Jim Jenkins

Jenkins: Franklin Graham aims to influence GOP candidates

Franklin Graham apparently fancies himself the national leader of evangelical Christians and now, with a 50-state tour kicking off in this election year, he aims to make the Republican candidates true believers — in his influence. Though the Boone-based preacher runs some noble charities, he’s long tried to expand his political clout by appearing on Fox News. He’s taken digs at President Obama, though of late he hasn’t said the president’s a Muslim or questioned his birthplace.

Those liberal Christians who jump on Graham for speaking out and making no secret of his conservative politics are wrong. Preachers have as much of a right as anyone else to say what they think. I grew up in Pullen Memorial Baptist in Raleigh under the leadership of Rev. Bill Finlator. Like Franklin Graham, he was controversial. Like Franklin Graham, he took a lot of heat for it.

Unlike Graham, however, Finlator was a liberal. He marched for peace and civil rights and women’s rights. And he did so at more peril for going public with his beliefs. Finlator was of modest means and had one church, and even some within that church disagreed with his politics though they loved him personally.

Franklin Graham sits atop an evangelical empire and runs a charity, Samaritan’s Purse, known worldwide. He is compensated for his work in seven figures. And he carries a name that brings with it instant recognition and on the conservative side of politics and religion, a measure of deference. For he is the son of Billy Graham, the 97-year-old sage in retirement now in Montreat. Franklin Graham stands on his father’s shoulders, and they’re broad shoulders, to be sure.

It is that connection to his father that brings Fox News calling and gets the younger Graham widely quoted when he says something critical, even something nonsensical, about President Obama and liberals. It is that connection that will draw interest on this tour, which Graham acknowledged to The Charlotte Observer’s superb religion writer Tim Funk was intended to encourage evangelicals to pick “godly leaders.”

There’s no question that Democrats long ignored evangelicals at their peril, and that was a mistake. Republicans ignored them, too, until they figured out there were votes there and then went after them.

So now Graham, who clearly believes Democrats are in need of fire-and-brimstone insurance, will put the many GOP candidates to the test, and doubtless those candidates will come calling when he appears at his prayer rallies in all the states. (He may have to explain to one Donald J. Trump that “Rock of Ages” doesn’t refer to the Tiffany Diamond next to Trump Tower in New York.)

But as Funk notes, Graham’s “rallies” are going to have some complications his father didn’t face when he was preaching about the clear lines between heaven and hell and and how to enter the first and avoid the second. For example: Trump has been complimented by Graham for his stance on Muslims and those immigrants in the country illegally. But Trump’s had three wives and a casino empire and will be a hard sell to evangelicals even if Graham personally dunks him in the waters of the Broad River. (Assuming Trump would agree to muss his “do.”)

And, Republicans have been steadily losing ground with minorities. Going toward an even harder line on immigration isn’t going to help them.

Finally, it’s always a little dicey when a preacher goes political and talks about a Holy Litmus Test making sure candidates are, as Graham puts it, “godly.” The historic church-state separation in the foundation of America’s system of governance is, some conservative Christians seem to forget, in many ways as much to the benefit of protecting church as it is for protecting state. Graham wants “godly.” But what if there were no church-state separation and a majority of voters decided to install an official state religion not to Graham’s liking with a change in the White House every four years under “godly” but perhaps not Christian leaders?

Neither the questions, nor the answers, are as clear and precise as Graham seems to believe they are.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@ newsobserver.com