How Franklin Graham transformed a debate about Duke Chapel into a culture war

(RNS Commentary) Franklin Graham’s Facebook fulminations last week about plans to issue the Muslim call to prayer from the bell tower of Duke Chapel transformed what could have been a nuanced campus debate about religious establishment, sacred space, and pluralism into a countrywide fracas that calls to mind 1980s culture wars.

He helped generate enough publicity to ultimately lead a school better known for porn stars than piety to reclaim its chapel for Christianity.

Franklin Graham Preaching at Billy Graham Crusade in New York, 2005

Franklin Graham Preaching at Billy Graham Crusade in New York, 2005

Why did Franklin Graham’s Facebook post carry this much power? Two reasons. One, some people simply love his narrative about Islam. Recent polling shows that a significant number of Americans believe that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence, and voice substantial support for police profiling of Muslims. Graham’s narrative builds off these suspicions that go far beyond his conservative evangelical constituency.

But more important, he’s a Graham. He carries the power of his father’s name and his legendary evangelistic ministry, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, or BGEA. According to Grant Wacker’s new biography, Billy Graham is the closest thing America has had to a pope, beloved by many for his ability to channel the ideals of middle America as much as a convicting gospel. The fact that, despite his retirement in 2005, the BGEA continues to use his likeness in promotional materials and that political candidates left and right still clamor for photo ops with Billy Graham are testaments to his enduring status as “America’s Pastor.”

But whatever “Graham” means now is different from what it meant in years past. For most of his career, especially in his later years, the elder Graham was the embodiment of a moderate evangelicalism.

After learning his lesson from entanglements with Richard Nixon, Billy Graham tried his best (albeit with mixed success) to stay nonpartisan, and avoid associating with the surging Christian right during the 1980s and ’90s.

He refused to take a hard line on biblical inerrancy. He moved away from speculating about hell or who would be there. Regarding Islam, Billy Graham once intoned “I have some wonderful friends among the Muslim people and have great respect and tolerance for them. Because we are a pluralistic society, we are going to have to recognize that we are no longer just a Jewish and Christian society.”

Billy Graham did meet with Mitt Romney before the 2012 presidential election. Shortly after, his elderly visage was plastered on a full-page ad promoting an unnamed candidate who professed “biblical values.” Some have questioned his actual involvement in this media campaign, but if nothing else, the exceptional nature of this near-endorsement proves the larger rule of how successful Graham has been historically in rising above the fragmentary cultural fray.

Franklin Graham, by contrast, has frequently criticized President Obama publicly (even questioning his Christian faith and repeating far-right rumors that Obama was born abroad). As CEO of the BGEA, he has recently led the organization into a much more conservative direction on questions of scriptural authority, eternal damnation, and hallmark culture war issues.

Recent covers stories of the BGEA publication Decision provocatively ask “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?” (with a blood-stained knife pictured prominently for effect), warn of the dangers of compromise on scriptural inerrancy, and posit hell as the likely result for those who do not toe the evangelical line on moral issues like homosexuality.

But the apple does not fall too far from the tree, because even though Franklin Graham seems to have departed from his father’s more gentle demeanor, there is commonality in their communication strategy. Like his father, the younger Graham is preaching to the choir.

Though Billy Graham was known as an evangelist to the unsaved, many attendees at his crusades were already Christians and most of those who made a decision for Christ were church attendees. They showed up not to be converted as much as to be reminded of who they already were, or at least aspired to be.

Franklin Graham, in his latest comments about Duke University and an Islamic prayer call, has delivered the same dynamic. He has taken a complicated debate about pluralism and made it about the inherent evil of Islam. This trope re-energizes those looking for an excuse to paint all Muslims with the same brush even as it gives liberals what they need to label other voices in the Duke Chapel debate as backwoods fundamentalists.

He has given the faithful of both camps what they want to hear, further proving the lasting legacy of the Graham name, for better or worse.

(Aaron Griffith is a doctoral student in American Christianity at Duke Divinity School. Reach him on Twitter @AaronLGriffith.)

Religion News Service

RNS is owned by Religion News LLC, a non-profit, limited liability corporation based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Its mission is to provide in-depth, non-sectarian coverage of religion, spirituality and ideas.

