Donald Trump's recent call to bar Muslims from entering the United States has been met with almost universal condemnation. Among those calling out Trump on his opportunistic xenophobia are, thankfully, numerous faith leaders. One faith leader who didn't join his peers is Franklin Graham. He didn't remain silent, mind you, but doubled down, boasting that he beat Trump to the punch. In a post to his Facebook page, Graham said, "For some time I have been saying that Muslim immigration into the United States should be stopped until we can properly vet them or until the war with Islam is over. Donald J. Trump has been criticized by some for saying something similar."
He's right. He has been saying the same basic thing for some time. Graham's anti-Islamic statements are, frankly, too numerous to note here. Along with his rabid homophobia, his blanket categorization of Islam as a religion of violence is a theme that runs throughout his television appearances and Facebook updates. Nevertheless, Graham has said, without qualification, that "[w]e should stop all immigration of Muslims to the US until this threat with Islam has been settled."
It's tempting to dismiss Graham's comments as out of the ordinary, as somehow marginal to American evangelicalism. And, certainly, not all evangelicals agree with him and Trump. Russell D. Moore, President of the Southern Baptist & Religious Liberty Commission, has emphasized the importance of taking religious liberty seriously, even if he "could not disagree more strongly with Islam."
But Graham isn't exactly on the fringe. He's evangelical royalty, in fact. The son of famous evangelist Billy Graham, whom even non-evangelicals adore, and president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and the international Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse, he's in many ways the embodiment of contemporary evangelicalism. I'm sure that doesn't sit well with those in the movement who favor a softer, more dialogical approach to religious and cultural issues, but no one's really lining up to criticize him.
And the truth is in the numbers. At the end of 2014, BGEA reported net assets at just over a quarter of a billion dollars and Samaritan's Purse at just over 180 million dollars. Almost 3 million people "like" Graham on Facebook, which is close to twice as many who like Ted Cruz, who has his own issues with Islam. Graham is, in other words, an influential mainstream figure, and people take what he says seriously.
I could, of course, appeal to Graham's professed love of Jesus, in an attempt to change his tune. Perhaps if we just remind him of what Jesus taught, he would change his mind. Among other things, Jesus taught the importance of loving your neighbor as yourself (Mark: 12:31), which includes "enemies" (Matthew 5:44), even if Islam is not the enemy here.
But such appeals would, ultimately, fall on deaf ears. That's because Graham's understanding of "the gospel" -- and it's the one that many of his followers buy into -- isn't so much about loving the neighbor as creating enemies. Graham's brand of Christianity -- and it is a brand -- constitutes itself through the creation of an outsider, an other. That other must either be converted, hence Graham's recent appeal to LGBTQ persons to repent and accept Christ. Or simply destroyed, as he implied in regard to Muslims after the Paris attacks.
It's not much of a gospel, but it's one that many accept, with Graham urging on. Trump's statements regarding Muslims are disconcerting, and frankly scary, but they're not out of the ordinary. The sentiment is, unfortunately, deeply rooted in American evangelicalism--and Franklin Graham would like to keep it that way, damn the consequences.