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Franklin Graham on the IRS checks

Franklin Graham is in the news again. According to a Religion News Service article which I discovered through Sojourners, Graham “blasted the Internal Revenue Service probe of conservative nonprofit groups as “un-American,” saying both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the relief group Samaritan’s Purse were audited by the IRS.” (On Tuesday he wrote a letter to President Obama criticizing the audits.)

Now, I have an almost allergic response to that word un-American –something about certain House committees that investigated such activities not too far in this country’s past– and so that bit of rhetoric definitely made me sit up and take notice. And this does feel like a fairly bald attempt to exert political influence. Rvd. Graham hasn’t tied his protest specifically to the other IRS scandal, that the IRS singled out Tea Party groups for (possibly illegal?) scrutiny of Tea Party groups, but the timing is so convenient, it’s hard to accept it as coincidence. But as I’ve said over at FB, I don’t know enough of the facts to really make a good judgement in the Tea Party scandal. And I certainly don’t know enough about these particular audits to know whether they were illegal or even carried out badly. But while I’m not sure whether these audits are un-American or not, thinking back on the events Rvd. Graham points to as motivating the audit as well as his own reaction in this letter, I’m pretty sure Rvd. Graham’s actions are un-Christian.

Let me be crystal clear. I’m not questioning Rvd. Graham‘s Christianity. I don’t know him well enough to really pass judgment, but what I do know makes me think he practices the Christian religion and truly has accepted the teachings of that religion. What I know of him makes me believe he has “accepted Christ into his heart” as we Christians sometimes put it. And even if I knew him well, I wouldn’t presume to declare another person not to be a Christian. My faith requires that I leave those kind of pronouncements up to God. That said, even though I believe he is a Christian, I don’t always think of him as a good Christian. He doesn’t exemplify the ideal of Christian behavior and belief, in some cases not by a long shot. On one level, that’s okay. Part of being Christian is recognizing the grace that I rely on is also open to others. And even heroes of the faith messed up. Abraham told the Pharaoh Sarah was his sister rather than his wife. Moses killed people in anger and ran away rather than facing the consequences. David, that man after God’s own heart, raped Bathsheba and then had her husband killed. So if sometimes Rvd. Graham does things at odds with what I believe the Bible commands of Christians, that doesn’t make him a non-Christian.

But this same faith that urges me not to pass judgment on the state of Rvd. Graham’s soul and that emphasizes mercy as the necessary counterbalance to justice also commands I speak up when I see someone being a bad Christian or a bad person generally. I have no illusions that Rvd. Graham will read this post, or that I’m the biggest influence on his views. And that’s as it should be – while I generally respect his work, we certainly don’t know each other well. But I do know other people well who approve of the ads that he claims led to the audit, and so I think I owe it to them to explain just why this is so wrong.

So what exactly did Rvd. Graham do that has me so upset? In the RNS article’s words,

In a Tuesday (May 14) letter to President Obama, Graham said the two organizations he leads were notified last September that the IRS would review their records for the 2010 tax year.

The IRS inquiry, he noted, occurred months after the BGEA ran ads in April 2012 supporting a North Carolina amendment that banned same-sex marriage, which passed in May. The BGEA also ran ads last fall urging voters to consider candidates who make decisions based on “biblical principles and support the nation of Israel.”

Let’s take these one at a time. First, the BGEA paid for an ad run in a series of NC papers featuring a large photo of Billy Graham looking pensively into the distance and the following text:

At ninety-three I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage. The bible is clear – God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman. I want to urge my fellow North Carolinians to vote FOR the marriage amendment on Tuesday, May 8. God bless you as you vote, Billy Graham.

(See the ad here.)

