“I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion, except to manipulate it.” — Rev. Billy Graham
As the world now mourns Billy Graham’s passing, and we here in the United States are still reeling from yet another mass school shooting, I think it is a good time for those of us of faith to reflect on just what it means to be a “Christian” in the public arena of civics, and civil discourse.
Say what you will about the Rev. Graham, he was a man who literally traveled the earth, in all her far corners, to spread the good news of the Gospel. He dined with the current queen of England, who if you believe Netflix’s hit series The Crown sought his religious counsel in private several times when he took his famous crusades to England in 1961.
More than that, however, Graham was an exemplary husband of over 60 years to his beloved wife Ruth, a devoted father and elder statesman. There were never rumors of marital unfaithfulness. You never heard him say an unkind word about his fellow human beings. He never took to Twitter or social media to blast or defame others. He had his beliefs, his religious opinions on gay marriage for sure. But he was a man who, despite his human flaws, walked the talk of faith. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in 1960, Graham bailed him out. And as far back as 1953, Graham personally moved “the ropes” that were in place to segregate his Crusade in Chattanooga.
Fast forward to present day 2018. One of the most heralded evangelical heroes of our day is none other than our nation’s 45th President Donald J. Trump.
Graham’s eldest son, Franklin has been a stalwart and vocal supporter of the president, as have a host of prominent evangelical leaders like Paula White, James Robison, Jentezen Franklin, and Jerry Falwell Jr. Franklin Graham said on the night of Trump’s 2016 election (in a Facebook post) that he believed, “God intervened” to elect Trump. And earlier this month at the 2018 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., several speakers said that no president in American history has done as much as Trump to promote “religious freedom.”
Which brings me to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and his “faith.” President Trump’s faith has been a hot topic of discussion since he was a candidate for office in the 2015 primaries. It has been a point of vigorous public debate on whether the “Christian right” and the “political right” formed an unholy alliance (just as Rev. Graham feared) to propel Trump, who agrees with them on political issues, into the White House.
I think evidence suggests that they have. And to bolster that alliance, now comes a new book, The Faith of Donald J. Trump written by CBN political correspondent David Brody and Washington Times columnist and Liberty University professor Scott Lamb. I have just finished reading the book and in my opinion, it should be called, “An Apology for Trump’s Lack of Faith.”
I know that many see Christianity differently. And I respect that. I am a “pew baby” raised in the church from infancy. The great-granddaughter of an Oklahoma-born black preacher who preached with Oral Roberts and Billy Graham. I have been an active evangelical Christian my entire life, and I was taught that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17); that how I live matters as much as what I believe in. There are ways I simply will not conduct myself as a child of God. It is a core tenant of being a Christian “born again” believer. You are new: transformed.
Journalist’s Brody and Lamb try to make the case that Trump, who was raised as a Presbyterian, is being transformed. That he is a “Born Again” Christian; that he accepted Jesus into his heart years ago. I have shared a stage with Life Today’s James Robison and Bishop Harry Jackson (two men in Trump’s inner faith circle) and Robison in particular is credited with leading Trump the Candidate to Christ and being his spiritual mentor.
The book takes a deep dive into Trump’s roots: He is ironically the son of an immigrant mother from Scotland, and his grandparents on his father’s side came from Germany. Yet, they admit that Trump is himself not an avid Bible reader or student of the Gospel, something he showed the world when he referred to “Two Corinthians” in a speech during the 2016 campaign. Lamb and Brody present lots of interviews and research that attempt to “redefine” the angry, petulant, mean-spirited, disrespectful, admitted adulterer and groper of women Donald Trump we see daily on Twitter ranting on everyone from the FBI, to Oprah, to women who have accused him of sexual assault, to foreign leaders, to his own DOJ officials, Obama, Hillary, and black athletes who kneel during the national anthem.
Ultimately, they fail. And the reason their effort to sell Trump as a man of faith falls short is because he shows us daily by his deeds who he truly is. The book does offer some insight into who Trump is, how he was raised, the huge influence of his father, who by all accounts was a tough man, not given to much warmth to his wife or his children. He was a power mogul. He (Father Trump) was building an empire. It left time for little else. It seems as though the apple truly never falls far from the tree.
The Rev. Billy Graham once quipped that “self-centered indulgence, pride and a lack of shame over sin are now emblems of the American lifestyle.” As I listen to the current debate on guns, race, immigration and the like, I think he was right.
Perhaps that is the answer we all seek as to why Donald Trump can be at once revered as the “second coming” by evangelicals and why those outside of the faith are so appalled by him. It is our culture and Trump is the mirror none of us wants to look into. Trump gets away with it because Trump is the standard of who we as Americans have become: greedy, rude, immoral, self-indulgent, demanding of our rights over those of others, short-tempered, sexist, bigoted, and entitled. That is not just who Trump is, that is who we are; including, regrettably many of us in the broad Christian faith.
In the final analysis, if we are to use the life of Billy Graham as a reflection point on faith, we know that truly being a follower of Christ leads us to transform. To be different. To be better. To be kinder, and more caring toward our fellow man. When I see President Trump begin to lead us from that place, maybe I can begin to see this man of “faith” that Brody and Lamb are trying to sell.
Sophia A. Nelson is an NBC THINK contributor and award-winning author of E Pluribus One: Reclaiming Our Founders Vision for a United America (Center Street, 2017).