The Rev. Franklin Graham, most recently in the news for calling on presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg to repent because he is gay, will bring his Decision America Northeast Tour to Seaside Park in Bridgeport on May 28.
Traveling to seven Northeast cities in a lobster-emblazoned tour bus, Graham plans to call on Christians “to proclaim the Gospel and join believers to pray for our nation, our communities, and the lost,” according to his website. The Christian musician Crowder will provide music and the evening will end with fireworks.
Graham will bring his evangelical message to the most “post-Christian” section of the country, according to a Barna survey, from Portland, Maine, to Syracuse, N.Y., starting May 19. That message is that Christians must commit themselves to Jesus as Lord and savior and follow traditional biblical views about morality.
But Christians who welcome LGBTQ people into their congregations and the clergy who perform their weddings — Connecticut legalized same-sex marriage in 2008 — say Graham is improperly inserting himself into politics. Pastors of parishes whose members will be attending and volunteering at his Bridgeport rally also express concerns, while welcoming his call to follow the good news of Jesus Christ.
“I don’t think it’s so much about Franklin Graham, but the message,” said Pastor Mark Smith of North Park Baptist Church in Bridgeport, many of whose members have been trained as volunteers to respond to people who answer the “altar call” to come forward and commit themselves to Jesus. “He wants to bring a message of hope and we could sure use some hope.”
Smith said hope is needed because of “the failure of leadership, moral leaders in the church … People are still financially struggling, there’s still racism, with the shootings.”
Smith said that while he agrees with Graham that sex outside a male-female marriage is sinful, he does wish Graham hadn’t entered the political fray with his tweets about Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., who says he is a committed Episcopalian and is the first openly gay presidential candidate, one of 20 Democrats seeking to defeat President Donald Trump.
“I think unfortunately what’s happened is [Graham’s] gotten known for a few of his political statements and everyone’s forgotten the years he spent around the world” evangelizing and assisting the poor through Samaritan’s Purse. “They’ve channeled hundreds of millions of dollars to people in need,” Smith said.
While Graham’s father, the legendary evangelist Billy Graham (Franklin’s full name is William Franklin Graham III), was close to several presidents, he didn’t speak about politics, Smith said. He “just tried to distance himself from those things. Franklin hasn’t.”
Gay and faithful
Responding to what they see as an anti-LGBTQ message, area faith groups and the Triangle Community Center of Norwalk will hold an interfaith celebration at 7 p.m. the night after Graham’s rally at the United Church of Christ of Bridgeport, 2200 North Ave., according to the Rev. Sara Smith, senior minister. (The Smiths are unrelated.)
“The idea is not to go negative about what someone else is doing or saying,” Sara Smith said, but to gather as “communities that love and support and nurture and affirm and include GLBTQ folks, and our church is one of them.”
Smith, who said she is her parish’s first openly lesbian pastor, said, “At our community we celebrate that you can be gay and be faithful, whatever tribe you belong to. … There are places where you will be loved, not just tolerated, but loved and celebrated just like you are.”
She said that while the event won’t be advertised on Interstate 95 billboards like the Decision America tour is, they’ll “have little rainbow cookies for everybody.”
Graham tweets at Buttigieg
Graham took to Twitter on April 24 to criticize Buttigieg’s statement to CNN that “God does not have a political party.” Buttigieg also said in that interview, “It can be challenging to be a person of faith who’s also part of the LGBTQ community and yet, to me, the core of faith is regard for one another. And part of [how] God’s love is experienced, according to my faith tradition, is in the way that we support one another and, in particular, support the least among us.”
In his tweets, Graham first said Buttigieg “is right — God doesn’t have a political party. But God does have commandments, laws & standards He gives us to live by. God doesn’t change. His Word is the same yesterday, today & forever.”
Next, Graham tweeted, “Mayor Buttigieg says he’s a gay Christian. As a Christian I believe the Bible which defines homosexuality as sin, something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized. The Bible says marriage is between a man & a woman — not two men, not two women.”
Finally, Graham said, “The core of the Christian faith is believing and following Jesus Christ, who God sent to be the Savior of the world — to save us from sin, to save us from hell, to save us from eternal damnation.”
Buttigieg has criticized Vice President Mike Pence for using his Christian faith to “harm other people,” such as when, as governor, Pence signed a law allowing people and businesses to refuse to serve others based on their religious beliefs.
Buttigieg also questioned Trump’s faith in an interview with USA Today, saying, “I’m reluctant to comment on another person’s faith, but I would say it is hard to look at this president’s actions and believe that they’re the actions of somebody who believes in God. I just don’t understand how you can be as worshipful of your own self as he is and be prepared to humble yourself before God. … And the exaltation of yourself, especially a self that’s about wealth and power, could not be more at odds with at least my understanding of the teachings of the Christian faith.”
Graham has been a strong defender of Trump, who has been divorced twice and has been accused of having a porn star paid hush money. On “Axios on HBO,” Graham said, “Now people say, ‘Well Frank but how can you defend him, when he’s lived such a sordid life?’ I never said he was the best example of the Christian faith. He defends the faith. And I appreciate that very much.”