If Billy Graham, or Franklin for that matter, can point me to verses where God said to Moses, “Say unto the Israelites that when you marry, may it be between one man and one woman,” I’d be extremely grateful. I’ve read the Bible at least twice from Genesis through Revelation over the course of my life, and I can’t remember any such verses offhand. Similarly for Jesus’s statements in the Gospels, and Paul’s in his Epistles. I do remember specific instances where the Bible speaks approvingly of two people getting married. I’m aware of the texts from times when the Israelites needed to increase their population, where God ordered people to increase their numbers and pointed to the family as the best way to raise those policies. I’m also aware of verses where God did tell Moses to say unto the Israelites that if a woman was unlucky enough to be married she had to be married to him (Dt 22:38). And let’s honestly not get started on the subject of polygamy. As the bumper sticker says:

Reading this ad, I was genuinely surprised that Billy Graham would say it surprised him that we’d be talking about redefining marriage. We’ve already had this conversation in his life. If I’ve done my math right, Billy Graham would have been forty-eight in April of 1967, when the US Supreme Court handed down the Loving v. Virginia court case. (Franklin Graham would have only been sixteen, a little young to be following politics, but I’m sure he’s heard of the case since then.) In the decision, Justice Warren wrote,

Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival…. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. (qtd. from Wikipedia)

Now, I’m not trying to use this case to say gay marriage is just like interracial marriage. But surely Mr. Graham is aware that people, including Christians, have addressed this question before? There’s probably more Biblical prooftexts against different racial groups marrying (which, for the record, I don’t believe even apply to contemporary Jews and Gentiles, but they are there for those wishing to work with them…). For instance, Bob Jones famously took the position that Scripture forbids interracial dating and marriage. But even Bob Jones dropped that rule more than a decade ago. Not only can people disagree about the Biblical definition of marriage, the same person can change his mind.

I really didn’t start this post to talk about gay marriage once again. My point is more general than that. Mark 9:42 (NKJV) tells us, “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.” When you say God’s word says one thing, particularly when you take a name that through decades of evangelism has come to in many ways represent Christianity, and use that personality to say no one should even question this is the right interpretation – you better be damned sure you’re right on that interpretation.

On to the second ad. Here we have Billy Graham holding a book I presume to be the Bible, looking up and straight ahead. It looks like the photos I’ve seen of him when he’s preaching. The accompanying text says:

[1] The legacy we leave behind for our children, grandchildren, and this great nation is crucial. [2] As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this election could be my last. [3] I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. [4] I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman. [5] Vote for biblical values this November 6, and pray with me that America will remain one nation under God.

(Followed by his signature, name, and I think his home-city of Montreat, NC; it’s a little small to make out.) See the ad here, and a discussion of the ad here. I’ve added numbers for easier reference because this quote is a bit longer.)

Where to start with this ad? First, that third sentence strongly implies that if we don’t support the nation of Israel we are not voting on biblical candidates. At the least, Billy Graham seems to hope that we’ll do both, and in each race we can only vote for the one election. But again, I’d be much obliged if he or anyone else over at BGEA could point me to the Bible verses saying we should support the modern nation of Israel. There are of course the places where we are told to bless Israel, but blessing is not the same as supporting. The modern state of Israel has its problems, as does any nation. Perhaps the biggest problem is the frankly scandalous way it treats the Palestinians. If we want to be Biblical about it, Numbers 15:15-16 says: “One ordinance shall be for you of the assembly and for the stranger who dwells with you, an ordinance forever throughout your generations; s you are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord. One law and one custom shall be for you and for the stranger who dwells with you.” And that’s just one example out of many ordering the Israelites to have a law that applies equally to the Israelites and non-Israelites living with them. If I were so inclined, I think I could make a strong case that when Israel fails to live up to the standards God set for it, the best way to bless Israel is to insist she does what God expects of her. I wouldn’t make this case, because I think it is deeply wrong to identify any contemporary nation-state with a biblical people – including the nation-state of Israel, given so many Jews haven’t chosen to live there and given the state is not governed by the applicable Biblical law, at least not in its entirety.

Then there’s the fourth sentence, where “biblical values” are identified with culture war principles like “the sanctity of life” and “the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.” The sanctity of human life is obviously significant throughout the Old Testament code but this is very different from saying humanity begins at conception. Democrats are also motivated by respect for life when they push for reforms that let poor people access health care and tax-supported food banks. (The gun culture, drones, and any number of things also work against the Biblical concept of the sanctity of life.) On the marriage side, we look at an immigration quagmire that separates families and the failed war on drugs that takes so many African-American and Hispanic young men out of their communities as a huge threat to family values. Progressives also recognize that things like economic justice and dignity for the poor are at least as much at the heart of Biblical values as abortion and gay marriage are.