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38 Comments on "How Franklin Graham transformed a debate about Duke Chapel into a culture war"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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james
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knowing that your censoring pencil is always close by–I pray before you delete the following “copy and paste” you will take time to read it. Franklin Graham is right on point–we who still sit in pews in the umc should take notice……. Franklin Graham at the Oklahoma City Evangelism Conference (Courtesy/Billy Graham Evangelistic Association) Times have changed. And no politician or political party can save us. That’s what Franklin Graham told an Oklahoma City crowd Monday night at the Oklahoma State Evangelism Conference. Talking about the forces of secular humanism that have taken root in the United States, Franklin Graham… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
Guest

As long as there are tests, there will always be prayer in school. Official, coerced sectarian prayer, however, is something else. Our schools are better today because forced religion is worse than no religion.
Secular humanism? Give me a break. If fundagelical Christians cannot compete in the free market, they deserve no special consideration in a free society.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Interestingly, lost night I picked up John Killinger’s “the Changing Face of Our Salvation,” which included an interview with Billy Graham late in life after Franklin had taken over the family business. The topic of Christian Exclusivism was included and Graham’s remarks clearly indicated he is on the progressive side there and acknowledged a disagreement with Franklin on the matter.

Elaine T.
Guest
Lord, help me say this in love. Amen Brother George, I have read a lot of your responses for quite a time now. I can’t remember having heard any kind of comments about your love for Jesus or how he directs and has directed your life. is there any concern about helping others to want to find salvation ? I do know you read a lot and are very intelligent I do know that you enjoy sparing with right wingers. Also you excel as a preacher of the gospel of the Democratic party. One of your other characteristics is that… Read more »
james
Guest

Well said, Elaine T. VERY well said. Have a good evening…………………..

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Usually when people preface something with honor guard phrases, it’s to strike hard iron wrapped in a velvet cushion, and this is no different. My friend, I do not hate any of those mired in extremist rhetoric. I feel a great sorrow they have been so afflicted. Have a wonderful day.

Don Wilson
Guest

… Aaron Griffith is a doctoral student in American Christianity at Duke Divinity School

This person id about to get a PhD from duke in Christianity? This lowers the value of any degree issued by that decrepitate Anti Christian institution.

Richard Hicks
Guest

Graham is using an old Sol Alinsky tactic which always works: Never let a crisis go to waste. Plus – create a crisis then never let . . .

George Nixon shuler
Guest

LOL. I agree and thanks.

Paul W.
Guest
To correct the facts, Franklin Graham did not approach the media, the media approached him requesting comment about the Duke situation. If you read the news reports in the mainstream media (AP, etc…), this was clearly the case; also, his comments expressed nothing apart from what any thoughtful theologically conservative pastor in America would have said. Only in the minds of the far-left was Franklin Graham somehow “leading” a force of organized right-wing agitation which forced Duke to bend to his will. So, given that RNS seems to creating this unique, fairly spiteful narrative from a skewed interpretation of events,… Read more »
George Nixon shuler
Guest

I’m not sure there’s any indication Wesley would have agreed ewith Graham and the other islamophobes. While to the powers that were at his time religious affiliation was a matter of culture and national solidarity, Wesley preached a gospel that transcended the temporal and I think it’d not be likely he’d endorse xenophobia.

Paul W.
Guest
Here’s a link to a paper discussing John Wesley’s statements about Muslims. Wesley’s statements are found on pg. 16-17, 20, and 22. I think you will find the quotes quite interesting and not in keeping with your assumptions: https://oimts.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/2013-2-collins.pdf Perhaps Franklin Graham’s and John Wesley’s views on Islam are closer than you realized? I also encourage you to go back and read the full sermons that these quoted paragraphs are from since these quotes are part of larger discussions, either as examples or forming part of a fuller theological arguments. [As a note to the reader for context: Most of… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
Guest
He was certainly a product of his times, Jefferson, Washington, and Monroe all owned slaves. Jackson gave us the Tail of Tears. Benjamin Harrison, to name a more obscure President, was an evangelical who gave the green light for the Wounded Knee Massacre. John D. Rockefeller, a Baptist layman, presided over the genocide of striking coal miners in Ludlow, Colorado, in 1914. No great man is owner of a skeleton free closet. Even Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson got their starts as advocates of segregation. Eurocentrism raged until the third world nations were freed from their empires, and still exists… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
Guest
Hm, after reading your assertion there that the article had “caricatured” Franklin Graham, I had to reread it to see if I could find what you were talking about. I couldn’t. It states the facts about what F. Graham said about the Duke imbroglio, and the fact of his reprehensible statements about the President. To state facts is not to “caricature”. It would appear to me you characterize it as such because you do not want the great unwashed to be able to read the facts. I am sure F. Graham loves his children and his dogs. I am also… Read more »
Gary Bebop
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This tabloid article makes me feel like a dirty Methodist. It swaggers, finger points, and feeds the lunacies that abound in a bloated, aging Mainline denomination. “Progressives” will gloat with self-righteous glee over this caricature of Franklin Graham. What a shame that we rhapsodize over such tendentious reporting.

