Wednesday, February 22, 2012
franklin graham's mistake: why it matters, but not as much as you think
The Internet and cable news were all abuzz yesterday and today concerning remarks made on Morning Joe (MSNBC) by Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and head of Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse. Graham, in an interview with co-host Willie Geist and other panel members, seemed to suggest on the one hand that a person's true faith in Christ is known only to them, but then on the other hand expressed far more certainty regarding the Christian faith of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich than that of President Obama. He said that Mitt Romney is not a Christian, but a Mormon (for more on what Christians mean when they say this, please visit my previous post here), but that he would be a good President and leader. He also criticized what he considered to be the inaction of President Obama in urging certain Muslim nations to cease persecuting Christians, citing in particular the situation of persecution of Christians which currently exists in Egypt.
Graham said faith is something determined in one's heart and one has to ask a person about their faith to know if they are a Christian. The sticking point for many people regarding Graham's responses when asked about the faith of each candidate is that he then sought to judge the hearts of all of the men involved (as he had said he could not do). The second sticking point is that Graham suggested that faith is revealed by actions (a very Biblical statement, by the way), but that he seemed to ignore actions that didn't support his case. President Obama didn't support the social issue stands most important to Graham, ergo, President Obama may or may not be a Christian. Gingrich had engaged in moral failure, but did appear to be a Christian, according to Graham. Why not call into question Gingrich's faith, due to his adultery, if actions are the measure of faith? Why only subject President Obama to hesitancy regarding his faith?
To be fair, Graham was in a no-win situation from the moment he was asked about candidates' faith. The best scenario for him would have been to comment equally on all of the candidates that God alone knows their hearts. He should have stayed out of the politics of it. He should have done this because the dipping of the toe into partisan politics tends to discredit those who seek to serve the Lord in ministry.
Understand, I am not saying that pastors cannot talk about social issues and call people to repentance. It is essential that they do so. But getting into a situation where they are called upon to endorse or repudiate specific candidates is polarizing and gets in the way of their message. This is why as a pastor, I never publicly encouraged people to vote for any particular candidate. However, I was firm in my teaching on social issues such as the need of caring for the poor and needy, the importance of stopping genocide, the sin of abortion, and the wrongness of acting on homosexual impulses. When it came to politics, I would engage in collegial discussions with congregation members, assuming that Christians who believe strongly in God's Word come to different conclusions on how to live it out the teachings of Scripture.
As you can imagine, my views did not place me firmly in either party, and I suppose that helped when it came time to lead a congregation. I could see different points of view in terms of how we accomplish the goals we are called to as Christians. For example, Republicans believe that the poor are better helped by a social policy that limits government intervention; they believe that one gains self-esteem from working hard and rising in success based on their own merits. They do not believe that government money legitimately helps the poor, except in the most dire of cases. Now, it is perfectly possible to be a strong Christian and hold this perspective. Of course selfishness can come into play, but so can selflessness. Many Christians believe that if they are not taxed at a high rate, they will have more money to give to charitable endeavors. This may not always work, but if an individual is seeking to live out these ideals and help in a more personal way than the government can, we should applaud them for living out their faith. Conversely, many Democrats believe that the poor are better helped by limiting the opportunity of our human nature to resist sharing. They believe that a free society has a responsibility from all of its members to care for the poor and needy and so they believe in higher taxation to provide the funds for this care. They believe that the government has a more direct role to play in providing for the poor. Such beliefs easily hearken back to Old Testament Law in which the whole society was responsible to care for the poor and needy amongst the people. I believe either position can be reached through serious interaction with Scripture. Now, is it important for a pastor to stand up and say: "The only viable way for us to see that the poor are served and cared for is _________"? No! Furthermore, no method will be perfect, for we live in a sinful world. But simply because our methods are imperfect, we are not "let off the hook" from trying.
As long as a Christian is in the Word and tries to think about the world from God's perspective, he or she can seek to do good in either (or no) political party. As the old saying goes, "there is more than one way to skin a cat." We need to respect that others may have different methods of achieving Biblically-sound goals of good for society and the world.
