Jerushah Duford is the granddaughter of the late American evangelist Billy Graham. It’s a label and a legacy the 42-year-old evangelical Christian remembers carrying when she was a little girl in elementary school, and one that still appears to weigh heavily on her. Duford said she’s very much aware that her world-famous grandfather’s name opens doors that she would otherwise not have access to ― and that people may be more likely to listen to her words because of her lineage.
Now, Duford is using the platform she inherited to try to convince fellow evangelicals not to vote for President Donald Trump, putting her at odds with many members of her religious group ― including her own extended family.
“I want every marginalized community, every sex, every race, every nationality and every sexual orientation to know that Jesus loves them,” Duford told HuffPost in an email. “I want them to know that if they have not felt that from the church through this administration, then WE HAVE FAILED.”
Over the past few months, Duford has published an opinion piece slamming evangelical leaders for staying silent while Trump pursued policies that contradict the core tenets of Christianity. She has joined the women’s coalition of The Lincoln Project, a political action committee formed by Republicans who oppose Trump. She lent her name to the rollout of a bipartisan political action committee, Not Our Faith, which seeks to draw evangelicals and Catholics away from Trump.
And she’s endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in two venues: through a group called Pro-life Evangelicals for Biden, which makes the case that it’s possible for those who oppose abortion to vote Democrat, and through the faith-based voter mobilization group Vote Common Good, where she is on a list of over 1,600 faith leaders and activists who have endorsed Biden.
Duford, a writer from Greenville, South Carolina, told HuffPost she believes evangelical leaders’ willingness to excuse the president’s immoral actions has severely damaged the way non-Christians see the church and view Jesus himself. She said she wants people to know that the “greed and hypocrisy” they’ve seen in Christian communities over the past four years does not represent the Jesus she reads about in the Bible.
“Jesus always built a bigger table not a higher wall,” she said. “Jesus did not scare people to Himself or demand that people listen: Jesus DREW people to Himself because He was loving and authentic and humble.”
Duford is the child of Billy Graham’s eldest daughter, Virginia Graham. Her grandfather, an icon of American evangelicalism who served as an adviser to many U.S. presidents, died in 2018 at the age of 99. His body lay in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, a privilege bestowed on only a handful of American citizens who haven’t served in elected office. Both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence attended Graham’s funeral.
Near the end of his long life, Graham, who had a close relationship with President Richard Nixon before the Watergate scandal, said he regretted getting entangled in partisan politics.
Some of his descendants don’t appear to have such qualms.
Duford’s anti-Trump advocacy sets her apart from other members of her family ― particularly her uncle, Franklin Graham, who has been one of the president’s most high-profile and loyal evangelical supporters. Although Franklin Graham drew the line at family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, over the past four years, he has defended many of Trump’s controversial policies and actions, from the 2017 travel bans to Trump’s aggressively obtained photo shoot with a Bible during protests against the police killing of George Floyd.
But there appears to be disagreement about Trump behind the scenes among members of the extended Graham family.
Duford said she grew up seeing very little separation between evangelicalism and the GOP. She distinctly remembers seeing a bumper sticker for a Democratic politician on a friend’s car when she was around the age of 9, and thinking, “But I thought they were Christians.”
“Obviously, I was young and uninformed but that describes my relationship with the Republican Party,” she said.
But her views about politics have since evolved. She said she now prioritizes “Gospel over party” ― meaning that she votes for candidates who make sharing Jesus’ love easier. For her, that comes down to kindness, integrity and policies that fight for marginalized communities.
Duford said she believes abortion is the key issue that holds evangelicals back from voting for a Democrat. As someone who identifies as “pro-life,” she said she wishes the Democratic Party would place “greater value for life inside the womb.” But she also wishes that the Republican Party would “place a greater value on life outside the womb.” The “pro-life” movement needs to be redefined to also include issues such as poverty, health insurance coverage and racism, Duford said.
Her first vote for a Democrat was for President Barack Obama when he was running for reelection. Duford said while she doesn’t agree with everything Biden supports, she believes him to be a “man of faith and integrity” who is better suited to uphold her values.
“I would rather have an agnostic in the White House than a president that claims my faith and yet demonstrates it to the world so poorly,” she said.
Duford hasn’t been shy about publicly contradicting her uncle, Franklin Graham ― telling The Washington Post in January 2017 that her uncle’s suggestion that Trump was God’s ambassador “diminishes not only my Jesus but all he stood for and came to earth to fight against.”
In an August opinion piece for USA Today, Duford said that “many female family members” had pulled her aside at a family event and quietly thanked her for speaking out against the Trump administration.
Duford told HuffPost she’s trying to represent Jesus as authentically as she can, regardless of who disagrees.
“We have a large family and we have a number of strong leaders in it,” she said. “If I’m going to find the courage to speak out when it’s not easy (trust me it’s not easy) because I believe that Jesus taught us to, above all else, love Him and love others, I need to offer that same love to those that disagree with me, even when they are family members.”
The conflicting views dividing American evangelicalism’s royal family may well be a reflection of difficult dynamics emerging in other evangelical families ahead of the election.
Public opinion polls have shown that most white evangelicals side with Franklin Graham in their support for the president and his policies. About 77% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center’s survey of validated voters. The group’s increasing loyalty to the Republican Party is expected to hold strong this year. White evangelicals have stood apart from other American religious groups in their support of Trump’s travel bans, his border wall plans, and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Polls have also shown that white evangelicals are consistently unable to see that systemic racism exists and is still impacting Black Americans.
Through her advocacy, Duford is highlighting another segment of American evangelicalism, a faction whose voices are often drowned out by the Christian right. These are the evangelicals who believe that being “pro-life” also means lifting expectant mothers out of poverty, welcoming refugees and addressing climate change. They’ve been paying attention to the voices of evangelicals of color who bear witness to the continued effects of systemic racism. And they are deeply upset about the way Trump has represented Christianity.
Duford acknowledges that most evangelicals probably don’t feel that Trump has failed them, given how much access they’ve had to the White House during his administration. But ultimately, she thinks this political alliance has been costly. Younger generations of Americans are walking away from Christianity after witnessing the failure of church leaders to condemn Trump’s behavior, she said.
“The church has a serious branding problem,” she said. “The very community that considered themselves a moral authority were now, all of a sudden, willing to look past and excuse the behavior of Donald Trump to serve their own agendas. The result has been very damaging to our witness.”
As the election draws closer, Duford said she is hoping for Trump’s defeat.
“I believe our country needs to begin a significant healing process that I don’t think is possible under Trump,” she said. “He has continually stoked the flame of fear and division for his own purposes and the county is sick and hurting.”