Again, to be perfectly clear, my point isn’t that liberals are always right on these issues. They’re not. Nor is it that the liberal aing pproach to these issues (usually, to set up a tax-funded institution or program) is always the right one. People of all political persuasions can disagree on how to best address these problems. But many progressives are every bit as driven by Biblical values as our fellow citizens in the Christian Right are. We’re just driven by different ones.

Which brings me to the last sentence. Billy Graham, in this statement, hopes that we will “remain one nation under God.” As a Christian, I probably disagreed with this line most of all. First, there’s the phrase’s unique history. According to the New York Times, it was added during the Cold War as ” a petty attempt to link patriotism with religious piety, to distinguish us from the godless Soviets.” I have heard of atheists and people of eastern religions disapproving of this phrase, and I can understand why – it does seem to say good citizens have to worship the God meant by the phrase, which means being at least a Christian, Jew, or Muslim. But as a Christian, I’ve always disliked it for other reasons. For one things, it says that it is a shared spiritual heritage that connects me to my fellow citizens, when that’s not it at all. We are not one nation because we submit ourselves to the same God. But it also seems to trivialize God in a way, because it ties God in with our current political project. And that’s not quite right either.

There’s something else about Billy Graham’s wording here. It suggests that we had always been “one nation under God,” although we’re in danger of losing it. It’s hard to read this in a way that doesn’t imply God approves of what’s going on in this country. At  the Risk of going all Old Testament prophet on you guys, when I look at the way we treat the poor and disadvantaged, the growing economic inequality, the callous way so many people react to suffering and violence (myself included), we look more like Israel in the days just before Babylon sweeps in. We have very little fear of God or even of the good, and I don’t want to indict God in our abuses.

David Henson put this quite well. Describing a bill North Carolina state senators proposed (and withdrew) this spring that would have declared Christianity the state religion, he writes,

Perhaps he decided it would be unwise to establish as the state religion whose founder told wealthy landowners to sell all they had and give to the poor, who instructed his followers to give to all who ask, who said it was easier for a camel to squeeze its hump through a needle’s eye than for a rich person to be a part of God’s kingdom.

Or maybe he considered all the jobs and military bases he would have to kick out of the state. Maybe he thought about how it would be impossible to square the military drones that are piloted from a base in his state with a state religion of Christianity. Maybe he realized he didn’t want to uproot the already established civic religion of the military-industrial complex with the faith of a man who willingly went to crucifixion rather than pick up a sword and fight.

Speaking of which, Tillis would also have to abolish death penalty if Christianity were the state religion.

In this light, one might not be surprised the bill was killed so quickly.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of his interpretations of the Bible, but I do know that when I imagine the kind of country that could honestly be called “one nation under God,” it’s light years away from the America we have today. Or the Sweden, or Egypt, or Laos, or whatever other country you want to name. That makes sense because the kingdom of God has to be an “until the king returns” kind of thing (to borrow a phrase from The Lord of the Rings) until the King truly does return. That doesn’t mean we have to sit on our thumbs until then, we can make good progress and important first steps, but it’s really the height of pride to think that any current country is truly under God.

But in another sense, the phrase actually isn’t so off the map. This is what makes it so disappointing that Rvd. Graham reacted the way he did. Christianity was born in a Judea dominated by a foreign, pagan kingdom. Some of his followers (most notably Simon the Zealot) wanted Jesus to drive out the Romans and re-establish a sovereign kingdom. I could probably track down an article to link to, but the “Simon Zealotes” song from Jesus Christ Superstar gets at this mindset as well as anything I’ve seen:

But Jesus opted not to go that route. As David Henson said above, this is the guy who “willingly went to crucifixion rather than pick up a sword and fight.” He explicitly told people to “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” and the context is explicitly about paying taxes we owe the empire. And Paul makes this point even more explicit. Read Romans 13, where Christians are told that God has placed certain governments over them and that we should obey them as God’s agents. Of course, we are not living under imperial Rome, and in a democracy everyone has a right (indeed, an obligation) to work together to make the laws as fair as possible. If the IRS actually broke the law when it audited the BGEA, then Rvd. Graham has a legitimate grievance and should make full use of the legal system to right that wrong. And if he disagrees with the law, then he has every right to fight for a change through the normal, legal policies. That’s fine.

