It wasn’t hard to suss out what Billy Graham believed. A self-defined premillennial dispensationalist, his Crusade sermons usually featured some disaster or tragedy he clipped from the newspaper. The world was going to Hell. His steady drumbeat was “accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior” right now before its too late. The late Michael “iMonk” Spencer called this house- on-fire tactic, “wretched urgency”. Graham’s political theology was highly influenced by two prominent Presbyterian churchmen: his father-in-law and oil magnate J. Howard Pew, who stood up his career. Both were John Birchers whose anti-communist End Times paranoia fed into conservative politics and evangelical religion. The Birchers are back. And they’re winning.
In the 1960’s, Graham’s creation, Christianity Today, had nothing positive to say about Rousas Rushdoony and the fledgling Christian Reconstruction movement. It was still bent on revivalism in saving America one soul at a time. Dispensationalism held sway, and Russia was foreign enemy #1 of the USA. Even Reagan said that Gog must mean the communist Russia that set itself against God. Anti-communism was a useful scaremongering resource that filled many ministry coffers. “We are like people under sentence of death, waiting for the date to be set. We sense that something is about to happen… We are now on a collision course”, warned Graham. Back then, the Soviet Union was the anti-Christ. Once scorned, Dominionist theology that Christians are ordained to rule and reign is embraced by a majority of evangelicals. “Rushdoony provided a way to sacralize these ideas”. And Putin’s Russia is the darling of the Religious Right. Funny how far evangelicalism had come.
Following Reagan’s “tear down that Wall”, evangelicals began to look inward for enemies of Christ. And there were plenty of domestic targets. Billy Graham maintained that if all of us could come to the cross, Christ is the solution to all the problems that beset America. But evangelicals began to realize slow motion-saving people from the satanic End Times wasn’t immediate enough to bring America back to its founding Christian principles. America’s strongest adversary was itself: abortion, homosexuality and trans-genderism were the sins destroying the national fabric.
The Bible hasn’t changed since the 1960’s, but the evangelical biblical world view has. Jerry Falwell emerged from fundamentalist isolation to wonder, that if a super-majority of Americans still believed in morality, why is America having such problems? “We must look for the answer to the highest places in every level of government.” Falwell – with his “I Love America” rallies –, Pat Robertson, and a host of others set in motion a pro-family political machine, creating partnerships between Christians who never had talked to each other previously. “There are bigger issues now,” as his son, Jerry Jr. explained. “We can argue about theology later after we save the country.” Previously other-worldly focused evangelicals started to contemplate the biblical reordering of society, which would lead to the Second Coming of Christ. Raised on a steady diet of liberal humanist conspiracies, this was an existential war against the satanic control of America. The centerpiece strategy was to seat Christians into the hands of power. Or usurp it, as in the Capitol insurrection – “marching under Jesus’s banner to implement God’s will to keep Trump in the White House.”[i]
“As the process of dominion extends the authority of Christians over more and more areas of life,” wrote Gray North, “we will see the creation of a comprehensive theocracy.” Francis Schaeffer claimed he didn’t want a theocracy. But at the same time, as his son Frank recounted, “we were calling for civil disobedience, the takeover of the Republican Party, and even hinting at overthrowing our ‘unjust pro-abortion government.’”[ii] Sara Diamond rightly recognizes Schaeffer as an early influencer of dominion theology.[iii] Rushdoony, once a bête noir had now become the éminence grise of theocratic Christian Right politics.
And so, finally, back to the original question. What is Franklin Graham’s “Biblical World View”? His father was a Johnny-one-note revivalist. Praying that God will save the nation has nothing to do with old-fashioned revivalism. Franklin’s focus has shifted towards the “new normal” mandate to take dominion. Dominionism is “being used to bring together a new and determined Moral Majority for the 21st century.” And Franklin is a believer: “Speaking of regime changes—we need one in this country!”
“The issue is FREEDOM, the freedom to make our own choices.” Franklin was hailing the Canadian truckers’ convoy as “riding against oppression”. His father, on the other hand, preached freedom in Christ: “Have you honestly faced the truth of your so-called ‘freedom’? You see, in reality you aren’t free; instead, you are ruled by your own lusts and desires… Instead give your life to Jesus Christ and discover what it means to be truly free.” It’s quite a jump from saving souls one at a time to saving America, and truckers’ “freedom”. Somewhere along the line, Franklin’s biblical world view lost the simple purity of the Gospel message.
