I happened to be in town when Franklin Graham, son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham, brought his “Decision America 2016” tour to the state capitol in Santa Fe, N.M., several weeks ago. The younger Graham, taking a page from Jerry Falwell’s playbook, is visiting all 50 state capitols in an effort to encourage evangelicals to be politically active. In the run-up to the 1980 presidential election, Falwell conducted rallies at state capitols throughout the nation in what emerged as the first public rumblings of the religious right. Now, more than three decades later, Franklin Graham wants to do the same.
The rally, which attracted several thousand, opened with a guitarist (who didn’t bother to identify himself) wearing a black leather vest and a black cowboy hat. “Thank you so much for coming out,” he shouted, then launched into a guitar solo and another song, whose lyrics included “Flag’s been flyin’ low.” When he reached the refrain, “God bless America again,” hoots swelled up from the crowd. Many waved small flags.
Graham himself mounted the stage. “We’re in trouble today,” he began. “The nation is in deep trouble.” This is the standard narrative of the far right, of course, repeated so often in the course of the Republican presidential primaries that it passes unchallenged. But, really? Does Graham seriously believe that the nation is worse off today than, say, a decade ago — when the economy was crippled by the Bush-Cheney Recession, when General Motors was on the brink of collapse, when we were prosecuting two of what Maureen Dowd called George W. Bush’s “vanity wars”? True, Congress is dysfunctional, and the economic recovery might have been accelerated if not for Mitch McConnell and the Grand Obstructionist Party, but job growth has increased steadily, and nine of ten Americans now has health insurance. How is that a bad thing?
The narrative of declension has been part of American discourse since the 17th century, however, and the crowd gathered beneath a cloudless sky at the state capitol, known to New Mexicans as “the Roundhouse,” registered no dissent. They cheered tepidly when Graham declared, “I have zero hope in the Republican Party,” and lustily when he added, “I have zero hope in the Democratic Party.”
Graham insists that his efforts are not partisan; before embarking on his tour, he claimed to have “resigned” from the Republican Party to underscore the point. “I’m going to encourage Christians to stand up and let their voice be heard,” Graham said, adding that it’s important “to stand for biblical values.”
The crowd at the Roundhouse was indeed standing. Cowboy hats competed with baseball caps. One cap read “Eldorado Community Church,” another, “Sonlit Hills Christian Fellowship,” and another, “Man of Faith.” One man wore a black leather jacket emblazoned with a logo, “Christian Motorcyclists Association,” interwoven with the organization’s motto “Riding for the Son.” At least two people were hoisting shofars into the air. Interspersed through the crowd were people wearing orange vests, reading “CHAPLAIN,” then “Billy Graham” and “Rapid Response Team.”
When Falwell initiated his tour of state capitols all those decades ago, few could have predicted that he would lead evangelical voters on a reckless joy ride that would barter away “biblical values” and their own heritage as social reformers for right-wing orthodoxy. Evangelicals in the 19th and early 20th centuries devoted considerable energies toward those on the margins, those Jesus called “the least of these.” They worked to eliminate the scourge of slavery and advocated for equal rights for women, including voting rights. They supported public education as a way of lifting the lower classes out of poverty. They organized peace movements in the antebellum period, and I’ve even found evidence that they supported gun control. Charles Grandison Finney, indisputably the most influential evangelical of the 19th century, excoriated the excesses of unbridled capitalism and suggested that a “Christian businessman” was an oxymoron because commerce necessarily elevated avarice over altruism.
The rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s, however, all but eclipsed this rich heritage of evangelical activism. When Falwell, Paul Weyrich and others organized the movement to defend the tax-exempt status of segregation academies in the 1970s – including Falwell’s own school in Lynchburg, Va. – they cast their lot with the far-right precincts of the Republican Party. Falwell declared that the “godly” choice for evangelicals in the 1980 election was not Jimmy Carter, an evangelical Sunday school teacher, but Ronald Reagan, a divorced and remarried episodic churchgoer who hailed from Hollywood, a venue not known to evangelicals for its piety.
In spurning Carter for Reagan, evangelicals very quickly lost their prophetic voice. As Reagan implemented economic policies that overwhelmingly favored the affluent, the religious right raised no objection, despite evangelicalism’s heritage of care for the poor and support for the rights of workers to organize. Despite the fact that Bush’s “vanity wars” wouldn’t meet even generous criteria for a “just war,” the religious right was silent, and when I surveyed religious right groups in 2006 about their views on torture, not one organization condemned it.
So when Franklin Graham announced his 50-state tour to promote “biblical values,” I hoped he would be true to his word. In several op-ed pieces — in the Des Moines Register, the Concord Monitor and the Santa Fe New Mexican (in advance of his visits to each of these places) – I encouraged him to advocate a more humane immigration policy, one consistent with the biblical mandates to welcome the stranger and treat the foreigner as one of our own. I referred to the prophet Malachi, who condemned “those who defraud laborers of their wages,” and I noted that evangelicals believe that the created order was the handiwork of God and that Jesus expressed concern for even the tiniest sparrow; surely that justified some statement about environmental protection and climate change. In Job, we read: “Be careful that no one entices you by riches; do not let a large bribe turn you aside.” Graham so far has avoided that reading, even though it arguably has some relevance to the Supreme Court’s calamitous Citizens United decision.
“Woe to those who make unjust laws,” the prophet Isaiah said, “to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” At the rally in Santa Fe, Graham neglected those biblical passages in favor of a quotation from the first chapter of Nehemiah, the lesson of which was that, in 52 days, “the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt.” Cheers again erupted from the crowd; apparently, evangelicals should be building walls.
Sadly, rather than push for “biblical values,” Graham has contented himself on this tour with right-wing bromides about same-sex marriage, political correctness, America’s imminent demise and opposition to gun control. “This nation’s foundations were built on biblical principles,” he told his opening rally in Des Moines. In Baton Rouge, La., Graham asserted that progressives “most likely oppose the standards of God,” neglecting to mention how racial justice, care for the poor, environmental protections and fair wages violate divine standards.
“Washington has taken God out of Washington,” Graham shouted. “Let’s take our country back.”
At a makeshift news conference after the event, Graham fielded a couple of softball questions. Standing in front of one of three luxury buses all swathed in “Decision America” splendor, I asked him who was paying for this tour to all 50 states — the buses, the travel expenses, the copious security. He replied that his father’s organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, was footing the bill. I noted that these funds were tax-deductible contributions and wondered if he thought that was an appropriate use for those funds. Yes, he assured me, it was. “We’re trying to restore America to its Christian principles.” Did he believe then that the United States was founded as a Christian nation? Graham clutched and quickly retreated, responding that the nation was founded on Christian values. “Every monument in Washington,” he added, “mentions God.”
With that, Graham disappeared quickly into one of the buses. Shortly thereafter, his security detail escorted him to a waiting vehicle, and drove away.
Randall Balmer, the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College, is the author of more than a dozen books.