What he doesn’t have is a right to expect the normal laws not to apply to him. It looks like the BGEA didn’t break the law (at least the IRS renewed their tax-exempt status after the audits), but those ads did look… suspicious. The first one says it was paid for by the BGEA, and the second is even more explicitly political and doesn’t make any statement about who paid for it. The way political groups abuse the tax-exempt status (to say nothing of the donor anonymity) is so ridiculous, it would almost be the kind of thing I’d joke about if it didn’t do real harm. When you run an ad encouraging people to vote a certain way and say it was paid for by a tax-exempt organization, that is precisely the kind of thing the IRS needs to investigate. Acting like the government has no right to investigate different groups that come so close to this line is rejecting the authority God has placed above you.

Obviously the government needs to stay within the bounds of the law, and obviously we should all play our part to make sure those laws are as good as possible. But I find it distinctly un-Christian that a clergyman and Christian leader would say a government trying to make sure borderline cases like this are actually on the right side of the law. Americans are a largely generous people, and it’s good that our society makes space for people who want to give to private charities that help others, to not pay as much in taxes. But if those groups aren’t actually serving the common good, if they’re politically oriented rather than geared toward social welfare – this is a major problem. Audits are no fun, but saying they’re a waste of time? That’s basically asking government to stop fulfilling the role Christians believe God set for it.

At some level this feels like the kind of problem that could only bother someone in academia. I mean, no one likes the government and especially the IRS. And no one likes feeling like they’ve been singled out because they oppose the people in power. But Rvd. Graham really should know better than most people how important, a fair, well-functioning government is. The BGEA, which paid for the ads and was audited, runs crusades and other publications focused on evangelism and Christian publication. They do good work, but if that was the only side of his ministry I might have lower expectations for him. As it is, Rvd. Graham also runs Samaritan’s Purse, a kind of Christian Red Cross. He works in countries where influential people would never expect to be audited. He also knows what would happen in places like that if you stood up against the current regime and attracted a government investigation. He knows better than most people how important the rule of law can be.

This is a bitter pill to swallow after the political ads, for someone who genuinely tries to respect Rvd. Graham. I believe he genuinely does try to do good, even though I usually disagree with his more political public statements he makes. But those 2012 political ads were extremely divisive. That’s actually another reason I found them so hurtful – so much of his work overseas is built around evangelism, the idea that God loves you and is inclusive, whereas this more political side is built on excluding people – it sends the very clear message that not only do you have to pull toward God, but you must do it in a very precise way that is IMO at odds with the evangelist’s call. On top of that, these actions seemed very similar to a real problem facing American politics: groups abusing the non-profit status but that are mainly focused on politics rather than contributing to the common good. I’m not saying those ads actually were abusing their privilege, but this is precisely the kind of situation the IRS needs to examine to make sure groups are playing within the boundaries. Knowing they’re able to do that makes me feel a little patriotic, actually.

I understand the impulse that drove Rvd. Graham to act this way, I think, but that doesn’t mean I agree with it. In fact, maybe this is a good time to do a bit of soul-searching. There are lots of people from all kinds of political vantage-points who think of themselves as Christians. Maybe in situations like this it’s worth asking why someone who believes so many political things so far from our own can still draw on the same basic belief system. I’m a moderate progresssive, politically – I need to be looking at libertarian Christians, or social conservative Christians who hold such different beliefs from mine and asking: what about the Christianity we share is it that’s driving them here? Is there an element of truth, a common starting point, that can help me see where they’re coming from? And turning it around: when they look at my own views, can they begin to see how their own Christianity is reflected in them, even if they don’t hold the same political positions I do?

A good friend of mine was fond that we serve a purple God – neither red nor blue. That seems like a good starting place to me.

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ETA: Two minor points of clarifications. First, obviously Billy and Franklin Graham are two very different persons There’s been some speculation Franklin was behind the ads because of his father’s advanced age and illness, and because Franklin Graham seems more political than Billy Graham ever was. When I blame Franklin Graham for his part in these ads, I’m not saying he put words in his father’s mouth. But he is the president of BGEA, and at a minimum would have had to approved of the idea. He’s also the one who chose to complain about the audits right now.

Second, I linked to what I claimed were the ads but they’re actually the posters people were encouraged to print out and display on their own. If memory serves, the ads were smaller versions of the same graphic, but there may have been multiple versions of some of these in different publications. In any event, these are the only graphics I can find online.

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