Franklin Graham isn’t running for president in 2016, but his election-year schedule looks a lot like those who are.
Starting Tuesday, the North Carolina-based evangelist will embark on a 50-state tour, holding prayer rallies on the steps of each state capitol and calling on conservative evangelicals – “born-again” Christians who tend to care most about social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage – to go to the polls and vote for “godly leaders.”
His first stop: Iowa – site of the February caucuses that will officially kick off the 2016 presidential race.
What is Graham up to?
He has promised not to endorse any candidates or even let any of them speak at his rallies. Just before Christmas, he even announced he was quitting the Republican Party, partly out of frustration at the failure of the GOP-controlled Congress to defund Planned Parenthood – a group he compared to the Nazis in a Facebook post.
“I’m not going to support any party,” he told the Observer last year. “This 50-state tour is not for the Republican Party. ... I’m as disappointed in them as I am the Democrats.”
But those who study the historic relationship between religion and politics say that, despite Graham’s claims to be nonpartisan, his tour could play a role in both the GOP presidential primary race and in the eventual Republican nominee’s general election campaign.
By shadowing the presidential contenders during the primary season, Graham’s tour “is not only sending a signal to voters, but also to all of the (Republican) candidates right now that (evangelicals’) strength still plays a significant role in the party,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. “And if these candidates want to win, they better address (evangelicals’) concerns and key issues.”
By the fall, when Republicans face Democrats up and down the ballot, Bitzer and others say, Graham won’t have to endorse anybody by name. His plea for Christians to back candidates who’ve taken Bible-based stands would be a green-light to vote for GOP candidates, who tend to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage. And, if it works, Graham’s campaign could help the Republican Party achieve one of its crucial election-year goals: Swelling turnout by conservative Christian voters.
A month before the 2012 election, the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which Franklin Graham now heads, ran full-page newspaper ads that were widely interpreted as endorsements for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney – even though his name was never mentioned.
The ad featured an iconic photo of the younger Billy Graham, Franklin’s father, with a quote attributed to him that called for people to vote “for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage” – code words favoring Romney, not his Democratic opponent, President Barack Obama.
In November that year, 79 percent of white evangelical Protestants voted for Romney – the same level of support as George W. Bush in 2004 and a greater percentage than John McCain in 2008.
But Romney lost, and many evangelical and GOP leaders are convinced that millions of conservative Christians stayed home on Election Day 2012, possibly because Romney is a Mormon – a religion the Southern Baptist Convention and some other evangelical denominations consider a non-Christian cult.
So the push in 2016 will be to increase evangelical voter turnout even higher.
“Once the nominees are picked, the battle lines will be heavily drawn,” said Bitzer. “Then it will be more about mobilizing and energizing” evangelical voters to go to the polls and vote for Republicans and against Democrats.
Graham’s 50-state tour could help make that happen.
What could complicate this scenario: Donald Trump.
It’s still too early to tell whether he’ll get the Republican presidential nomination – he’s currently the front-runner – or whether he might eventually bolt the GOP and run for the White House as an independent.
Some evangelicals have been cool to Trump, a thrice-married owner of gambling casinos who has, in the past, supported abortion rights.
But Graham, who is still royalty in many evangelical circles because of his family name, has found himself agreeing with even some of Trump’s more controversial stands. Like the bar on Muslim immigrants, which Graham proposed in July – months before Trump did.
On most hot button issues, though, Graham has taken stands in line with the GOP.
In 2015, for example, he removed his ministries’ money from Wells Fargo to protest the bank’s gay-friendly TV and online ad and condemned the Democratic president for lighting up the White House in rainbow colors after the Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
In America’s increasingly polarized political culture, Graham’s outspokenness and his frequent appearances on Fox News shows have given him a high profile as a hard-right combatant. That’s even as he’s also widely credited for using his ministries – the BGEA and Samaritan’s Purse, a Boone-based charity – to help people in need in the United States and around the globe.
Graham has been called extreme by liberals and by some of his fellow evangelical Christians. But his words are celebrated as courageous by many conservatives. And the controversy he courts doesn’t seem to be hurting his ministries’ coffers – contributions were up for both in 2014, the latest year where totals are available.
Graham’s almost-daily and often-provocative posts on Facebook, meanwhile, are often “liked” and shared by 100,000-plus people. “Thank you for standing against the devils in DC,” one supporter, Dusty Schwartz, commented on Graham’s Facebook page.
Graham’s prayer rally tour will start in Iowa, where evangelical Christians traditionally dominate the Republican presidential caucuses. This year, according to current polls, the Republican to beat in Iowa is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a hard-right Republican who has lined up support from key evangelical pastors and other leaders.
