I never cease to be amazed at the level of support that Donald Trump has in the evangelical Christian community. How Christians can claim to support a man who embodies virtually every selfish, dishonest, cruel thing that we teach our children not to do remains a complete mystery to me. I mean, the man commits each of the seven deadly sins every morning before breakfast, and as near as I can tell, exhibits not a single characteristic that Christians claim to value. He was out rawdogging porn stars while his new trophy bride was nursing his fifth kid by his third wife. But nevertheless, there it is. Evangelicals love Donald “gram ’em by the pussy” Trump. The only thing I know for sure is that I dare any Republican to ever try to lecture me about morals and “family values” again.
The truth is that evangelical Christians in America have a long history of being hoodwinked by grifters and hucksters because they possess the singular ability to fall into a self-induced state of deep denial for things they desperately want to believe. The list of con men is a long one. Billy James Hargis, Marjoe Gortner, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Peter Popoff, Mike Warnke, Robert Tilton, Ted Haggard, on and on and on. And let’s not forget the original “Mr. homosexuals caused the holocaust,” Pat Robertson, who as far as I know hasn’t had any major scandals, but is just straight-up bat shit crazy.
As a non-Christian, I’ve always seen the puppeteers behind the curtain. It’s about money and power. It always has been. But if there is one evangelical figure that I could say I have a modicum of respect for, it would be Billy Graham. Aside from opposing the 1960 candidacy of John F. Kennedy on the grounds that he was Catholic, Graham always remained relatively non-political and stood by his principles without any partisan affiliation, although he was a lifelong Democrat. In 1981, he cautioned that “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.”
I’d like to repeat that, because it sounds vaguely important. “The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”
Even later in life in 2007, he said, “Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left.” In the ’50s and ’60s, he was an early crusader for civil rights. In the ’70s, he refused to join Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority on the grounds that it focused only on sexual issues and ignored social injustices like racism, poverty, environmental pollution, and apartheid, and refused to join other pastors in calling for conversions of Jews to Christianity (despite his private anti-Semitic views, as revealed in the Nixon tapes). In the ’80s, Graham supported limited legal abortion, was a proponent of military disarmament, and was an early advocate for attention to the AIDS crisis. You know…. the kind of stuff that would get him labeled a “libtard” or a “snowflake” these days.
But his son is another matter altogether. Along with Jerry Falwell, Jr., Franklin Graham represents an entitled, bratty second generation of televangelists riding on the coattails of their famous fathers, and Graham seems determined to burn down the movement his father built and replace it with exactly the kind of narrow-minded, exclusionary fundamentalist movement that his father explicitly rejected. As early as 2012, well before Billy Graham’s death, Franklin began to exert more influence in the organization as his father stopped making public appearances. He assumed the role of “spokesman” for his father, and proceeded to make pronouncements that were at odds with the views his father had espoused. Following Billy Graham’s death in 2018, Franklin has foregone any pretense and thrown all-in with Donald Trump and the far right, right alongside Jerry Falwell, Jr., Pat Robertson, Kenneth Copeland, and all the rest.
Graham has made a lot of news recently for his controversial “Samaritan’s Purse” mobile hospital in New York’s Central Park which has treated more than 300 Covid-19 patients since the peak of the pandemic. That, of course, is admirable and good. But he also made every person working there sign a statement saying that they oppose same-sex marriage. What? Of course, they can require whatever they want because this sort of discrimination is somehow legal for religious organizations but not private businesses, but if anybody wants to tell me what that has to do with humanitarian medical services, I’m all ears. In fairness, there’s no evidence that the hospital denied services to anyone on that basis, but just what exactly is the point of that document? Would Billy Graham have done that? I suspect not.
Then last week an article came across my Facebook news feed from the far right propaganda site CNS News that said, “Rev. Graham: ‘Left-Leaning Media’ Using Virus to Spread Fear and ‘Destroy’ Trump.” So out of curiosity, I read the article even though I knew it was going to piss me off. It cited a May 2 Facebook post by Graham, in which he proceeded to sing all of Donald Trump’s greatest hits. “The media.” “Liberal politicians.” “Destroy President Donald J. Trump.” “We can’t live in a cave.” And then Brother Graham outdid himself and became a doctor. “In the 60,000+ deaths from COVID-19 nationwide, the majority had underlying health issues, which is true in Italy as well.” Well, that may or may not be the case, but the fact is we don’t really know how it works, and I certainly don’t expect to find those kinds of answers behind a preacher’s pulpit.
I can’t imagine that Billy Graham would approve of the course that his son has chosen for his namesake organization. Franklin Graham has contributed to the wildly racist and completely unfounded “birther” conspiracy theory against Barack Obama, refused to condemn Trump for calling African countries “shitholes,” and pitched right-wing conspiracy theories that opposition to Trump is “an attempted coup.” If I were a Christian and believed in such things, I would say that Billy Graham is looking down upon his son with a great deal of disappointment right now.
Billy Graham was smart enough to stay out of those waters when he said, “We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments.” But Franklin seems not to have gotten the memo. Preachers should preach, and let the doctors do the doctoring. But what would cause Graham to turn so far away from the philosophy that made Billy Graham such a beloved figure in America? The answer, of course, is money. God is a big business, and hate is more profitable than love.
Since 2012 when Franklin effectively took over, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has increased its net assets by 50% and is now approaching a value of half a billion dollars. Let that sink in. Last year alone, the organization took in $140 million in revenue and made a net profit of $58 million, and because it’s a 501(c)(3) non-profit, they paid no taxes on any of it. Where do I sign up for that deal? But they’re not supposed to be able to have it both ways, because since 1954, the tax code has prohibited tax exempt religious organizations from endorsing political candidates or causes. The idea is that if you want to preach that’s fine, but if you want a seat at the policy table, there is an admission price.
Donald Trump has made a lot of noise about repealing the so-called “Johnson Amendment” to lift this restriction, much to the delight of his evangelical base, but in practice it’s a moot point because it’s almost never been enforced anyway. So why would Trump and the evangelicals want this relatively obscure and unenforced provision off the books? Once again, follow the money. Specifically, a form of political money laundering, a subject with which Trump has vast experience. If the Johnson Amendment were repealed, political donors would be able to make tax-deductible contributions to a church, knowing that the money would be funneled to support their favorite political candidate, and because churches are not subject to the reporting requirements of other 501(c)(3) organizations, the donors would remain secret. It would function as a new kind of Super-PAC, except only for Republicans. If you’re a Republican or a church, that’s a pretty sweet deal if you can get it.
These preachers clearly want a seat at the policy table, and I have no problem giving it to them. But I do have a problem with giving it to them for free and letting them use half a billion dollars in tax-exempt assets to promote their right-wing agendas. We need to either start enforcing the Johnson Amendment and start yanking some exemptions, or we need to do away with tax exemption for churches entirely. You don’t get to have it both ways.