Half-cocked: Franklin Graham leaves GOP, and media speculation runs wild

It's almost like they were just waiting. On Tuesday, Franklin Graham announced and denounced -- saying he was leaving the Republican Party and despairing of the party system altogether

A mere day later, the Daily Beast was asking, "Will Franklin Graham Lead an Evangelical Exodus from the GOP?"

Also yesterday, the Religion News Service cast Graham as a possible closet Trump backer.

These are the kinds of articles that keep the phrase "going off half-cocked" in circulation.

First, the Beast:

Franklin Graham, who heads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, posted on Facebook yesterday that he plans to leave the Republican Party. His growing frustration highlights growing (and sometimes paradoxical) anger that pro-life and evangelical Christian leaders have for Republican Party leadership.
Graham took to Facebook to rip Republicans in the wake of a spending bill the House passed last week that maintains federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
“Seeing and hearing Planned Parenthood talk nonchalantly about selling baby parts from aborted fetuses with utter disregard for human life is reminiscent of Joseph Mengele and the Nazi concentration camps!” Graham wrote, referring to videos that showed Planned Parenthood officials discussing their fetal tissue donation program. “That should’ve been all that was needed to turn off the faucet for their funding.
“This is an example of why I have resigned from the Republican Party and declared myself Independent,” he continued. “I have no hope in the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, or Tea Party to do what is best for America.”

The article acknowledges that Graham told the Christian Post back in May that he'd lost faith in the Republicans, the Democrats and even the Tea Party.  Yet the Beast persists in saying Graham may inspire other evangelical leaders to leave the party.

"Yesterday’s comment raised eyebrows because it’s a commitment to officially break with the Republican Party," the article says. "And evangelical leaders say he’s channeling a sentiment that’s increasingly widespread in their community."

No doubt. The Beast quotes three conservative leaders: Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas; Brent Bozell, founder of the Media Research Center; and Ed Martin, president of Eagle Forum. They all agree that conservatives are outraged at the continuing federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

Actually, Bozell and Martin say that. Jeffress says it's evangelicals who are fed up. The Beast makes them synonymous -- usually true, but not universal. And none of the three sources say they think Graham is the first in an exodus of evangelical leaders from the GOP. That's more like Beast-ly clickbait.

But at least the Beast recognizes something of a moral-spiritual angle to Graham's announcement. “He’s not taking a political position,” Bozell tells the publication. “He’s taking a moral position, which is far more serious in the evangelical world.”

The Beast also quotes Martin thusly:

“When Franklin Graham and others say, ‘Hey don’t put all your hope in a party because that’s not the ultimate hope and should not be the focus of this earthly realm,’ we recognize that,” he said. “So there’s a tension that you want to further the values informing your heart and life through politics, through policy. But you also want to say, don’t make a political party a false god. Any false god will fail you. There’s only one true God.”

Still another point for the Beast talking to humans (although not Graham -- it just quotes his Facebook post). The Religion News Service didn’t feel such a need. Here's how the RNS piece, which ran in the Washington Post, spins the story:

Graham has previously said he has no faith in any political party, but his apparent renunciation of his Republican affiliation is an indication of anger on the right and the strong interest many disaffected evangelicals have shown in populist outsiders like Donald Trump.
Graham himself has expressed admiration for Trump, the surprise frontrunner in the Republican presidential field, and has voiced support for some of Trump’s more controversial positions — such as his call to ban Muslims from the U.S. — which have drawn condemnation from more mainstream evangelical leaders.

The article connects Graham with Trump twice (a third time later), and it mentions no other presidential candidates. RNS marks Graham's disgust with the GOP as a sign of evangelical interest in "populist outsiders." Like whom? Like Donald Trump, of course. It all but says, "Graham is dumping the GOP for Trump!"

To be fair, the largest part of this story deals with Graham's outrage over federal funding of Planned Parenthood. It says the feds pay the Planned Parenthood $528 million, about 40 percent of the group's budget.

Then it adds: "Planned Parenthood separates federal taxpayer dollars from those used to provide abortions."  How does RNS know that? It doesn't link a financial document or even quote an officer of the group. Is that an agreed fact or an article of faith?

Another telling paragraph:

Activists said the undercover videos show Planned Parenthood officials negotiating the sale of fetal organs — which they called “baby parts” — for profit to medical researchers; making money off such organs or tissue could be illegal and unethical. Planned Parenthood denied that it was profiting from the sale and said it was quitting the practice.

Notice the skeptic quotes around "baby parts," as if it's pejorative to put such a name on tissue from an unborn child. It's OK to take Planned Parenthood's word on face value, but not that of its opponents.

Also interesting is that Planned Parenthood denied profiting from the sales, then said it was going to stop. Well, gee, if they didn’t do anything wrong, why are they stopping? But since RNS didn’t interview anyone for this story, it didn’t ask about this.  

But the bigger eyebrow-raiser is Graham's alleged admiration for Trump. In the AL.com article that RNS references, it's actually the interviewer who says Graham has voiced said admiration. Graham himself was much more circumspect:

I'm met him and talked to him. I think everybody who watched last night couldn't help but agree with some of the things he said. He's not a politician. He says what he thinks. He's no dummy. He's worth a lot of money. Whether he'll see this all the way through, who knows? He's a very smart man.

And before that, Graham said he has communicated with several presidential candidates and was convinced they love God. Which ones? AL.com didn’t ask. And, as you know, neither did RNS. Apparently, their interest stopped with Trump and Graham.

Nowhere in that 300-word Facebook statement, incidentally, does Graham mention Trump.

Now, RNS and the Daily Beast are not wrong to report evangelical falling-out with the GOP. Both picked up the Christian Post quoting Graham last May. And the Beast cites a leading Baptist pastor.

But by the same token, if Graham's despair over party life goes back months, does it count as Big News? Is it factual to tint his action as the first of an evangelical walkout? And isn’t it a bit much to suggest he is flirting with Trump, based on mere wisps of evidence?

Thumb: Gun photo copyright Zholobov Vadim, via Shutterstock.com. Story photo: Franklin Graham, courtesy of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.


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