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Franklin Graham is What’s Wrong with American Christianity

January 16th, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments


Duke University in North Carolina announced that the Muslim Call to Prayer would be observed on Fridays, conducted by members of the Muslim Student Union. The university administration gave as motivations for this action a demonstration of their commitment to religious pluralism and a desire to promote a different view of Islam: a peaceful, prayerful community vs. the image of hate-filled terrorists  currently flooding the airwaves.

The decision to announce this in the midst of a media storm about “Muslim Terrorism” in France, with anti-Muslim sentiment already high, was no doubt regrettable. The university acknowledges that it received a number of very hateful responses. One of the more public of these came from Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, who urged withholding financial support from the institution. “As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering and beheading Christians, Jews and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism,” Graham wrote on his Facebook page.

Graham is no stranger to controversy. He has consistently and publicly made inflammatory remarks demonstrating his ignorance of Islam as an “evil” religion, even to the point of advocating organized violence against Muslims. Interestingly he made similar remarks (sans the violence) about Mormonism, until he learned his preferred presidential candidate was Mormon, after which he became curiously silent on the issue. He has declared that President Obama inherited Islam from his father, as if Islam was a germ that could be transmitted genetically. These examples just scratch the surface of Graham’s bigotry and ignorance.

If Christianity is being excluded from the public square, as Graham maintains, it is because the face of American Christianity looks like Franklin Graham. Franklin Graham, like much of American Christianity, has responded to the tensions created by increasing pluralism in American life by retreating and fortifying behind the historical fantasy of the “Christian” nation. This worldview is built on a religious fallacy first voiced by refugees to the New England colonies in the seventeenth century that America was to be a place for the fulfillment of God’s covenant. America was to be a “shining city on a hill,” as the New England founders proclaimed, that would demonstrate the model Christian society.

This vision is both historically and ideologically removed from the revolt of the colonies that erupted a century and a half later, but it inspired many with the notion that the American Revolution created a golden age in which America and Americans were righteous Christians blessed by God with prosperity, with the manifest destiny of extending their blessings as far as they could go. The social pressures challenging the Christian worldview today in the public square are seen as apostasy: an abandonment of what God has called America to, a real threat to God’s plan for America.

So the “Christian” response is to adopt a posture that sees every non-”Christian” act as the work of the devil against the embattled “good” people of America. “Winning America back for God” is set as a goal before the Christian community. Not satisfied with the freedom to practice their own interpretation of the scriptures in their own lives, they see it as vital to their mission to impose Christian morality on everyone, whether professing Christians or not, ultimately on pain of eternal damnation, but in the meantime on pain of legal sanction. This is why “Christians” are dismissed as bigoted, hate-filled zealots in the public square. I challenge Mr. Graham to explain what the difference is between Muslims seeking to impose Islamic law on non-Muslims and Christians trying to legally impose Christian morality on non-Christians.

There is a lot of hot air flowing around this issue, with well-meaning Christians cherry picking quotes from various of the founders to “prove” that the United States was really intended to be a Christian nation. But the proof is in the document that founded our country. The constitution is a thoroughly secular document.

Now, I have to say that outside of this nonsensical pseudo-historical fantasy of the “Christian” nation I agree with much of what Graham believes. I agree that our culture is mired in sin, injustice, and wrong thinking and that much of what passes for “normal” and even celebrated in our society is condemned in scripture. I believe that the larger culture is profoundly non- and at times even anti-Christian. And I believe that I have both the right and the duty as a follower of Jesus to make my views public and to practice my faith openly. I don’t believe that Islam is evil per se, although there are evil Muslims. Just as there are evil “Christians.”

I think, rather than being guided by myth, we ought to consider the example of the founder of our faith. When we leave behind the fiction that the United States is God’s chosen country and acknowledge that the United States is a pluralistic society made up of every race and creed we can see that we live in a world remarkably similar to the one Jesus lived in. The Christian worldview is one of many in the marketplace of ideas, as it was in the Roman empire. Many of the others are contradictory and hostile to Christianity. Because of this similarity scripture gives us concrete examples of how we can accomplish our mission of making disciples in a non-Christian world, both by what Jesus and his followers did, and did not do.

First, what they did not do is try to legally impose moral standards on the larger society. Jesus didn’t propose to replace the emperor and the imperial administration with his followers so that Christianity could be legally enforced throughout the empire. In fact, the only group Jesus consistently engaged on this issue were the leaders of his own nation and religion, and he thoroughly condemned their tendency to exclude people from God’s grace. Read chapter 23 of Matthew where Jesus forcefully summarizes his condemnation of the religious leaders. “Woe to you,” he proclaims seven times, “scribes and Pharisees. Hypocrites!” (Mt. 23:13 ESV). An irony of contemporary Christianity is that Christians today collectively imagine the Pharisees to be the “bad guys,” but in Jesus’ time they were the respected religious leaders. They were the Franklin Grahams.

When Jesus addresses moral issues, as he does in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7, he calls his followers to a righteousness that is even stricter than what the Mosaic Law calls for. In fact, he calls his followers to be “perfect.” (Mt. 5:48) Followers of Jesus are not called to a lower moral standard but a higher one. But Jesus and the New Testament writers acknowledge that the moral standard Jesus demands is not achievable by people on their own. Only in Christ can one receive righteousness and justification before God. That is why Jesus came and died on the cross. And that is why what he did is called “good news.”

In contrast to the hypocrisy and exclusivity of the Pharisees Jesus made clear that his work was not only or even particularly for the respectable people. It was for everyone. And it was especially for those who were on the margins of society: sinners, the despised tax collectors, the sick, the lame, the outcast, the outsiders, even foreigners. When a Canaanite woman came to him begging to heal her daughter he did so, to everyone’s surprise, because of her great faith. (Mt. 15:21-28). He didn’t demand she convert to Judaism. When an officer of the hated Roman army asked Jesus to heal his servant Jesus did and remarked, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” (Matthew 8:10 ESV)

In scripture, making disciples is not accomplished by enforcing a moral code but by acts of self-sacrificing love. Jesus did not owe anything to anyone he healed. Yet he did so freely, not by demanding assent to doctrine, but with the admonition, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:11 ESV)

“Neither do I condemn you.” If there is a relationship between Muslims and God, that relationship is between Muslims and God. I know that God has not charged me to be my neighbor’s judge. At the same time I know that God has called his church to be “a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6 ESV) We cannot be light by answering darkness with darkness. If we want Muslims to hear the voice of Jesus, we ought to encourage them to pray. That is, after all, where we meet Jesus too.

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