Tasmania is about to play host to one of the most influential men in American politics – Franklin Graham. From Friday to Sunday, Graham will be the main drawcard to “Festival Tasmania” – a Christian crusade that purports to be in the mould of those once led by his father Billy.
But the fact that Billy’s ‘crusade’ has become Franklin’s ‘festival’ helps keep attention off the fact that the son’s actions correlate more closely to the violent mediaeval meaning of ‘crusade’ than with the work undertaken by his father.
Billy Graham’s focus was essentially individual conversion. Franklin Graham believes, as he told The Observer in October last year that “we are in a Third World War… It is a global fight against Islamic fundamentalism…. Judgment Day is approaching fast.”
And , whether it is the Iraq (and Iran?) war, the struggle to respond global AIDS, or doing nothing about climate change, the changes in American fundamentalism and political institutions mean that Franklin Graham’s crusade impacts on us all.
Franklin Graham aims to change the world, not just souls. And he wants us all to get on board.
Closely connected to the Republican Party
What are the changes in American fundamentalism since Billy Graham weaved his magic on 25,000 Tasmanians in 1959? Fundamentalists Christians certainly exist in greater numbers than ever, but even more significant is that they now have a coherent domestic and foreign policy agenda to an extent never before seen in the United States.
Moreover, they have achieved unparalleled success in promoting this program through highly organized and very well funded organisations that are closely connected to the Republican Party and particularly George W Bush. In the heart of this movement, and arguably its most powerful leader, is Bush’s confidante, Franklin Graham.
The political agenda of the American christian right is not just about domestic issues, it has had enormous influence over all aspects of American foreign policy – from the Middle East to climate change. Most in the movement believe literally in Armageddon, and that the end times predicted in the Book of Revelations are presently coming to pass. Billy Graham was the first prominent Christian leader to link the creation of the state of Israel to biblical prophecy, but others (including his son) have since gone much further. Their views have had enormous influence on American policy not just in Israel/Palestine but now in Iraq and Iran.
Responses to Kyoto, resource depletion, international law, international agencies, AIDS, poverty, family planning and a multitude of other pressing global social and environmental issues have all been significantly shaped by this bizarre and dangerous cocktail of ideology, religion and political power.
After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back
Mainstream journalists even in the United States are struggling to understand and communicate a view of the world that even thirty years ago would have been labeled ‘crazy’ by the majority of American christians. Bill Moyers, host of the PBS public affairs series Now, had this to say after recently receiving the annual Environment Citizen Award from the Harvard Medical School:
”Remember James Watt, President Reagan’s first Secretary of the Interior? My favorite online environmental journal, the ever engaging Grist, reminded us recently of how James Watt told the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant in light of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. In public testimony he said, “after the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.”
”Beltway elites snickered. The press corps didn’t know what he was talking about. But James Watt was serious. So were his compatriots out across the country. They are the people who believe the bible is literally true – one-third of the American electorate, if a recent Gallup poll is accurate. In this past election several million good and decent citizens went to the polls believing in the rapture index. That’s right – the rapture index. Google it and you will find that the best-selling books in America today are the twelve volumes of the left-behind series written by the Christian fundamentalist and religious right warrior, Timothy LaHaye. These true believers subscribe to a fantastical theology concocted in the 19th century by a couple of immigrant preachers who took disparate passages from the Bible and wove them into a narrative that has captivated the imagination of millions of Americans.
”Its outline is rather simple, if bizarre (the British writer George Monbiot recently did a brilliant dissection of it and I am indebted to him for adding to my own understanding): once Israel has occupied the rest of its “biblical lands,” legions of the anti-Christ will attack it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. As the Jews who have not been converted are burned, the messiah will return for the rapture. True believers will be lifted out of their clothes and transported to heaven, where, seated next to the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents suffer plagues of boils, sores, locusts, and frogs during the several years of tribulation that follow.
An essential conflagration on the road to redemption
”I’m not making this up. Like Monbiot, I’ve read the literature. I’ve reported on these people, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious, and polite as they tell you they feel called to help bring the rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That’s why they have declared solidarity with Israel and the Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers. It’s why the invasion of Iraq for them was a warm-up act, predicted in the Book of Revelations where four angels ‘which are bound in the great river Euphrates will be released to slay the third part of man.’ A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed – an essential conflagration on the road to redemption. The last time I Googled it, the rapture index stood at 144 – just one point below the critical threshold when the whole thing will blow, the son of god will return, the righteous will enter heaven, and sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire.
”So what does this mean for public policy and the environment? Go to Grist to read a remarkable work of reporting by the journalist, Glenn Scherer – ‘the road to environmental apocalypse. Read it and you will see how millions of Christian fundamentalists may believe that environmental destruction is not only to be disregarded but actually welcomed – even hastened – as a sign of the coming apocalypse.