“They shut the churches down. This is what the communists did in Eastern Europe”, Graham warned. Speaking with Todd Starnes, Franklin reminded him that thousands of pastors and priests were slaughtered under the Soviet Union. The same could be said for today, as the horrors of Bucha come to light. Hospitals bombed, civilians executed, children shot, women raped, churches under siege. Russian soldiers running amok, mercenary death squads, abduction and mass graves, intentional terror targeting – like the train station massacre with “for the children” scribbled on the rockets. Shutting down of churches and killing of pastors – apparently Franklin cannot see that this is happening now!
But hey, who cares? Not Franklin; he’s been as quiet as a mouse over war crimes committed by Russia. And yes, a minister – the Dean of the Slavic Evangelical Seminary in Kyiv – was among the hundreds of murdered civilians. Yet Franklin is preoccupied with refugees coming into America. “What’s going on at our southern border is out of control.”
In 2015, Franklin tried to find some silver lining in Putin’s heavy-handed assistance to the Assad government – which included attacks on civilians using cluster bombs, chemical weapons, and thermobaric weapons. “What Russia is doing may save the lives of Christians in the Middle East,” Graham said. The truth is different. “Russia’s military intervention contributed to untold suffering for millions of Syrian civilians”. The same war crimes are being committed daily in Ukraine.
Interesting which sides Franklin Graham’s moralistic worldview picks. Graham has made several “non-political” trips to Moscow, to have photo-op chats with both Putin and Orthodox prelates, and came away asserting that “many Americans wished that someone like Putin could be their president.” Just before the invasion was underway, he made a plea to pray for Putin – neglecting to solicit prayers for Ukraine. Graham intends to make up for that omission with a trip to preach in Ukraine. (He’s billed it as an Easter service. But it’s not Orthodox Easter (April 24); just another grim day of misery and violence that Ukrainians have suffered for two months. And the days to come will get much dirtier, with the arrival of Russian general Dvornikov – dubbed the Butcher of Syria. With his appointment, many fear “a significant escalation and deliberate ‘terror campaign’ in Ukraine.” Russian media assures its viewers that genocidal vengeance – a “final solution” – is in the plans.
This is not just total war – Ukraine is a Holy War, with Patriarch Kirill urging true patriots to eradicate scum and traitors. Putin’s war is about the survival of a totalitarian dictatorial regime. Dominionists want to defeat their democratic regime. Graham and Kirill are attempting to reach the same goal from opposite poles. Both, as Kirill defined it, “are talking about human salvation, something much more important than politics.”
Which is why, at Graham’s “Easter” celebration, we’ll hear a hearts and prayers sermon, preaching that sinners need to come to Christ. Meaning everyone aside from Franklin, and his rationalizing and minimizing criminal wrongdoing by Trump. Years of soft-peddling murderous Putin should grieve him deeply as well. Graham praised Putin as inspirational. Either he didn’t listen to Putin’s rhetoric threatening Ukraine since the 2014 Crimean take-over, or chose to ignore his barely concealed hatred – that the “Ukrainian authorities are illegitimate and Russia has to be prepared to act to protect compatriots”. If it were me praising Putin’s high moral standard, I’d be embarrassed to show my face in a Ukraine victimized by a hero who embodies his own Christian values. This is not just a shooting war; there is the second, fundamental war of ideas that drove it. It’s impossible to express remorse for one without repudiating the other. As Mark Silk points out, “as for his issuing a prophetic denunciation of Russia, I’m not holding my breath. It would mean disavowing an alliance he has been involved in for years.”
More fundamentally, it would clash with his Dispensational/Bircher/Dominionist-inspired “Biblical World View”. Ukraine shows us how, that if his theology were realized, it would lay waste to our own country. Maybe the one we should be praying for most fervently on Easter is Franklin himself. And, our future as a democracy.
[i] An online petition calling for Graham’s firing collected more than 24,500 signatures, claiming Graham spread “discredited election conspiracy theories” and “white nationalist terrorism,”– which it contended led to the riot at the U.S. Capitol. https://julieroys.com/petition-franklin-grahams-firing-capitol-riots/
[ii] Ken Kersch, Conservatives and the Constitution (London: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2019), p. 281
[iii] Sara Diamond, Roads to Dominion, (New York: Guilford Press, 1995) p. 246.