Michael Gerson: To promote Trump, Franklin Graham betrays the gospel
I pray for President Trump at least once a week. “Grant to the President of the United States,” says the Book of Common Prayer, “and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will.”
This is, or at least should be, noncontroversial for a Christian. The Apostle Paul urged Timothy to pray “for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” Though it is difficult to associate tranquility, quietness, godliness or dignity with our current king, the requirement stands.
Yet the Rev. Franklin Graham’s recent declaration of a “special day of prayer for the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump” on June 2 had a very different theological flavor. Graham made clear that the real purpose of the event was not to pray for the president, but to pray in his political favor. “President Trump’s enemies continue to try everything to destroy him, his family and the presidency,” Graham explained. “In the history of our country, no president has been attacked as he has.” The American Family Association described the day of prayer as a type of “spiritual warfare,” necessary because Trump’s many accomplishments “make him very unpopular with the Devil and the kingdom of darkness.”
Who are the “enemies” that Graham had in mind? Who represents “the kingdom of darkness”? The Democratic Party? Robert Mueller and the “deep state”? Never-Trump Republicans?
However the conspiracy against the president is defined, I suppose I am part of it. Having been accused of serving the Prince of Darkness, I feel justified in making a frank response.
In their day of prayer, Graham and other Trump evangelicals have used a sacred spiritual practice for profane purposes. They have subordinated religion to politics. They have elevated Trump as a symbol of divine purposes. And they are using Christian theology as a cover for their partisanship.
So: This is blasphemy, in service to ideology, leading to idolatry, justified by heresy. All in a Sunday’s work.
Most Christians are familiar with Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” In Graham, we are seeing God in the hands of an angry political toady. Offended by the views and tactics of Trump’s opponents, Graham decided to play his ultimate trump card — calling for God to intervene on one side of a political and cultural struggle. This displays an inflated self-conception on Graham’s part. There is no evangelical pope by parentage. It also involves a miniaturized view of God — one created in Graham’s own image. Who could possibly believe that the uncreated Creator, the ground of being, the source of justice, the great “I am,” could be at Graham’s beck and call in the defense of Donald Trump? It is both an absurdity and an abomination.
Graham has become a prophet in exact reverse. Instead of calling out Trump’s cruelty and poor character, he excuses it. Instead of confronting corruption, Graham blesses it. His message reveals nothing about God’s priorities and everything about his own. He has found his pearl of great price — the political welfare of Donald Trump — and has sold everything else to buy it.
Why does this matter? Because genuine Christian influence is actually needed in American politics. Trump evangelicals could be making a broad, consistent defense of human dignity, including the unborn, the prisoner, the migrant and the refugee. They could be opposing verbal violence and dehumanization in our political discourse. They could be taking leadership in the difficult, ongoing process of racial reconciliation. They could be affirming and exemplifying the essential role of truth and honesty in the process of self-government. They could be defending the civil liberties of all religious people rather than seeking the protection of their tribe alone.
Yet for a Christian, this is not the most important thing at stake. Graham is at least nominally the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Does he think that his servile devotion to Trump will clarify the Christian gospel in many minds, or obscure it? Does he think that more people, or fewer people, will be open to following Christ following his day of partisan prayer? This is the greatest danger of a politicized faith on right or left — that it artificially narrows the offer of grace. For a minister of the gospel, making Christ secondary to anything is the dereliction of a sacred duty. Making the gospel secondary to the political fortunes of Donald Trump is betrayal compounded with farce.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.