It’s not too late for those organising the Franklin Graham tour of Australia next year to get on the blower and tell the man not to come.
For the problem is not that too few people will turn up, but too many.
And quite possibly for all the wrong reasons.
We’re being told it’s about evangelism, and reaching a new generation of Australians with the gospel, but every time he opens his mouth recently Graham puts his foot in it politically, and socially.
The result is that we risk his Australian tour turning into an unedifying spectacle. As unedifying as many of the things he has been saying of late.
The news headlines today are that, in response to the historical sexual assault claim made against Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, from his teenage years, Graham was reported as saying that attempted rape was “not a crime”, and that Kavanaugh respected his victim “by not finishing.”
All sordid stuff.
First things first. That’s not what Graham actually said, as the ever reliable news fact checker Snopes reports.
Snopes gives ratings to reports, based on True, Mixture and False. And in this case, what is being reported as Graham’s actual words come up “Mixture”:
So he didn’t technically say those words then. (He is incorrect in saying attempted assault is not a crime in the USA. It is.)
But so what? If all he gets is “Mixture” from the coolly dispassionate Snopes, then he is sending mixed signals at least to us, and he’s been sending mixed signals about a lot of issues recently.
And he’s done it enough times for those in the evangelical camp in Australia to keep their distance from him. We can ill afford a gaffe-prone mixed message messenger.
But will we keep our distance? My concern is that we won’t. If, in these politically poisonous times, all we get is a bunch of conservatives turning up to hear the Christian version of Milo Yiannopoulos then we’re digging a hole (a deeper one) for ourselves.
And how can Franklin possibly untangle the political and evangelical messages he has been at so much pain to entwine? He’s turned them into conjoined twins. Here we are in Australia trying to keep that hot religious aspect out of our politics and he’s going to come here with all this baggage.
And you can bet the loudest noises that will be made about him when he arrives will be around these issues.
Think The Project. Think QandA. Think The 7:30 Report, or any of the online journals. Do you think they’re going to ask him deep questions about Jesus Christ or about Brett Kavanaugh? He’s gonna get weighed in the Billy Graham balances and found wanting. Extremely wanting.
Mainstream evangelicalism has got little enough traction in Australia as it is. Perhaps there’s still plenty of meat on the bones in the USA, enough at least to rack up gaffe after gaffe like Graham seems to do, but here it’s a different story.
We don’t have the evangelical juggernaut he is connected with.
The man has a tin ear. Either he wants to share the gospel of Jesus with the people of the world, or he wants to jump on the political wagon. He can’t do both. And when he does do both, neither comes off very well.
At least he can’t do both and expect an already suspicious and hostile media to treat him with kid gloves. And guess who’ll be the one’s picking up the pieces and trying to salvage things when his bandwagon rolls outta town onto the next tour date. We will.
Perhaps Kavanaugh is telling the truth. Perhaps he is not. We cannot truly know. But Franklin Graham has spent a significant amount of time aligning himself politically in a way his father never did.
And look at it from an evangelistic perspective. Do I want my friends who are not Christians to hear about Jesus? Undoubtedly.
Would they come to a large gathering of, primarily, Christians in an old-style crusade meeting to hear about Jesus by Franklin Graham? I doubt it.
But more importantly, I’d be way to nervous to ask them to attend. And not just because it’s an increasingly unsuccessful – and expensive – way to evangelise, but because I don’t want the Franklin dirt to stick to us.
The fact is that when his dad did his last televised crusades in Australia, halls were filled – with Christians. And that was in the late eighties. Things have moved on considerably since then. So there’s a sense in which the method hasn’t been working for decades.
But here’s what I definitely won’t risk. I won’t risk having a non-Christian friend google the name of the man who is giving an evangelistic talk to which I have invited them, and see them coming up with this stuff about him.
I’m not even going to try and defend him, because, frankly Frank, some of the stuff you say is indefensible.
We’re getting such little traction as it is with our non-Christian friends these days that I won’t risk playing all my cards for someone as potentially off-putting as Graham. And what’s the chances of him dropping a cringeworthy clanger right in the middle of a talk? I’d say the chances are high.
There’s little chance of him making the gospel the only offence when he speaks.
And it doesn’t seem to be a one-off with him. He just can’t help play hard politically, and every time he does he seems to make his message just that little bit grubbier.
And even if he is misquoted some of the time or all of the time he doesn’t seem to have the nous to know when to speak and when to keep schtum.
We’re a world away from evangelicals refusing to align with Graham’s father, Billy, because of his rapprochement with the Roman Catholic Church.
And we’re a world away from non-Christians – our non-Christian friends – from giving someone like Franklin a hall-pass for his less than smart public utterances. They shouldn’t do so.
And neither should we.