On Tuesday, Reverend Franklin Graham gave an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that created a bit of a stir among the political class. At the core of the controversy is what Graham said about President Obama’s Christianity.
When asked directly if the president was a Christian, Graham said, “He’s come out saying that he’s a Christian. The question is, What is a Christian?” At another point Graham said, “If he says he’s a Christian, I’m not going to say he’s not.” But when faced with this direct statement — “So therefore, by your definition, [Obama’s] not a Christian” – the Reverend Graham answered, “You have to ask him. I cannot answer that question for anybody.”
Except that in the same interview, when asked if Rick Santorum is a Christian, Graham was able to answer that question for somebody. “Oh, I think so,” Graham said. He added there was “no question, I believe [Santorum is] a man of faith.” The Reverend Graham then chimed in, “I think Newt is a Christian. At least he told me he is.” To which Willie Geist said, “So Newt Gingrich is a Christian, but you’re not sure that President Obama is. And you said based on the way they’ve lived their lives.” And just in case Graham hadn’t said enough, when asked if he could say categorically that President Obama was not a Muslim, Graham said, “I can’t say categorically, because Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama.”
The problem here is Graham is judging President Obama’s faith commitment based on a political, not a theological, basis. What Graham seems to be arguing is that Obama is a liberal, he’s wrong on “moral issues,” and so a question mark has to be put over the faith of the president, who has spoken in moving terms about his own journey to Christianity.
This is dangerous territory for Graham to reside in. For one thing, it sounds as if the Reverend Graham is questioning whether one can be a political liberal and a Christian at the same time. Of course one can be and to suggest otherwise is offensive. (I’m tempted to say some of my closest friends are Christians who are politically liberal.)
For another, what exactly are the political issues that are closest to the heart of Jesus? The issue of war? Concern for the poor? The Global AIDS Initiative? World hunger? Creation care? Abortion? Or perhaps divorce? Does Graham believe he knows what Jesus’s political platform would look like? And while we’re at it, should we use the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament as the basis for that platform? Should our stands on political issues be informed by the Sermon on the Mount? The Book of Acts? Or perhaps the dietary laws found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy? What Franklin Graham is doing is what no minister of the Gospel should do, which is to interpret Christianity through a political lens.
Given the Reverend Graham’s tendencies, he might consider the following as a corrective of sorts. Jesus and His disciples demonstrated a profound mistrust of power, especially political power. Regarding a Christian’s place in the world, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And none of the disciples led anything approaching what we would consider a political movement. In addition, the history of the church offers its own reasons for demarcating Christianity from the sphere of politics. According to the social philosopher Jacques Ellul, every time the church has gotten heavily into the political game, it has been drawn into self-betrayal or apostasy.
There’s also something to be said about creating a little mental distance from the temptations of politics. In 1951, Prime Minister Winston Churchill offered C.S. Lewis the title of Commander of the British Empire, a high and appropriate distinction. But Lewis refused the honor. “I feel greatly obligated to the prime minister,” he responded, “and so far as my personal feelings are concerned this honour would be agreeable. There are always, however, knaves who say, and fools who believe, that my religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist propaganda, and my appearance in the Honours List would of course strengthen their hands. It is therefore better that I should not appear there.”
C.S. Lewis had higher goals and more urgent priorities than politics. So should Franklin Graham.