Protestant evangelist Franklin Graham told his flock that Donald Trump was sent by God to be their president. What does Graham tell his flock now that Trump has thrown them to the wolves of COVID-19? How does he explain that the man allegedly sent by God to lead them is killing them instead? More importantly, does Trump’s deadly incompetence even matter to Graham and the evangelical Christians who support Trump?
In 2016, Graham famously attributed Trump’s defeat of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to the hand of God, stating that “God’s hand intervened Tuesday night to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control of our country.” He did not tell his followers, however, that Trump would lead many of them to unnecessary deaths from COVID-19.
It may not have mattered if he had. Trump’s support among white evangelical Christians remains strong even as the death toll in the United States climbs. Their addiction to the secular power that they have achieved through their fealty to Trump is powerful. It remains to be seen, however, if it is strong enough to keep them loyal to Trump as more and more of their loved ones die between now and November 3rd and Trump’s responsibility for their deaths becomes even clearer.
Graham, the son of famed evangelist and spiritual adviser to multiple presidents Billy Graham, is the CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian relief agency. He arguably is the most influential evangelical Christian in the United States and a loyal supporter of Donald Trump.
Graham is staunchly anti-abortion and vehemently opposed to gay marriage, calling homosexuality a sin and an “abomination.” He enthusiastically embraces the Faustian bargain evangelicals have made, trading their support of Trump for his commitment to appoint anti-abortion judges and deliver on other social and political issues important to evangelicals.
Graham dismisses concerns that Trump is amoral and decidedly un-Christian in his behavior, admitting that Trump is “not the greatest example of the Christian faith.” He states that there is a distinction between “defending the faith and living the faith” and unreservedly backs Trump as a so-called defender of Christianity.
Graham recently doubled down on his political support for Trump, telling evangelicals that the United States is in danger of becoming “socialist” and urging them to vote for leaders who “love this country, defend the Constitution and support law and order.” He did not mention Trump by name, but he did not have to, explaining:
“The chaos erupting in cities controlled by liberal, socialist-leaning leadership should cause great concern. If this kind of leadership wins in local, state & national elections in November, we’ll see more of this, which would lead to the demise of our nation as we know it.”
Oh, and by the way, he made no mention of the demise of over 150,000 Americans so far from COVID-19.
The rewards of evangelism
Graham has generated controversy over his own worldly behavior. Jesus and his disciples may have lived in poverty, but not Graham. He came under criticism from other Christians when reports revealed that in 2008 his combined compensation for being the head of both Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was $1.2 million. His net worth is estimated at $10.3 million.
In all fairness, Graham is hardly the only person to prosper through evangelism, and is an underachiever compared to some others. His father was worth an estimated $25 million at his death. Pentecostal minister Kenneth Copeland has an estimated net worth of $300 million and Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Joel Osteen each have amassed fortunes over $100 million.
There were big bucks in evangelism before Donald Trump. But it would be foolish to dismiss money as a possible motivator of behavior when these amounts of money are in play, especially in the face of a possible threat to revenue streams.
Graham, Trump, sin, and COVID-19
Graham was quick to blame the COVID-19 pandemic on sinners. In an interview on Fox News on April 4th, Graham stated:
“I don’t think it’s God’s plan for this [the pandemic] to happen. It’s because of the sin that’s in the world. Man has turned his back on God, we have sinned against him and we need to ask for God’s forgiveness.”
But what about now, four months later, when there no longer is any doubt that the scale of the death and suffering in this country from the pandemic is Trump’s fault? And when it is obvious that Trump’s gross mismanagement of the pandemic resulted from his decidedly un-Christian indifference to the death and suffering of others.
Trump’s abject incompetence arose in the context of Trump’s severely disordered personality, his obsession with his own personal interests, and his characterological inability to feel genuine concern or compassion for the well-being of others. Simply put, Trump never cared enough about the consequences to the lives of other people to make the tough decisions, take the risks, and make the sacrifices necessary to contain the pandemic.
Trump may not have actually intended to kill people, but he is as responsible for the catastrophic death toll in the United States as surely as if he created the virus that causes COVID-19 in a laboratory in Trump Towers. God’s children, Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc., have died at the hand of Donald Trump.
So, what say you now, Franklin Graham? Tell us again for whose sins your flock is being punished.
