatives certainly have a right to organize in the ’80s, but it would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.
That didn’t stop Graham from continuing to play the political game. He stayed close to the Washington establishment in the decades since. In 2011, he once again expressed regret for his complicity in the politicization of religion. Yet the very next year he jumped into another political fight over gay marriage in North Carolina. The culture wars are simply too thick in his blood. The attraction to political power is an addiction. He can’t help himself. John Becker wrote that,
The fact that the 93-year-old Graham, who was born during the final days of World War I, supports marriage discrimination is not, in and of itself, surprising, when one considers both his age and his evangelicalism. What is rather surprising, however, is the fact that he’s made such a public anti-gay pronouncement at all. After all, the man has been essentially in retirement since 2007. Since that time, he’s left most of the right-wing craziness to his son, Franklin “President Obama may or may not be a ‘son of Islam’“ Graham, and his daughter, Anne “9/11 was God’s way of getting back into the government and our schools“ Graham Lotz. Waggoner notes that William Martin, an authorized biographer of Graham, cannot recall any effort by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association similar in size and scope to its current pro-discrimination push in the organization’s entire 62-year history. And according to Martin, professor emeritus of religion and public policy at Rice University, this can only mean one thing: that the source of this bigotry is not Franklin Graham, who heads the BGEA, but Billy Graham himself. Says Martin, “I am somewhat surprised that he would take that strong a stand. In the past, I have heard him say with respect to homosexuality, there are greater sins. Franklin has been more outspoken about it, but it sounds as if this is Mr. Graham expressing his own will.”
It appears the Graham family ministry has become ever more politicized as the patriarch ages. Billy Graham is no longer heeding his own advice, hard earned from his earlier life experience. This can’t be blamed on his family taking over the ministry. It’s obvious the elder Graham is still fighting the culture wars in very much politicized form.
It’s with this in mind that we should take note the political support of Donald Trump by family members and key figures close to Billy Graham. Even though Franklin Graham promised not to endorse a candidate, he posted a photograph of his father with Donald Trump right before the election. He described those photographed with his father as “a few special friends,” implying the relationship between Billy and Donald isn’t a casual association. Acknowledging the support he had been given, Trump stated that he was “a big fan of Billy Graham” and then thanked some of the family members.
It’s not clear what Billy Graham thinks of Trump. But one thing is clear. This new administration has been extremely divisive among evangelicals, even among those surrounding the Graham family. Consider the warning of “21st century idolatry” given by Ed Stetzer. He is the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and the Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center.
Trump’s narcissistic buffoonery and anti-Christian sociopathy will make many evangelicals rethink their position on the politicization of religion, specifically in its present partisan divide. It will weaken the ties between evangelicals and the Republican Party. It might also weaken the ties with the religious right as well, since younger evangelicals are increasingly liberal and progressive. It is the decades of politicized religion by religious right figures like Billy Graham that have turned so many away from the old culture wars. That might not have happened if Graham had taken his own earlier advice to heart.