Dean Andrew McGowan of Berkeley Divinity School, the Episcopal seminary at Yale Divinity School, said Graham has made “a number of very distinct choices, in particular about the nexus of religion and politics” that he called “dubious to say the least and have contributed to the dubious kind of alliances” that many evangelical believers would find objectionable.
“I think he represents this kind of way in which a significant chunk [of evangelicals] has failed to distinguish itself from the kind of conservatism associated with Trump,” McGowan said,
McGowan said that Graham attacked President Bill Clinton “over Clinton’s moral foibles, [while] Trump I think is a figure who makes Clinton look almost pure as the driven snow … in personal morality.” Instead of calling out the president, Graham acts as an “apologist for Trump and making up all kinds of special pleading arguments … that evangelicals should be supporting Trump.
“Evangelical Christians have a tradition that should give them an independent voice on issues that are important to them,” McGowan said. “Billy Graham thought that his proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ was too important to get mired in everyday politics.”
No politics expected
Lead Pastor Joshua Miller of Gospel Light Community Church in Bridgeport, whose members also are volunteering at the rally, said he hasn’t been to one of Graham’s events, “but from what I’ve seen and heard, his principal focus is the gospel message of hope. … Political overtones I think won’t be there.”
He said he expects about 50 of the 70 to 80 members of his congregation will attend the rally. “The goal too is to convert others so we’re hoping that those that come are inviting others to come as well,” he said. “I would be concerned if there was any type of political agenda involved in this … but we were assured that that wouldn’t be the case,” Miller said.
The tour’s website says, “Franklin will present the Gospel of Jesus Christ at each stop, calling the lost to repentance and faith — and praying together with believers for their families, churches, communities, and those who are far from God.” Graham has held evangelism events since 1989 and now is president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Among “the lost” are members of the LGBTQ community, according to Graham and other evangelicals. Smith of North Park Baptist Church agrees. “We believe that God created men and women to be a unit and to be a pair and we don’t believe God created gay people to be in homosexual unions, but God loves everybody.”
He added, “God loves everybody, but he doesn’t love every idea.” Smith said he believes all are born heterosexual. “We don’t love the idea of homosexuality, but we love the people who are attracted to same-sex relationships. We do believe that they are extraordinarily worthy people.”
Smith those who have sex outside of heterosexual marriage need to repent, just as alcoholics do. “We wouldn’t single out people with homosexual behavior as uniquely in need of repentance and change,” he said.
Enthusiasm in Connecticut
Steve Rhoads, vice president of church ministries for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said he didn’t know how many would attend the Bridgeport event but that the organization has reached out to churches from Westchester County, N.Y., to Hartford.
“We’ve been thrilled by the number of churches that have collaborated together and worked together. … I’m surprised by how much enthusiasm there is in the Christian community in Connecticut. We live in a day where everything’s so splintered and there’s a lack of unity.”
Rhoads said the event “isn’t a political rally. This is an event to preach what we consider to be good news, that anyone can start over. … Jesus called it being born again, being born a second time.”
He said that issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion “are political issues, but at their very foundation, deeper than that,” they are moral issues. “They are questions that relate to what is the nature of truth and what does the Bible teach.”
The Rev. Curtis Farr, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Fairfield, doesn’t accept that Graham and other evangelicals are following Jesus’ teaching when it comes to loving everyone.
“When Franklin Graham speaks about those of God’s children who are LGBTQ+ just the way God made them, Graham proves that he has no interest in following Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people by word and example to err on the side of love,” Farr said.
“Repentance is something Christians do when the way they live brings harm on God’s creation and that includes God’s children, so I would encourage Franklin Graham to consider some repentance of his own,” he said.
Farr said the Bible “is a little bit queer,” including people “who lived apart from the accepted norms of their time. … I think queer people have something to bring to the conversation when it comes to spirituality and theology, and we would all be better off if we were able to hear those voices and learn from them.”
Farr said St. Paul’s “will once again be at Pride in the Park on June 8, and the following day is Pentecost and we’ll have our annual Pride service on that day.” The festival, held from noon to 8 p.m. in Mathews Park in Norwalk, is sponsored by the Triangle Community Center.
The Rev. Herron Gaston, senior pastor of Summerfield United Methodist Church in Bridgeport, a largely black parish, said, “Folks in my congregation are of two different minds” about the rally. “Some want to support a more progressive message”
Gaston, who also is associate director of admissions and recruitment at Yale Divinity School, said many African Americans are leery of the more literal interpretation of the Bible taken by evangelicals. “The Bible has been used as a weapon of mass destruction” against them, he said.
“I’m very open and affirming and I think it’s very important that we create and forge a more diverse and inclusive community,” Gaston said. “That’s one of the reasons that the church is in the position that the church is in today, because the church is extremely judgmental. … The church’s moral and ethical responsibility is to lift its moral voice for people of all backgrounds.”
The Rev. Keri Aubert, priest-in-charge of St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in New Haven, said she “didn’t really absorb that [Graham] was coming, then three weeks ago a missive arrived in my inbox.”
Aubert said St. Thomas’s is one of “many churches in Connecticut that are fully welcoming of LGBT+ persons” who offer a message that “God loves you and you are loveable. Your sexuality is a gift from God, your embodiedness is a gift from God, and don’t listen to people who say different.”
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