Though I’ve been an atheist for about 15 years now, I was born into born-again Christianity 43 years ago. I was raised in a church called Grace Gospel Chapel, a no-frills, non-denominational church in the Plymouth Brethren tradition. We didn’t call ourselves fundamentalists or even Evangelicals back then, but we were both. We were biblical literalists and inerrantists, and we were encouraged to “witness” — if not actively, then at least passively — for Christ in every aspect of our lives. But my experience of Christianity is far different from what goes by that name today. And while I’m certainly happier and healthier for leaving it all behind, it still pains me to see what it has become.
There’s probably no more important symbol of this for me than Franklin Graham, whose father was an icon of the Christianity in which I grew up. It was one of his TV specials that allegedly convinced my grandmother — a chain-smoking, man-chasing alcoholic for most of her life — to decide to accept Christ as her savior. Yet ever since the awakening of the self-proclaimed Moral Majority in the late '70s, the insidious, corrosive, corrupting nature of politics has infected the tree of Christianity — and Franklin Graham is arguably its most emblematic fruit. He’s become the Donald Trump of the Christian religion.
In my church's understanding of the Bible, Christians were supposed to be new creations, in the world but separate from it, categorically different from it — and that meant politics, too. My politically and socially formative years — my middle school and high school years — occurred during the Cold War of the Reagan era. There was no “war on terror” back then, so the topic of Islam never came up in Sunday School, the Sunday evening sermons, or our Wednesday night Bible studies. The issue of immigration, illegal or otherwise, wasn’t on our radar either. Iran was briefly mentioned in our church at the beginning of the Reagan years, but not because of any concern over nuclear weapons — we were implored to pray for the safe return of the hostages.
The main concern of my generation was the Soviet Union and the nuclear arms race. Movies like "The Day After" and "Red Dawn" kept me up at night. Still, there was no talk of politics from the pulpit or in the pews, no praise or condemnation for Reagan's handling of our relationship with Gorbachev and the U.S.S.R. There were only references to cultural forces like Heavy Metal music and illicit drugs. Most of my church experience centered around one's personal relationship with the Lord, making sure you were saved, and acting like it. I don’t remember any sermon in my church centered around the need to be politically active. I do, however, remember every service ending in an admonition to pray for our leaders, that they be imbued with the wisdom of God.
Yet things are different today, with Franklin Graham and much of the Evangelical church. Graham regularly weighs in on race relations, immigration, and Islam. Back in March he condescendingly lectured minorities on police shootings on his Facebook page. And last week Graham posted a particularly troubling diatribe against Muslims in the wake of the shooting in Chattanooga:
“Four innocent Marines (United States Marine Corps) killed and three others wounded in #Chattanooga yesterday including a policeman and another Marine — all by a radical Muslim whose family was allowed to immigrate to this country from Kuwait. We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad. We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled. Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized — and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad. During World War 2, we didn't allow Japanese to immigrate to America, nor did we allow Germans. Why are we allowing Muslims now? Do you agree? Let your Congressman know that we've got to put a stop to this and close the flood gates.”
This post is troubling not only for its racism and xenophobia, but because it's willfully ignorant of reality. Yes, ISIS and Al-Qaeda have declared war on us, but they kill far more Arabs and Muslims than they do Americans and Christians. More Americans have been killed by white supremacists than Muslim terrorists since 9/11 — and that’s not including the three young Muslim-Americans killed by an atheist in Chapel Hill or the mass murder of 24 movie-goers in Aurora in 2012. Americans are far more likely to be killed by a white male American than any Muslim. Yet Graham doesn’t recommend deporting them or putting them in internment camps. Graham’s claim that all Muslims are potential terrorists is akin to Trump’s claim that all illegal immigrants are potential rapists.
As I became more politically aware in college, what struck me most about the Bible is how adamantly apolitical Jesus was. Though there were many occasions in the gospels where Jesus’s contemporaries asked for his opinions about political matters, he continually refused to be drawn into their arguments and schemes, or to commit himself to one party or another. His attitude towards government always seemed to be based on conscientiously obeying the laws of the land, and no more.
And Jesus's bulldog, the apostle Paul, echoes that ethic in Romans 13:1-5 where he writes: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” And in his letter to Titus, a portion of which is worth quoting in full, Paul seems to speak directly to those like Franklin Graham:
“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone. At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
I hope Graham and his most ardent followers take that passage to heart, but I confess I'm not optimistic. In our postmodern world, everyone's interpretation of religious texts is as valid as anyone else's, including Graham’s. Maybe the best we can say is that, to paraphrase Nietzsche, there was only one True Christian™, and he died on the cross.