”As Grist makes clear, we’re not talking about a handful of fringe lawmakers who hold or are beholden to these beliefs. Nearly half the U.S. Congress before the recent election – 231 legislators in total – more since the election – are backed by the religious right. Forty-five senators and 186 members of the 108th congress earned 80 to 100 percent approval ratings from the three most influential Christian right advocacy groups. They include Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Assistant Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Conference Chair Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Policy Chair Jon Kyl of Arizona, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and Majority Whip Roy Blunt. The only Democrat to score 100 percent with the Christian coalition was Senator Zell Miller of Georgia, who recently quoted from the biblical book of Amos on the senate floor: “the days will come, sayeth the Lord God, that i will send a famine in the land.” He seemed to be relishing the thought.
”And why not? There’s a constituency for it. A 2002 TIME/CNN poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe that the prophecies found in the book of Revelations are going to come true. Nearly one-quarter think the Bible predicted the 9/11 attacks. Drive across the country with your radio tuned to the more than 1,600 Christian radio stations or in the motel turn some of the 250 Christian TV stations and you can hear some of this end-time gospel. And you will come to understand why people under the spell of such potent prophecies cannot be expected, as Grist puts it, “to worry about the environment. Why care about the earth when the droughts, floods, famine and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the bible? Why care about global climate change when you and yours will be rescued in the rapture? And why care about converting from oil to solar when the same god who performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes can whip up a few billion barrels of light crude with a word?”
Centred on end-times theology
Franklin Graham is by no means the most extreme member of the Christian right leadership – in the company of men like Jerry Falwell he can seem like a moderate. Nevertheless he is one of the movement’s two or three most publicly prominent leaders, and closely associated with its theological position, political agenda and enormous power.
Graham’s interview with the Observer was conducted during one of his most recent major crusades – Kansas – in October of last year. It showed that his political position and faith is centred on end times theology and this is at the heart (in America at least) of his evangelical enterprise: ”I think Judgment Day is approaching fast. I think there are major prophecies that have been fulfilled. The rebirth of Israel. All of this was foretold. The great tribulation will come then. And this world will be judged for rejecting Jesus Christ. In America now, you cannot mention His name on television, you cannot teach the Bible in school, but you can talk of Muhammad all you want. Why is that? Because the great tribulation is coming. The true followers of Jesus will be taken up and the remainder left behind.”
The Observer documented Graham’s message at the Kansas gatherings, “politics is what he does talk. In between anecdotes about down- home folks from Texas, he lists the world’s horrors, the things all right- thinking Kansans should fear. The papers are full of crime, killing and rape. There are hurricanes in Florida; there are locusts in West Africa. In Haiti, apparently, they are ‘eating each other’. All these are signs, signs that the Second Coming is upon us, that the End Times are approaching. And chief among these celestial signals ‘is what is happening in the Middle East …The choice is yours,’ he says.
Most Tasmanians would consider it mad
Graham’s version of religion (I cannot call it christianity) is indisputably tied up with a view of politics and international relations that I think most Tasmanians, including evangelical christians, would consider (if they knew of it), ‘mad’. Moreover, they would be concerned to know how inseparable these views are from the presidency of his friend, George W. Bush. ‘I speak to the President’s advisers on issues all the time’ he told The Observer.
The beliefs and political influence of Graham and the other leaders of the christian right are not some abstract theological or governance matter. It has had concrete results far beyond even the Iraq War. Many of the most marginalized people on our earth daily pay the price for these ‘christians’ see the world – such as those whose Palestinian families whose lands and homes continue to be forfeited to fundamentalist settlers in the West Bank, or African women denied access to life protecting condoms because Graham, who is largely credited with having framed the US AIDS policy in that continent, favoured promoting abstinence.
Tell Tasmanians of these manifestly unchristian views
Surely, the leaders of the mainstream denominations in our state should be honestly telling Tasmanians of Graham’s politics. Instead the clerical and lay leadership of the Anglican and Uniting Churches are supporting the ‘festival’ as some sort of life enhancing fun evening out for the family, and giving credibility to the manifestly unchristian views of a man who, in saner times, would have been rightly condemned as a dangerous ideologue.
I am sure that many evangelical and even fundamentalist Christians in Tasmania (and Victoria – his other Australian destination) would not be flocking to the Derwent Entertainment Centre over this weekend if Graham’s political views had been honestly told to them. Instead we have only had the hyped spin of the US 109 million dollar a year Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (of which Franklin is now the US$200,000 CEO complete with his own corporate jet).
Franklin Graham’s views are not consistent with the dominant Anglo- Australian evangelical tradition – even at its fundamentalist edge. He represents an ideology which is only beginning to claim a foothold in Australia. People should be told this – so they can make an informed choice about whether to support what is essentially a radical new movement. And any claim that Graham’s politics can be separated from his theological message is a denial of the explicit linkages between the two that he himself professes. Graham pretends no distinction between his faith and action, nor can we.