The addiction to power
Why does Graham continue to stand by Trump? I believe that the primary reason is that he is addicted to power. The addiction to the secular power that evangelical Christians have secured through their allegiance to Trump is at the heart of the general loyalty of evangelical Christians to Trump, a loyalty challenged in the widely circulated editorial in Christianity Today last December that called for the end of Trump’s presidency.
Make no mistake about it, the theological basis of the editorial was indisputable and based on the duality of the Christian message. The lesson for Christians in the death of Jesus Christ lies in his resurrection and in eternal life.
The lesson from the time that he spent on earth, however, is the centrality of virtuousness. Jesus extolled goodness and eschewed secular power. Heaven help anyone who looks at Donald Trump and sees virtuousness. Christianity Today editor and author of the editorial Mark Galli described Trump as “morally lost and confused.”
Galli has a gift for understatement. Trump is not confused; he is unequivocally amoral. And he is obsessed with secular power.
Galli concluded his editorial, published on December 19th, with the following observation about the Faustian bargain evangelicals made with Trump:
“To use an old cliché, it’s time to call a spade a spade, to say that no matter how many hands we win in this political poker game, we are playing with a stacked deck of gross immorality and ethical incompetence. And just when we think it’s time to push all our chips to the center of the table, that’s when the whole game will come crashing down. It will crash down on the reputation of evangelical religion and on the world’s understanding of the gospel. And it will come crashing down on a nation of men and women whose welfare is also our concern.”
Galli’s prophecy began to unfold the next month when COVID-19 arrived in the United States. Ironically, Christianity Today was founded by Billy Graham. Needless to say, his son Franklin disavowed Galli’s article.
Christianity struggled with its relationship to secular power from its inception, gradually ascending from a persecuted minority to an institution that, in the form of the Roman Catholic church, dominated secular leaders and society for centuries. It is a history of which the current pope, Francis, is keenly aware.
During his Chrismas homily a week after publication of the editorial in Christianity Today, Pope Francis weighed in with his own admonition against the pursuit of secular power as a means of conforming society to Christian beliefs. He stated that “we change, the Church changes, history changes, once we stop trying to change others but try to change ourselves.” He pointed out that Jesus “did not change history by pressuring anyone or by a flood of words.”
I am afraid that the pope’s message fell on deaf ears when it came to Trump and his evangelical buddies.
The initial attraction to evangelicals of a president sympathetic to their views on religion and society was easier to understand. But what about now, when it has become clear to any objective observer that Trump comports himself in a way antithetical to the example set by Jesus to the extent of abandoning his own citizens to a deadly disease? Although his approval among white evangelicals has slipped slightly, 82 percent of them said in a poll taken in June that they still intended to vote for Trump.
The continuing loyalty of evangelicals to Trump is a testament to the strength of the addiction to power. His mantra of “America is winning again” resonates personally with evangelicals who were growing increasingly uncomfortable with a variety of social changes, including access to abortion and gay marriage. “Their” America was slipping away; they were losing. For them, “winning again” means empowering them to resist and reverse trends in society that they disapprove of.
The indifference of evangelicals to the lives lost through Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic, however, casts new doubts on what drives the evangelicals’ pursuit of their Holy Grail: Overturning Roe v. Wade. How can a “pro-life” religious movement approve of a president whose disdain for life has caused so many people to die needlessly?
The paradox of pro-life religionists supporting a pro-death president reinforces my opinion that banning abortions is less about faith and more about power, less about saving the lives of the unborn and more about imposing their will on those who do not share their religious beliefs. To use one of Trump’s favorite words, evangelicals revel in “dominating” other people.
Other reasons, including racism and even cultism, certainly play a part. But the primary reason that evangelicals cling to Trump is that they are reluctant to surrender secular power. They have gotten used to winning in the past three years — dominating others — and they enjoy it too much to give it up.
The intoxicating effects of “winning”
Closely intertwined with the addiction to power are the intoxicating effects of winning. In the case of the attraction of evangelicals to Trump, they are not separate phenomena but part of a single, powerful package.
For Trump, every encounter or transaction in life has a binary outcome — winning or losing. And winning each one is essential to protecting his fragile ego.
Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi is credited with the expression “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” The adage accurately describes Trump’s pathological preoccupation, and he has managed to spread the malady among his supporters as only a fellow addict can do.
