Lawmakers and their staffs from both sides of the aisle filled the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Wednesday morning to pay their respects to the late Rev. Billy Graham, widely viewed as the most influential pastor in American politics.
Graham drew wide acclaim by traveling the world and hosting crusades where he shared the teachings of Jesus Christ. But in Washington, he was perhaps known as much for his loyalty to Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal and visiting George H.W. Bush the night the United States and its allies launched an air attack on Iraq, as he is for helping Lyndon B. Johnson pick his running mate and providing marriage counsel to Hillary Clinton in the midst of her husband’s infidelity scandal.
It is in part because of these relationships that Graham became the first religious leader to lay in honor at the Capitol.
President Trump spoke at the ceremony Wednesday, noting that Graham had preached to at least 200 million people globally.
While many know Graham for his presence in Washington, he actually spent significant time with people on the margins of society. Trump noted this when he said: “He took his message to the poorest places, to the downtrodden and to the broken-hearted, to inmates in prison and to the overlooked and neglected. He felt a great passion to those that were neglected.”
Since Graham’s death, quite a bit has been written critical of how poorly he engaged people of color during the Civil Rights movement, anti-Semitic statements made by him and his offensive remarks toward the LGBT community.
And while several of the leaders now associated with the president, most notably Graham’s son, Franklin, have taken on similar tasks, it is not unfair to say that many Americans are more familiar with the evangelicals making the cable news circuit in support of Trump for their political allegiances than their humanitarian efforts.
At the memorial, Trump shared his hopes that another Billy Graham comes soon: “Today, we say a prayer for our country that all across this land the Lord will raise up men and women like Billy Graham to spread a message of love and hope to every precious child of God.”
But with polarization being at levels generally viewed as never seen before — even within Christianity, the question becomes: Will the current political climate allow for another evangelical leader to arise who is able to connect with both sides of the aisle? And maybe as importantly, is Trump the one who can encourage that?
Trump praised Graham’s lifelong influence in his own life starting when as a child, he attended one of the preacher’s crusades at Yankee Stadium following an invitation to do so from his father.
“And it was something very special,” he said. “Fred Trump was a big fan. Fred Trump was my father.”
The younger Trump, however, appears to be more of a fan of evangelical leaders willing to attack his political opponents.
Mark Burns, a pastor running to replace Rep. Trey Gowdy (R.-S.C.), made headlines for his highly partisan remarks and prayer at the 2016 Republican National Convention. He said:
Republicans, we got to be united because our enemy is not other Republicans — but is Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.
Let’s pray together. Father God, in the name of Jesus, Lord we’re so thankful for the life of Donald Trump. We’re thankful that you are guiding him, the you are giving him the words to unite this party, this country, that we together can defeat the liberal Democratic Party, to keep us divided and not united.
Franklin Graham, the chief executive of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has previously claimed that former president Barack Obama was a Muslim and used Easter Sunday to provoke birtherism rumors about Trump’s predecessor. He spent 2016 touring America holding prayer rallies at state capitols before telling Fox News that he believes “God’s had” helped Trump be victorious in the 2016 race.
“[Americans wanted] somebody in the White House that believed in God, and would listen to God’s voice,” he said.
And Robert Jeffress, a Dallas pastor who is on Trump’s evangelical advisory committee, suggested that those who backed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 would be in the deepest parts of hell.
“Although my friend Juan (Williams) describes her as kind of St. Hillary of Chappaqua, she’s hardly a bastion of virtue herself,” he said on Fox News.
And he had harsher words directed at Williams, a Fox News analyst: “If I am going to hell, Juan — like you say I am for supporting Donald Trump — then that means you’re going to be a hundred floors below me for supporting Hillary Clinton.”
With these types of characterizations coming from some of Trump’s top faith advisers, Americans would not be wrong to question if Trump wants someone to actually continue Graham’s desire to connect with both sides of the aisle.
Trump won the support of white evangelicals and white Catholics, but he continues to be the recipient of great criticism from Christians of color and more progressive Christians for his policies, his tone and his choice of words. In theory, this could change if the president lent his ear to a faith leader who has consistently let bipartisanship be a guiding principle. But it is not yet clear who that person could be. Until then, perhaps the most influential leader in the current political climate influencing the values of the electorate may be the president himself.