There are many other examples of Graham’s political views that could be provided, and those interested can find them easily enough on the internet. But perhaps the most notorious is how he responded to the tragedy of September 11. On November 16 2001 he appeared on the NBC Nightly News, with this pastoral message:
“We’re not attacking Islam but Islam has attacked us. The God of Islam is not the same God. He’s not the son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It’s a different God, and I believe it [Islam] is a very evil and wicked religion…When you read the Koran and you read the verses from the Koran, it instructs the killing of the infidel, for those that are non-Muslim.” When asked by NBC News to clarify his statement, Graham repeated his charge that Islam, as a whole, is an evil. “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans. It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith.”
Historical and theological nonsense
These were not the rushed words of a TV doorstop, but beliefs Graham has also articulated elsewhere, and never retracted or apologized for. In his book The Name, Graham writes, “Islam was founded by a mere human being, a warrior by the name of Muhammad, in whose teachings we see the tactic of conversion by conquest, through violence if necessary.” Graham highlighted, without regard to context, various verses in the Koran that talk about fighting against non-Muslims or infidels, concluding that “Clearly, it appears that the ultimate objective of Islam is world domination”.
In the Wall Street Journal, in what was meant to be an article clearing up the ‘misunderstandings’ that had resulted from his comments, Franklin’s attempt “to paint a more complete picture” only confirmed the worst. He argued that “the persecution or elimination of non-Muslims has been a cornerstone of Islamic conquests and rule for centuries. The Koran provides ample evidence that Islam encourages violence in order to win converts and to reach the ultimate goal of an Islamic world.”
This sort of talk is obviously historical and theological nonsense. While neither Christianity and Islam have much to be proud of in their treatment of people of other faiths, the historical reality is that the Islamic world was a far more diverse and tolerant society than most of christian western Europe until quite recent times – indigenous christian communities were largely left alone, and many Jews fled there to escape christian persecution. While to quote a few passages out of the Koran out of context can, just as with the Bible, be used to justify anything – including bloodshed and war.
What do the leaders of our churches think of Graham’s views of Islam, the Iraq War, AIDS, George Bush, the Middle East, and the end times? Well, from reading The Mercury, it would seem that they endorse them. The leaders of the Anglican and Uniting Church openly support the ‘festival’ and even the Catholic Church, while not endorsing it, are happy for it go ahead and Catholics to attend.
Bishops Harrower, Doyle and other leaders should remind Tasmanians that there is another Christian way
At the very least what Bishop Harrower, Archbishop Doyle, and other Christian leaders in our community should be reminding Tasmanians of at this time is that there is another Christian way – that is far more firmly rooted in the teachings of Jesus than the messages of intolerance promoted by fundamentalists of all faiths.
The remarkable Italian, Francis of Assisi, provides, as ever, a reliable pointer to this. Francis lived in an earlier era of crusades and was caught up in one of the many horrific battles associated with them. In response, in 1219, Francis, accompanied only by Brother Illuminato, crossed through the lines of the crusading armies besieging the Egyptian city of Damietta in the Nile delta to meet with the leader of the Muslim forces, Sultan Malik al-Kamil. After being roughed up by guards and threatened with beheading Francis was put in chains and led to the Sultan. There followed many days of dialogue with the Muslim leader and the Sufi and Coptic sages that surrounded him. While the armies waited and prepared to kill each other in the name of each other’s God, Muslim and Christian shared their experience of the Divine, parting in mutual respect.
Soon after, however, those who believed in another form of Christianity, that equated Islam with evil, destroyed Damietta and killed or enslaved its people. Francis went home to Italy horrified, and, it seems, forever changed by his encounter. Almost immediately after his return to Italy in 1220 he abdicated his position as head of the brotherhood and sought to retreat to a life of prayer and solitude that others could never quite accept.
As dangerous as mediaeval crusaders … this festival is a crusade
Now, nearly 800 years on, Christians with views of Islam almost as rigid and dangerous as the mediaeval crusaders, hold unparallelled influence in the most powerful nation the world has ever seen – the United States.
Festival Tasmania must be understood in this context. It is not the politically neutral celebration of faith and commitment, that its organizers would have us believe. Instead, it is part of the new crusade of the American right that seeks to change the world in it’s own image. This ‘festival’ really is a ‘crusade’, but not in the manner of those of a generation ago. The underlying theology and politics are vastly different from those led by Billy Graham, and, given the American and global context, has far more serious implications for us all.
St Francis of Assisi would not go anywhere near the DEC
I don’t believe St Francis would go anywhere near the Derwent Entertainment Centre this weekend. He respected Islam and deplored all war conducted in the name of God.
His way may not be the path to political influence and worldly power, but is surely much closer to the teachings of Jesus of Galilee than that of the highly paid glamour man of the American right who is about to invade our shores.
James Boyce is a Tasmanian historian and social policy consultant.
PS: As of 11 March 2005, the day Festival Tasmania is due to begin, the Rapture Index stood at 152 – described as “fasten your seat belts” time.