On the Democratic side, the front-runner in Iowa, according to the latest polls, is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She sought pastoral care from Billy Graham in the late 1990s after President Bill Clinton’s sexual liaison with Monica Lewinsky. But Hillary Clinton the presidential candidate is a strong supporter of abortion rights and same-sex marriage, which makes her a hard sell with most white evangelicals.
Later in January, Graham will take his “Decision America Tour” to New Hampshire, which will hold the country’s first primary. And in February, he’s scheduled to be in South Carolina, another early-primary state, where evangelicals are expected to decide the outcome of the GOP presidential primary.
The full schedule is being worked out, but Graham is expected to end his tour in Raleigh in October, when Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who is close to the Graham family, will be in the midst of what many are predicting will be a tough re-election battle.
In promoting his prayer rallies, Graham has said he’s looking for God, not political parties, to solve the country’s problems. He was out of the country and unavailable for an interview. But, Saturday, in a Facebook post, he framed the tour this way:
“(We’ll be) praying that God would give us politicians who will stand for Biblical values. ... It’s time we got off the sidelines and got involved in actively working and praying to stop the moral decline of this great nation.”
Echoes of Falwell
In scheduling rallies in all 50 states close to election time, Graham is taking a page from Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religion history at Dartmouth College.
In the late 1970s and into the 1980s – a politically turbulent time, much like today – the Virginia-based Falwell held “I Love America” rallies on the steps of state capitols across the country. He urged conservative Christians to go to the polls, where they helped elect and re-elect Republicans like Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms.
In researching his recent book on Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian defeated by Reagan in 1980, Balmer said the former president told him he first realized he was in trouble with evangelicals when his sister, a noted evangelical herself, said that “Jerry Falwell was up in Juneau, Alaska, saying terrible things about you.”
In describing the thinking behind his upcoming tour, Graham echoes the Falwell of a few decades ago.
Graham: “I believe we are perilously close to the moral tipping point for the survival of the United States of America. I refuse to be silent and watch the future of our children and grandchildren be offered up on pagan altars of personal pleasure and immorality. ... God hears the prayers of his people, so we’ll be calling on Christians in every state to pray fervently and faithfully for America.”
Falwell: “What has gone wrong? What has happened to this great republic? We have forsaken the God of our fathers. The prophet Isaiah said that our sins separate us from God. ... Our country needs healing. Will you be one of a consecrated few who bear the burden and pray, ‘O, God, save our nation. O, God, give us a revival.’ The destiny of our nation awaits your response.”
Falwell’s challenge during his time was to convince more evangelicals to get past their historic disdain for politics and go to the polls. Graham’s chore is to get evangelicals to stick with the political process and not let their frustrations with Washington keep them home on Election Day.
Graham, also like Falwell, has told Christian crowds they must step up and take back the country from “secularists” – the nonreligious – who they blame for everything from the prohibition of teacher-led prayer in public schools to a “political correctness” that favors “Happy holidays” over “Merry Christmas.”
Just as pronounced as the Graham-Falwell comparison is the contrast in style between Graham and his father, said religion history professor Balmer, author of “The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond.”
“His father sought, publicly at least, to maintain the veneer of nonpartisanship,” said Balmer. “(Franklin) has become a contentious figure who has kind of propelled himself into that (partisan) realm.”
Billy Graham was close to politicians, mostly presidents of both parties, but he saw his reputation suffer after getting too close to President Richard Nixon, who resigned the office in disgrace in 1974.
By the time Falwell forged the so-called Religious Right in the 1980s, the older Graham was keeping his distance from such political fireworks. Franklin, though, sent three of his sons to Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and spoke at Falwell’s funeral.
A changing country
Franklin Graham will hit the road at a time when the country is changing and becoming more diverse in ways that leave traditionalists – including many older evangelicals – fearful for America’s future and concerned about their waning influence on the larger culture.
These demographic changes have mostly benefited the Democrats nationally: They’ve won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, thanks to the growth in minorities and the allegiance of young people.
Even younger evangelicals, particularly millennials, are less reliably conservative than their parents on LGBT and other issues.
At Charlotte’s rapidly growing Elevation Church, for example, the Rev. Steven Furtick has kept mostly mum on such divisive topics. He has hosted Billy Graham’s former music director, Cliff Barrows, at the church, and even named one of his sons, Graham, after Billy Graham. But he’d rather speak Sundays on spiritual, not social, issues.
So younger evangelicals may not be listening in as Graham holds his rallies in state capitals, said Bill Leonard, a professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University. But Graham still appears to have the ear of many evangelicals, especially those, like him, who are white, older than 55 and “old guard,” in Leonard’s words.
They still vote, are still a force in the GOP and can play a major role in elections – including local elections, as Graham will stress.
“Think about how important local elections are,” Graham told a Charlotte crowd last month. “School boards. Could you imagine the next two or three election cycles if a majority of the school boards of America were born-again, Bible-believing evangelical Christians?”