The new year will bring a significant strategic shift for the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which remains influential among U.S. conservative Protestants and has $371 million in assets.
Since 2000 the BGEA has been led by the great evangelist’s son Franklin, who kicks off the new look in Des Moines on Jan. 5.
That’s when Franklin launches his politically-tinged “Decision America Tour" series of prayer rallies that starts off in Iowa and includes the other early voting states of New Hampshire (Jan. 19) and South Carolina (Feb. 9). He plans to preach and tweet his way through all 50 states by Election Day.
Though Billy Graham has befriended politicians and uttered socio-political comments over the decades, his revival meetings always focused hard on appeals for attendees to personally accept Jesus Christ as their savior from sin or to renew such commitments. Franklin will likewise “preach the Gospel.” But he’ll also be urging the Lord’s people not only to pray for the nation but “take action” by being sure to register and vote at all levels of government, and to consider runs for office.
The campaign will also ask Americans to sign a pledge that “where possible” they’ll vote for candidates who “uphold biblical principles, including the sanctity of life and the sacredness of marriage.” Franklin cites these biblical proof texts: Psalm 139:13 and Proverbs 24:11 on abortion, Matthew 19:4-6 on marriage, and Proverbs 14:34 on civic duty.
Perhaps with the BGEA tax exemption in mind, Franklin won’t be endorsing specific candidates and presents the tour as non-partisan, declaring: “There is no hope for this nation from any political party: Republican, Democrat, tea party, independent, or any other. The only hope for America is God.”
Billy Graham notably avoided any leadership in the pro-life (or if you prefer, anti-abortion) cause or “religious right” efforts otherwise. In 2012 he lent his name to support a gay-marriage ban in the North Carolina constitution, which passed by 61 percent in a referendum.
Franklin calls the Supreme Court’s nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage this year “a defining moment for our nation.” Further, “The recent Supreme Court rulings, the relentless attacks on Christian business owners by radical gays and lesbians -- along with the suppression of religious rights on all fronts -- have created a toxic, hostile environment for believers.” Franklin predicts his new campaign will foment “demonstrations, hecklers and possibly threats.”
There’s growing sentiment in some quarters that conservative Christians’ past efforts on “social issues” harmed evangelistic outreach and accomplished little moral reform. Franklin Graham’s tour provides a useful focus on the current political role of evangelicals, a vital bloc in the 21st Century Republican Party coalition. Political reporters will be alert to whether Franklin’s rallies have any discernible campaign impact, for instance on voter turnout.
Religion specialists will want to assess the evolution of the BGEA. and its current activities under Franklin. With the Rev. Jerry Falwell deceased, the Rev. Pat Robertson aged, James Dobson diminished and Franklin more visible on Fox News, is he positioning himself as a prime socio-political spokesman for U.S. evangelicalism? Will old-style Billy backers dissent from the new emphasis?