Paul W.
Guest
I agree. The article says volumes more about the mindset and biases of the author than about the topic it claims to be addressing. The bias is so blatant that I actually feel sorry for anyone blind to the degree that would claim they can detect no bias. Also, as Mark pointed out above, it is interesting that RNS seems to be the only “media outlet” claiming that Franklin Graham’s influence was primarily, if not solely, responsible for Duke’s reversal. But then again, if they didn’t make this claim, they would probably be hard-pressed to justify writing up such a… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
Guest
In a world where the Chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma claims climate change is a hoax perpetuated by “Barbra Streisand,” it is not unusual for any journalistic enterprise to overemphasize the appeal of celebrity. However, unlike Babs, Franklin Graham’s primarily characteristics which make him a celebrity are limited to who was his biological father. Unless I am missing something, he does not appear to be particularly bright when it comes to making the decisions he makes as to what political cause he espouses. One could, perhaps, with a religious leader, even if by… Read more »
Mark
Guest
I don’t think the general premise of this article–that Franklin Graham was PRIMARILY responsible for Duke’s reversal–is demonstrably true. There were plenty of other leaders who agreed with Graham. Read the letter of Duke Divinity Dean Richard Hays for a reasonable discourse about this controversy. Whether you love or hate Franklin Graham–who has probably engaged in more charitable work than all Duke Divinity students/grads for the last 50 years combined–at least be fair to him. This article isn’t…and it really isn’t fair to his father, either. “Recent polling shows that a significant number of Americans believe that Islam is more… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Not exactly, since more Americans since 9-11 have been killed by domestic terrorists who list their religious affiliation as “Christian” than by Muslims. That fact is rather conveniently overlooked by Islamophobes.

Paul W.
Guest
TD and Wes, I know it’s hard, but I would advise trying not to get pulled into responding to George’s name-calling and purposely deceptive “facts”. He’s not trying to persuade and he’s not trying to have a conversation — in his worldview, the far-left are heroes and anyone right of center is deserving only of crude contempt. Just in case anyone is wondering, the Southern Poverty Law Center is the source of George’s latest “facts”. The SPLC recently took a lot of heat for their “Hate Maps” which designates Christian organizations as “hate groups” simply because they lobby against the… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
Guest
Actually statistics consistently show women from Protestant evangelical-fundamentalist sects and conservative Roman Catholics obtain abortion at a much higher rate than Jewish women, Muslim women, Atheist women, and Mainline Protestant women and followers of Eastern religions. And why wouldn’t they? Go to a clinic for the procedure and no one’s the wiser as a pregnancy will often result in expressions of woman hatred and slut-shaming in those groups. Moreover, abortion is not a death because something must be born in order to die. Doctors must wear bulletproof vests and take especial care for the safety of their children and spouses… Read more »
Wes Andrews
Guest

Paul you are correct. It’s impossible to have discussion with anyone who constantly presents fiction as fact.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Only to those who find the fact it is 100% true and easily verifiable a great inconvenience to the myths they wish to spread.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

There’s no fiction in the deaths of Americans killed by homegrown christianist terrorists. Roeder, for instance, had his irrationality cultivated by his handlers, some of which now visit him in prison.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

The SPLC is a righteous organization which tracks homegrown terrorism, certainly known for honest accounting of their finances unlike the American Family Association, the Wildmon family’s con game about the best of which can be said is they have a sound business plan and moneybeg their clueless donors with fearmongering not based in reality. Its a pro-censorship, hatemongering cesspool, with ties to Conservative Citizens Association, the successor to the segregation advocating White Citizens Council. Its point man Bryan Fischer, prevaricates while advocationg hate. In my experience, “I’ll pray for you,” is fundamentalistese for ” — you!”