The concept of an unhealthy focus on winning is hardly a novel idea. It comes up frequently in reference to competition in sports. Sports journalist Harold Friend described winning as an addictive drug: “Once one tastes victory, one wants more and more, often without regard to its costs. Winning produces a euphoria that cannot be explained — it can only be experienced.”
Watch and listen to a typical Trump campaign rally. It is a crude victory celebration, filled with gloating and trash talking. Trump’s joy as he describes the many ways in which he is winning is infectious, at least for those under his spell. He tells the crowd that they are winners too, and they share his rapture.
The sheer inanity of what Trump says at allies matters not at all. The celebrants attend for an emotional experience, not an intellectual one. Consequently, it is the perception of winning, not the reality, that matters. The intoxicating effects of the emotional experience suppress reason and easily overwhelm considerations of morality, truthfulness, and even objective self-interest. As with opioids, people will sell their souls to experience the high — and evangelical Christians have done so.
Graham and other evangelical leaders may be less addicted than their followers to the emotional high of being told and feeling like they are “winners,” and more addicted to their new-found secular power. The exact breakdown does not matter; Trump has put together a powerful formula that keeps evangelicals loyal to him through thick and thin — they are drunk with power, and high on winning. But they are now facing a sobering reality.
Will there be a crack in Trump’s support among evangelicals?
Support for Trump among evangelicals may wane before the election as conditions on the ground in “red” states with high percentages of evangelicals continue to deteriorate, and evangelicals feel the pain of economic stagnation and watch more of their friends and family members die from COVID-19. A recent story in Vanity Fair described how the Trump administration eschewed a national testing strategy early in the pandemic based on a cynical calculation that the pandemic would hit “blue” states hardest and cause a minimum of political damage to Trump.
The plan backfired horrendously as COVID-19 ravages evangelical strongholds such as Texas, Alabama, and Georgia. Evangelicals typically refer to Trump as “imperfect” — none of us are perfect, after all. But as the Vanity Fair story shows, Trump may be something considerably worse than imperfect, making it harder and harder for evangelicals to justify their Faustian bargain on moral grounds. It is becoming obvious even to some evangelicals that Trump is genuinely evil.
The deal evangelicals have with Trump also is collapsing on practical grounds, as it dawns on evangelicals that they are not getting the benefit of their bargain. Roe v. Wade will not be overturned before January and it increasingly looks like evangelicals are dying from COVID-19 for nothing, martyrs to a lost cause.
Evangelical pastors like Graham have facilitated the emotional hold that Trump has on evangelicals by promoting Trump as a semi-messianic figure, sent by God to lead them. It is a form of self-deception for evangelicals that makes it easier to forgive Trump’s moral transgressions. But what about now, when a counter argument can be made that Trump has been sent by the devil to kill them?
Graham told his followers that it was sin that brought the pandemic upon us. What if that sin was making a deal with a president who has led a profoundly self-indulgent life that makes a mockery of the teachings of Jesus? What if his followers are being punished for that sin? What if God is telling them that the ends do not justify the means?
I am a Christian but not an evangelical Christian, and these are not questions I ask myself. But they are questions that evangelicals ask. And they may also start asking Graham some hard questions. Like why did he not do more to protect them from the consequences of selling their souls by supporting Trump?
The imagery of Christ protecting his followers like a shepherd protects his flock is a powerful one in Christianity; “pastor” is the Latin word for shepherd. What kind of a pastor allows his flock to be thrown to the wolves?
What will Franklin Graham say?
Given Graham’s most recent statements, it seems unlikely that he will admit that he was wrong about Trump’s divine purpose and turn against Trump, telling his followers that Trump is responsible for leading them down a deadly path. Doing so would erode his influence with evangelicals and threaten his income, not to mention bruise his considerable ego.
Graham will, if pressed, come up with some facile explanation for the horrors inflicted by Trump. The characteristic glibness of evangelical Christians has never ceased to bother me and moves me to end on a personal note.
I was raised as a Lutheran in a small town in Pennsylvania. My first pastor was a World War I veteran who had been gassed on the fields of France, his voice soft and raspy. Slickness was not part of his repertoire. His example helped immunize me from the exhortations of religious snake oil salesmen, for which I am forever grateful.