The problem is not whether Franklin Graham privately reflects on where he thinks each candidate is at spiritually. As he pointed out in the interview, evaluating faith and calling people to come to Christ are "his business," just as news is the media's business. The problem is that Franklin Graham proclaimed publicly what he thought the status of each man's faith was. Now, how will Franklin Graham be able to preach the Gospel credibly to any of the candidates? How will he be able to encourage them in faith?
I am hesitant to be too hard on Franklin Graham, however. We often forget that even pastors are human and liable to make mistakes just like the rest of us. When they make a mistake, they are reduced to that misstep alone and their finer deeds are ignored. Franklin Graham was all but crucified on the internet and in the press in the past 24 hours. And his very real accomplishments on behalf of the poor and vulnerable in the world were ignored. He was relegated into a very narrow box of what the world thinks a Christian is.
Chuck Todd, political analyst for MSNBC and host of The Daily Rundown, tweeted yesterday morning, "Franklin Graham has a lot to learn from his father." Fair enough. But we often forget that Billy Graham also landed himself in political hot water from time to time. On one occasion, Graham was accused of being a propaganda tool of the former Soviet Union, an accusation not entirely unwarranted, despite his good intentions. William Martin wrote in Christianity Today: "[Critics] pointed in particular to a 1982 Moscow 'Peace Conference,' which did indeed have a strong anti-American slant, and after which Graham made some inadequately considered—and inaccurately reported—remarks that seemed to describe greater religious freedom in the USSR than in fact existed. Graham understands, of course, that the governments of the countries he has visited have their own agendas and that preaching the Christian gospel is not a major priority. 'Of course they are using us,' he said. "But we are using them as well, and my message is stronger than theirs.'" To one extent, Graham was being realistic and shrewd. To another extent, he was being too innocent about the impact of his actions. Should he have spoken on political matters in such a way? Probably not. Was he confusing his calling momentarily? Probably.
Then there was the even more troubling revelation in 2002 of the Nixon tapes of 1972 which found Billy Graham making anti-Semitic remarks to Richard Nixon, despite his long support of the nation of Israel. Graham later apologized for the remarks, saying he did not even recall making them. It's hard to imagine what he was thinking at the time. Could he have been star-struck by President Nixon? Could he actually have harbored anti-Semitic thoughts in his heart? We cannot say for sure. We can only say that Graham made a very significant mistake, but that he righted it and repented of his words.
Every time Billy Graham attempted to step outside the range of his calling--the speaking of the Law and the Gospel in Scripture--and attempted to lead in matters of politics, he was humbled. He made some major mistakes when it came to politics. But he also did tremendous good in the Body of Christ. His lasting legacy is found in the countless people came to new or renewed faith in Christ through his work of evangelism. The impact of his ministry will be seen in the assembled saints in Heaven.
We should look at the ministry and work of his son with the benefit of this history in our minds. Franklin Graham is not a perfect man. There have been several times he has ventured too much into the field of politics and too far away from his callings to care for the poor and needy of the world and to speak the Gospel. When he strays from these callings, he is humbled, just as his father was. However, that does not negate the excellent and massive relief work he does in the world. Samaritan's Purse recognizes the importance of relieving the suffering of those in need and puts its money where its mouth is. In the midst of the drought and famine in East Africa, they provided food and relief. They give Christmas gift boxes to underprivileged children throughout the world through Operation Christmas Child. Whenever there is a natural disaster in the world, they are there providing aid. They aid in medical missions, hunger relief, HIV/AIDS care, water programs. We cannot dismiss these good efforts. All too often Christians are said to care nothing for the poor. This is not true of Franklin Graham. He has invested his life in the care of the poor. You could say that this ministry is his life's work; politics is only his hobby.
Should we call into question Graham's words this morning? Certainly it is fair to do so. But we ought not blow his words out of proportion. We ought to look at the full man with a balanced eye and give thanks for all the good that he, yet an imperfect sinner saved by God's grace, does in the world.