Wes Andrews
Guest

Another amazing truth is that progressives are responsible for over 50 million deaths of unborn children through abortion, and then they point their fingers at those who trust the authority of Scripture and who value life and accuse them of violence.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest
Wes says…. “Thank you for responding. ” which must be I suppose as close as he ever gets, at least here, to “I was wrong,” but we learn to take what we can get. Then… “…This just illustrates how the progressives will TWIST and redefine independent unconnected events to support a false narrative.” Wow, there’s that free spot on every fundamentalist buzzword bingo card there is, that “they” (whoever they are, doesn’t matter; “the other” as Durkheim might say) “TWIST” scripture and whatever else, but when “we” do it “it’s different because….[insert mumbling denial here}.” Of course, I did absolutely… Read more »
Wes Andrews
Guest

Thank you for responding. This just illustrates how the progressives will TWIST and redefine independent unconnected events to support a false narrative. This is all the more reason we need TRANSPARENCY and accountability in the UMC and in all cultures including the U.S. American culture. The progressives are in power and they will do ANYTHING to deceive to protect that power. The reality: progressives are the oppressors, not those who trust in the authority of Scripture.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest
Here ya go, Bottle Rocket…. http://www.splcenter.org/blog/2014/04/19/editorial-bombing-anniversary-a-reminder-of-the-radical-rights-rage/ The article from April 19, 2014 gives the following money shot: “Six days ago, the nation was served with a grim reminder that the United States faces its own homegrown terrorists. A well-known neo-Nazi named Frazier Glenn Cross (formerly Miller) allegedly stormed on to the grounds of two Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kan., and shot to death three strangers. As he was led away by police who captured him almost immediately, he shouted “Heil Hitler!” Although the news coverage implied that this was a uniquely horrific attack, the reality is that it was… Read more »
Wes Andrews
Guest

“more Americans since 9-11 have been killed by domestic terrorists who list their affiliation as “Christian”.

What planet do you live on? Over 3000 U.S. citizens have been murdered by domestic Christian terrorists in the U.S. hmmmm. This is the reason we should hold everyone, especially progressives accountable when they make claims. Because for them the end justifies the means, the non-facts, etc.

I am interested in your backing this up.

George Nixon shuler
Guest
With the killings of two Methodists by Frazier Glen Miller in Leawood, Kansas, recently, Mark Potok of Southern Poverty Law Center cited this statistic. Note he and I used the word “since…” which if you do not understand, means beginning on September 12, 2001, not counting people dying but not yet dead from the 9-11 attacks, more Americans in the U.S. have been murdered by right-wing domestic terrorists than have been murdered here by Islamacist terrorists. Potok has the figures to back it up and if you call him up at his office in Montgomery I am sure he could… Read more »
Wes Andrews
Guest

“more Americans since 9-11 have been killed by domestic terrorists who list their affiliation as “Christian”.

Please back up this statement. This IS what you said. Do more than mention a name. Please provide a credible source for research that points to the conclusion you state.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

That’s not what I said. I said more Americans in America. There is none more objective than a professional terrorism fighter like Mark Potok.

Wes Andrews
Guest

George, would you please cite objective sources for your claim that Christian terrorists have domestically killed more people since 911 than the Islamic terrorists.

Wes Andrews
Guest

I find it interest that progressives seem to be eager to damn Christianity, and are soft on Islamic terrorism, and soft on the unbelievable oppressing and human rights abuses in Cuba. Stunning. If one were to look at progressives objectively one might notice that they really are lacking in compassion.

George Nixon shuler
Guest
Your conclusions are not bourne out by facts. I, for one so-called “progressive” or whatever, love America and willfully served in its armed forces, but I don’t deny that we have a lot of problems dictated by our racism like the inordinate deaths of African-American youths at the hands of law enforcement. As to “Islamic terrorism,” that’s a nebulous term considering our erstwhile alliances with the Saudis, Kuwaitis, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE etc. – everybody who pumps gas is complicit in their state terrorism of their own people. As to stateless terrorists like ISIS etc., we make no excuses for them,… Read more »
Gil Caldwell
Guest

“Polling…a significant number of Americans believe Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence”.

I wonder how many Americans as I, have seen first hand the burning crosses of the Ku Klux
Klan and seen pictures of the bodies of black men (and women) who have been lynched?

There was a time when some Americans would have substituted Christianity for Islam in
the above quote. “Black Lives Matter”, as do all lives.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

As our beloved foremother Abigail Adams wisely noted referring to the slick politicans and preachers of her day: “Let revenge or ambition, pride, lust, or profit, tempt these men to a base and vile action ; you may as well hope to bind up a hungry tiger with a cobweb, as to hold such debauched patriots in the visionary chains of decency, or to charm them with the intellectual beauty of truth and reason.”

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