Harming the Billy Graham Legacy
Below is an excerpt of an open letter by N.C. NAACP President William Barber, and signed by more than two dozen state religious leaders, to Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Rev. Billy Graham, and the leader of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. The letter is in response to Franklin Graham’s decision to fund an anti-President Obama print media campaign.
Dear Rev. Franklin Graham:
We write today as a brother in the faith, as a member of God’s human family. This letter comes in Christian love but also with great hurt and concern. Earlier this year, your acts as the president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association compelled us to ask you to examine yourself and to cease arousing unwarranted suspicion regarding President Barack Obama’s Christian faith.
In February 2012 you expressed your doubts about his faith on national television, partly because he had tried to engage Muslim nations and leaders in a dialogue about the world’s future. North Carolina Evangelicals and prophetic ministers, steeped in the African American church, asked you to cease arousing unwarranted suspicion about the President’s faith. These Christian clergy and scholars wrote to you in private as the scriptures first demand. Among many things in our pastoral and prophetic critique, we said to you on March 5, 2012:
…It seems to us that your apology is helpful and yet narrow and almost grudging. And we feel a reluctant confidence that you and many other Evangelicals will continue to disparage President Obama and the faith of other Christians through a critique that pushes him and many of us outside the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith.
It is not your inclination to criticize that concerns us. Like you, we believe that our Christian faith calls us to critique the powers and policies of our society through the lens of Christian ethics. Many of the things for which you and other Evangelicals have assailed the President for doing are not anti-Christian; they are at the very heart of Christ’s work among us!
President Obama’s faith was formed in a prophetic Christian tradition that certainly resonates with our own traditions, experiences and Scriptural readings. In Dreams from My Father, he writes of the first stirrings of his Christian faith: “…at the foot of that cross… I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories of survival and freedom and hope became our story, my story… at once unique and universal, black and more than black.”
You were apparently unmoved by our criticism. Last week, as the CEO of the non-profit, tax-exempt Billy Graham Evangelical Association, you used the Association’s funds to buy expensive full page ads in major newspapers in North Carolina and other parts of the country to further arouse unwarranted suspicion about the President’s personal faith. The paid advertisement contained transparent insinuations about “support for the nation of Israel”, the “sanctity of life” and the “biblical definition of marriage,” with a photo of your father and his signature. Your ad implied he wrote the text of what was a clear endorsement of the President’s opponent because he was more of a Christian than the President. This political endorsement was particularly ironic, since the non-profit you preside over has, until a couple of weeks ago, questioned whether Mormonism is part of the Christian faith.
If Billy Graham has indeed changed, and at 93 has decided to join the Religious Right, which wants to restore the closed, exclusive society of the past, historians should hear it from him first hand, since his legacy has been one of openness and inclusivity. We were brought up on stories of Billy Graham tearing down the ropes of Jim Crow at his crusade, and his invitation to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to preach with him at a crusade. It would be a radical departure for Billy Graham to now exclude souls he might reach in his ministry for partisan reasons and a theologically narrow critique.
Although you told the media “If you want to think I’m behind all of it, I don’t care,” we respectfully ask you to reconsider this flippant remark. Your father’s historical legacy is at stake.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP