On Sunday evening, the Reverend Franklin Graham condemned the violence in Charlottesville, Va. over the weekend, and insisted it was “absurd” to blame President Donald Trump for it. Instead, he pointed to the devil.
“Really, this boils down to evil in people’s hearts. Satan is behind it all. He wants division, he wants unrest, he wants violence and hatred,” Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and Samaritan’s Purse, declared in a Facebook post. “He’s the enemy of peace and unity.”
Graham condemned the politicians “who are trying to push blame on President Trump” for the violence and unrest. “That’s absurd,” the minister declared. He also suggested some others who could be blamed besides the president.
“What about the politicians such as the city council who voted to remove a memorial that had been in place since 1924, regardless of the possible repercussions? How about the city politicians who issued the permit for lawful demonstration to defend the statue? And why didn’t the mayor or the governor see that a powder keg was about to explode and stop it before it got started?” Graham asked.
“Instead they want to blame President Donald J. Trump for everything,” he suggested.
Graham explicitly condemned the evil ideologies dividing Americans. “I denounce bigotry and racism of every form, be it black, white or any other. My prayer is that our nation will come together. We are stronger together, and our answers lie in turning to God,” the evangelical leader wrote. He encouraged Americans to “pray for peace and for all those impacted by Saturday’s tragedies.”
Some Christians disagreed with Graham’s explanation, however. James Martin, S.J., a Jesuit priest and friend of Pope Francis, connected Trump to the Charlottesville violence. “The president’s courting of the alt right, his egging on of violence and his failure to swiftly condemn white supremacists is the real shame,” Martin tweeted, while retweeting Graham’s statement.
Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne also responded to Graham by asking, “Did you miss all the ‘Make America Great Again’ hats or David Duke saying this was the ‘fulfillment of all the promises of Trump’?”
According to a report by RealClearPolitics’ Rebecca Berg, Graham’s organizations received hefty donations from the Trump Foundation as Donald Trump planned his 2016 presidential run. Berg reported that Trump’s foundation sent $100,000 to the BGEA in 2012. NBC News added that the foundation gave an additional $25,000 to Samaritan’s Purse.
Graham has defended Trump many times in the past. In January, the minister declared that “God showed up” to grant the Republican victory last November.
Even so, Graham did not explicitly endorse Trump during the election. In March, he urged Christians to vote for “the least heathen” candidate, not exactly a ringing endorsement. He suggested that evangelical Christians would have to “hold their nose and vote,” and added that only the Republican platform aligns with their values.
When approached about the donations and Graham’s support for Trump after the election, a spokesman for Franklin Graham told PJ Media that the two are not related.
“The donations had nothing to do with Franklin’s Facebook comments,” the spokesman said. “It’s also important to keep an appropriate perspective because the donations to the ministries were just a small fraction of the total donations made by people every year to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse.”
Indeed, according to Ministry Watch, the BGEA brought in $85.6 million in 2012, making the Trump Foundation gift a mere 0.12 percent of the ministry’s total contributions that year.
The Trump Foundation’s gift is even smaller compared to the total contributions of Samaritan’s Purse. According to Ministry Watch, Graham’s other organization brought in $386.2 million in 2012, making the Trump Foundation’s gift a mere 0.0065 percent of total contributions — infinitesimally insignificant.
It is possible, however, that these contributions introduced Trump and his staff to Graham and his staff, making one of the most influential voices in evangelical Christianity more aware of — and perhaps more favorable towards — the real estate tycoon. Even so, it would be absurd to suggest the Trump Foundation’s gifts swayed policy or decisions at Samaritan’s Purse or the BGEA.
The Franklin Graham spokesman also insisted that Graham did not campaign for Trump during the election. “However, Franklin did visit all 50 state capitals last year for his Decision America Tour, encouraging Christians to pray for our leaders, pray for the election, pray for guidance in the voting booth, and to get involved in their communities and consider running for office themselves,” he explained.
Graham’s decision not to endorse any candidate was shown throughout the Decision America Tour, as the evangelical leader “did not tell people who to vote for and no candidates for any office participated in these events,” the spokesman added.
Perhaps Graham simply disagreed with the idea that Trump was responsible for inspiring the white nationalists. In March of last year, Trump explicitly denounced David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who endorsed and repeatedly praised Trump.
Albeit after intense pressure from many sides, President Trump also explicitly denounced racism and white supremacy in a statement Monday.
Graham’s suggestion that the root cause of the violence was spiritual has a strong tradition in Christianity. As Saint Paul told the Ephesians, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
While white supremacy is vile, tribalism has infected both sides of the political spectrum, and it was visible on both sides in Charlottesville.
There is an intellectual and political element to this struggle, but that does not mean there is no spiritual influence. In addition to arguing against tribalism, Graham argued that Christians should pray and “turn to God,” by which he likely also meant immersing themselves in the Bible.
The tragedy in Charlottesville has many causes and requires a great deal of responses. Among the political and cultural responses, Graham suggested Christians consider a spiritual response. America can use all the help it can get.