Maybe most of you in the lower 48 weren’t following this, but the Rev. Franklin Graham just survived the worst publicity ever for one of his crusades. In this case, it was his March 3-5 “Festival of Hope” in Vancouver, B.C., which I wrote about earlier.
When even Christianity Today goes after Graham, you know the outlook is bad.
As for the secular media, it was like Attila the Hun was showing up, live and in person. Some 327 local churches had combined to host the Graham crusade but you’d never guess that from the coverage he got.
Here's a sample of what was airing the weeks before, courtesy of CTV Vancouver:
A famous American evangelist known to denigrate gay people and the Islamic faith is headlining the Greater Vancouver Festival of Hope, triggering backlash from some in the religious community.
Talk about a loaded lead sentence.
The three-day festival, which is taking place at Rogers Arena next month, was put together in partnership with local churches and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Graham's son, Franklin Graham, is scheduled to appear every night.
That's not sitting well with some local faithful, who are speaking out against the younger Graham over his more contentious views.
"Although this event is supported by many local churches in the area, there are many others in the Christian community who are uneasy with having Franklin Graham speak in Vancouver, in light of his outspoken bigotry," reads a petition organized against the event.
The creators of the petition, which has been signed about 500 times, said their goal is to "stand in solidarity with marginalized and minority groups" that Graham has attacked.
The Christianity Today story was only a little less withering. After explaining how different Vancouver is from the Bible Belt, that report added:
That’s partly why a group of fellow evangelicals has joined local Christian leaders asking him not to speak at the Festival of Hope, a Billy Graham Evangelistic Association event scheduled to take place next week in the Vancouver Canucks’ arena.
For months, a group of Vancouver pastors have raised concerns about Graham’s “contentious and confrontational political and social rhetoric,” particularly his characterizations of the LGBT community, Muslims, and immigrants.
Context matters for evangelism, and they worry that a figure who has made such controversial remarks won’t be a good fit to share the Good News with the more progressive people of Vancouver. Especially not right now.
It went on to describe a Feb. 24 statement opposing Graham’s appearance signed by leaders representing 60 percent of Vancouver’s Christians.
However, that the story didn’t ask where all these signers had been before this. Graham’s crusade has been publicized around the city for close to two years and these church leaders have waited until the last week before the crusade to complain about him?
To add to the drama, the mayor of Vancouver –- who has some political baggage of his own -- had complained about Graham’s visit and had requested for Graham to be dropped from the program. Seriously, folks? That's like asking the New England Patriots to drop quarterback Tom Brady from the roster a week before the Super Bowl. It wasn't going to happen.
What was this mayor doing grousing about this event? Some folks were suggesting that Graham’s remarks about Muslims could bring about violence similar to what occurred at a Montreal mosque in January where several worshipers were killed. Yes, the mayor of Vancouver was calling the crusade a public safety issue.
One rare show of impartiality was a March 3 story by CBC that ran Graham’s response to all the opposition:
On Friday, Graham responded to those concerns in a sit-down interview with CBC News and other media outlets.
"They certainly have the right to oppose, but they never were supporting me to begin with," he said. "The 300 churches that invited me, that invitation is still there and they're still 100 per cent behind me being here."
After weeks of Graham-bashing, the crusade went on as planned. I was searching all over the place for what the local TV and print media said about Graham’s appearance. Of course they were going to monitor his every word, looking for all the anti-gay, anti-Muslim rhetoric sure to come, right?
What I found was silence. Total. Silence.
The religion columnist for the Vancouver Sun was out of town, so the newspaper sent no one, despite prior articles criticizing Graham’s visit. As for local TV, I couldn’t find a thing. After Graham had been touted as the worst thing ever to show up on Canadian soil, I was amazed that no one was out there to cover the carnage, if you will.
What I did find was a video of about a dozen protesters outside of Rogers arena by a video news agency belonging to the Russian-based RT televised news network and a CBN story saying 2,000 conversions occurred at the crusade.
But what about the mayor’s fears about anti-Muslim mobs hitting Vancouver streets after Graham’s talks? What about all that anti-gay stuff that the evangelist was supposed to say? What about all the immigrants he was going to trash?
I contacted the agency handling press relations for the crusade to ask which media actually showed up. I’ve been in the press room at three Billy Graham crusades, so I knew that information was available. They refused to tell me, which makes me wonder how cooperative they were with local media. Nevertheless, the event appeared to attract a lot of people, some top-ranked Christian entertainers showed up and 34,000 people came to the arena over three nights plus an online audience of 65,000, according to a press release.
But I should have been able to get that information from the same print and broadcast media that forecast the doom and gloom.
It’s obvious why the city’s major newspaper and TV outlets weren’t there to cover the crusade’s three nights. They knew nothing was going to happen; that Graham wasn’t going to say a thing denigrating any group and that the mayor’s public safety concerns were a joke. I’m still looking for an editorial or column admitting the whole thing was overblown. Looks like it will be a long wait.
Photos courtesy Billy Graham Evangelistic Association