After presiding over politically tinged prayer rallies in 49 other state capitals this year, North Carolina-based evangelist Franklin Graham staged a final one in Raleigh on Thursday.
The event was just in time to energize conservative Christian voters to go to the polls next month and support candidates who stand up for House Bill 2 and against abortion and same-sex marriage.
Graham, speaking to a home-state crowd of more than 10,000 at the State Capitol, didn’t officially endorse anybody by name. But he came close, repeatedly praising Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, whose re-election prospects have been jeopardized by the HB2-related boycott of North Carolina by corporations, the NBA, the ACC, Bruce Springsteen and others.
“I thank Gov. McCrory and the stand that he’s taken,” said Graham, apparently referring to HB2, which McCrory signed into law. HB2 nullified an ordinance approved by the mostly Democratic Charlotte City Council that would have extended civil rights protections to the LGBT community and let transgender persons use the bathroom of their gender identity. “(McCrory) has come under a lot of heat, and I thank God for him.”
Graham blamed Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, with her allegiance to the LGBT community, and Charlotte City Council for the HB2 backlash, saying they “disrupted this entire state. Ballgames are leaving because the governor had to take a stand (against the local ordinance).”
In an interview after the event with WBTV, Graham said Roberts should resign.
“She’s not going to win the next election. She’s going to lose, flat out lose,” he said.
Through a spokesman, Roberts declined to comment.
Addressing the presidential race, Graham said many Christians have told him they don’t like either Republican Donald Trump, who has lately come under fire for lewd comments about women, or Democrat Hillary Clinton, who has been widely criticized for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
Graham’s recommendation: “Hold your nose and go vote” for the would-be president who will appoint justices to the U.S. Supreme Court who will protect “religious liberty” and stand against abortion.
“This election is not about (Trump’s) vulgar language. And it’s not about (Clinton’s) emails that are missing,” Graham told his flock. “It’s about the Supreme Court.”
Since Trump has pledged to nominate justices approved by conservatives – he even released a list of possibilities – Graham’s comments sound to many like a tacit endorsement of Trump.
During a Thursday morning interview with the Observer, Graham offered a defense of the embattled Trump, saying he thought the Republican presidential nominee was inspired to run “for the right reason.”
Graham also revealed details about past cash contributions to his ministries from the Trump Foundation and sounded skeptical about new reports that four women had come forward to charge that Trump groped or kissed them against their wishes. Trump has denied their accusations.
In 2012, at Graham’s request, Trump instructed his family foundation to contribute $100,000 to the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which Franklin Graham heads.
Graham told the Observer the money was used to help pay for full-page newspaper ads just before that year’s election urging Christians to vote for candidates supporting “biblical values.” The ads, which featured a likeness of Billy Graham, were widely interpreted as a way to boost the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney.
Franklin Graham also heads Boone-based Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief agency that received $25,000 from the Trump Foundation in 2012.
“That was something Greta (Van Susteren, the former Fox News anchor) asked him for,” said Graham, who took Van Susteren and her TV crew with him on trips to Haiti and North Korea. “He was on her show, and she said, ‘I was just in Haiti and Samaritan’s Purse is doing this down there, and Donald, you need to help.’ He sent a check out.”
In Facebook posts this year, Graham wrote that nobody cared about Trump refusing to release his taxes. The evangelist did condemn, also on Facebook, Trump’s “crude” comments on a 2005 tape in which he bragged about forcing himself on women.
But, asked Thursday about stories in The New York Times, People magazine and other sources about women who recounted specific incidents, Graham sounded unconvinced.
“Those are accusations and this is a political year,” he said. “That kind of mud just slings left and right. I’m not sure I believe that one.”
Graham also disagreed with those who have charged that evangelical leaders like him are being too easy on the thrice-married Trump, who owned gambling casinos and who has been besieged by charges of racism, xenophobia and, most recently, vulgar sexism.
“I’m concerned about where we are as a nation today,” Graham said. “Trump is 70 years old. And I just don’t think that his interest in women and those types of things are as strong as they were 15 years ago.”
Graham suggested that, unlike most politicians, Trump was really running to help the country.
“Why, at 70, does Trump care about doing this?” Graham said in the interview. “He doesn’t need money, he doesn’t need fame. He’s certainly not going to use the government to make money for himself. It’s going to cost him money. I think maybe he’s doing this for the right reason. Maybe.”
Graham embarked on his election-year schedule of prayer rallies in January, in the snows of Iowa. Since then, he’s attracted big crowds in many state capitals – before Raleigh drew its big crowd (the Capitol police estimated 10,500 people), the best-attended rally had been in Nashville, Tenn., in May (8,600).
Thursday’s event around the State Capitol was part prayer revival, part political rally. For much of it, those in the crowd bowed their heads and silently prayed – for the victims of Hurricane Matthew, for law enforcement, for McCrory, Lt. Dan Forest, members of the legislature and state employees.
But the crowd also waved small American flags and were given copies of voter guides that favored Republicans.
Many who came to hear Graham arrived in buses from Baptist churches all across the state. The Rev. Mark Harris, pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church, and state Rep. Dan Bishop, the lead sponsor of HB2, came from Charlotte.
“This is the greatest event in the state today,” Bishop said. “See what the people of God can do.”
Others drove in from the Raleigh suburbs.
Cheryl Palmer, 45, of Apex, said she came to the rally because “my heart’s breaking for our country. We need peace. And our faith needs to be put back in God.”