In mid-October, evangelist Franklin Graham and his “Decision Texas” entourage stopped off at Baylor University in Waco, mainly to bring souls to Jesus but also to talk a little politics. In a half-hour sermon culminating in an altar call for those seeking God’s forgiveness, Graham, president and CEO of the evangelistic organization named after his famous father Billy, told the 7,200 attendees that America is in deep trouble. He criticized the political dysfunction in Washington, D.C., and led the crowd in praying that God would “melt [politicians’] hearts so they’ll begin to work with one another for the good of all humanity.”
Predictably, Graham’s vision of “the good of all humanity” looked a whole lot like the GOP social conservative agenda. He attacked abortion and LGBT equality, and advocated tax reform, border security and a health care overhaul. Yet surprisingly, Graham seemed to distance himself from the man on whom evangelicals have pinned their hopes: Donald Trump.
Waco was the next-to-last stop in Graham’s 1,100-mile waltz across Texas. The tour had already put him in front of tens of thousands of Texans in Lubbock, Midland, Corpus Christi, San Antonio and Round Rock, before concluding in Longview.
Under a blue sky traced by wispy clouds, people of all ages — mostly Anglo, but with a scattering of black, Latino and Asian folks — sat on folding chairs or blankets on the grassy tailgating area next to Baylor’s McLane Stadium. The thumping Christian rock of Crowder warmed up the crowd. Audience members waved their arms and swayed as multicolored lights flashed and smoke swirled around the long-haired, shaggy-bearded musicians onstage. This was definitely not your grandma’s tent revival.
As a high-church Episcopalian, I’ll confess that an event like this isn’t really my scene. I had come looking for insights into one of today’s great conundrums: how evangelicals can support a foul-mouthed, twice-divorced, playboy president with shaky knowledge of the Bible and a questionable sense of the need for repentance. This rally seemed like a good place to find clues, since Graham has been one of Trump’s most outspoken apologists. In May, he said Trump is in the White House “because God put him there” and implied that the reality TV star’s disreputable behavior was, paradoxically, a sign of divine favor. More recently, Graham praised Trump’s “Rocket Man” speech before the United Nations, saying it “may have been one of the best speeches ever given to that body.”
So I expected that if Graham turned to politics in his sermon, he’d give a full-throated endorsement of Trump. But in Waco, at least, it never came.
The 65-year-old evangelist took the stage to a standing ovation. He bears a striking resemblance to his famous father, but is more square-jawed, with the looks of an aging movie star. He smiles often, and makes little jokes in his mild North Carolina accent. Though he lacks his dad’s stentorian sermonizing presence — Franklin’s style is more soft-spoken and conversational — he does have a revival preacher’s gift for reducing the nuances of Christian teaching down to a few simple moral platitudes that can push people to repentance.
Graham began his sermon in a nonpartisan mode. “I don’t think I’ve seen political division like I’ve seen where we are today,” he said. He laid the blame on both Republicans and Democrats, and spoke nostalgically of a time when “both parties wanted the best for the country and they worked together.
“The Republicans can’t fix this,” he continued. “The Democrats certainly can’t fix it.” That dig drew chuckles from the audience. “Only God can fix this,” he declared, prompting rapturous applause and cheers.
Then Graham turned to why he thinks America is in trouble. Here that gift for oversimplification came into play. He railed against abortion: “In God’s eyes it’s murder.” He made no exceptions (as his father has) for rape, incest or danger to the woman’s life. As for same-sex marriage, Graham proclaimed that God defines marriage as between “a man and a woman. Not two women. Not two men.” The audience cheered and clapped. “I’m just telling what God has said,” he explained.
As for the issues politicians should be working together to solve, Graham mentioned three that are top priorities for the GOP and President Trump: tax reform, a health care overhaul to repair “a broken system” and “some type of secured border.”
There, however, Graham seemed to distance himself from the president. I expected him to launch into Trumpian anti-immigrant rhetoric, and perhaps even to claim, like Robert Jeffress, that a border wall is God’s idea. But Graham, who gave the invocation at George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration, went in a very different direction.
“Many people want to come here to work,” he said. “We need to make it easy for them to come here to work. We don’t need them to risk their lives trying to come in across the border because they can’t get permission to work here.” While he didn’t go into specifics, he sounded less like Trump and more like the comparatively pro-immigrant Texas evangelicals Darrell Bock and Bob Roberts.
Graham also separated himself from Trump in more subtle ways, but most surprising was the fact that throughout his sermon he never discussed Trump or mentioned him by name. When he led the audience in a prayer for those in authority, he listed a number of officials, including “the president” and “all those in Washington.” But he named only Vice President Mike Pence and Governor Greg Abbott.
I asked the Graham organization whether the evangelist was purposely putting daylight between himself from the president. Spokesperson Todd Shearer said only that Graham’s references to leaders varied from city to city during the tour. In some of Graham’s other Texas sermons, all of which track closely with his Waco remarks, he did mention Trump by name in prayers for those in authority, but steered clear of endorsing the president, his policies or his behavior. Moreover, in San Antonio Graham noted that Trump can’t “turn around” the political division in America — only God can.
Shearer also pointed out that both Pence and Abbott had worked with the evangelist and his charity Samaritan’s Purse on hurricane relief here in Texas. The current issue of Graham’s magazine, Decision, which was handed out to attendees, does mention Trump, but features much more prominent photos of Pence and Abbott working alongside Graham to clear debris in Harvey-ravaged Rockport.
For Graham, Pence is a better fit than Trump. The vice president combines anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, pro-“religious freedom” conservatism with a straitlaced personal morality that Trump so publicly lacks.
It wouldn’t be the first time Graham dissociated from Trump’s comments. After initially defending the president’s response to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Graham later dialed it back, denouncing racial hatred as “venomous.”
I came away from Waco with the impression that Graham’s support for the president is more a dalliance of convenience than a love match. It depends on how effectively Trump promotes the religious right agenda.
Graham’s apparent hesitancy to drape himself in Trump’s politics may be a reflection of the community that follows him. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll suggests that Trump’s support among white evangelicals, while still strong, has slipped considerably.