Monday, November 5, 2012

Roger Williams Goes Baptist on Legendary Evangelist Billy Graham

By Becky Garrison
Originally posted 11/2/12 at The Washington Post

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks with the Rev. Billy Graham during a visit to the Graham cabin in Montreat, N.C., on Oct. 11, 2012. (AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Since Billy Graham stepped into the political arena, the man dubbed as America’s pastor kept good on his promise to “do all he can” to help Republical presidential nominee Mitt Romney. For starters, his son, Franklin Graham, who questioned if Romney and Obama were Christians in February 2012 announced that evangelicals can now vote for a Mormon. (For those who feel these decisions reflect Franklin Graham’s more strident approach to faith and politics, Billy Graham’s spokesperson A. Larry Ross assures us repeatedly that the elder Graham is truly involved with these statements.

Now that the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) deleted Mormons from their list of “cults” that included Unitarians, Scientologists, Spiritists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and adherents of the Unification Church, evangelical organizations such as Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition can now launch major voter initiatives targeted toward evangelicals who now have Graham’s blessing to vote for a man who they were told during the Republican primaries lacked the Christians credentials of say Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry or Rick Santorum. But if Billy Graham said it, they believe it. That settles it.

In a move reminiscent of Graham’s ad campaign in support of North Carolina’s Amendment One, the BGEA took out ads in a number of prominent newspapers including the Wall Street Journal. Here the legendary evangelist encourages voters to cast their ballots for those candidates who will protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.

One person whom I suspect would not be praying with the BGEA that America will remain one nation under God is my ancestor Roger Williams, the founder of the Baptist church in America where Billy Graham serves as an ordained minister.

No way would the founder of Rhode Island who created the first charter granting religious liberty all align himself with any Christian entity that sought to sit at the right hand of the president of the United States. Rather, he would be appalled at the sight of Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell and other Baptists draping the cross of Christ with the American flag as they advance the notion of American exceptionalism. Instead, Williams would storm the halls of the annual National Prayer Breakfast and turn over the tables - temple style. (See Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-22).

Rob Boston, senior policy analyst for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State notes:

Williams would strongly oppose those who seek to declare the United States an officially ‘Christian nation.’ Such a nation requires compulsion to exist, and Williams opposed coercion in matters of faith. This is the man, after all, who once proclaimed that “Forced religion stinks in the nostrils of God.”

In one of his most famous metaphors, Williams likens government to a ship at sea. The passengers are from many faiths, and what matters is not that the captain is of a particular faith but that he has the ability to pilot the vessel and maintain order. So it was with government. In Williams’ view, the state should confine itself to keeping the peace among people and protecting them but not wade into theological controversies.

Williams understood that the notion of a “Christian nation” is not only nonsensical, it is impossible. 
Furthermore, the whole evangelical notion of a personal relationship with Jesus that defines contemporary U.S. evangelicalism did not even come into play until the 19th century during the Second Great Awakening. Therefore, Williams and the Founding Fathers would have no clue what it meant to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Historians such as David Barton of WallBuilders who pontificate how the United States always possessed this “Christian heritage” seem to have transposed onto the colonial American religious landscape their version of a fundamentalist faith that did not come into fruition until the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

In defining his role in the public sphere, rather than create Puritan enclaves designed to separate the saved from the damned or encouraging quasi-progressive dialogue to “discuss” the rights of the “outsider,” Williams chose to act.

The radical welcome that he extended even to Native Americans who were seen as subhuman savages by the vast majority of colonists signify that he would undoubtedly fight to ensure that everyone had the right to worship as they pleased. Regardless of how he might feel personally about a particular controversial issue like marriage equality, he would be at the forefront in fighting against those who refuse to grant equal civil rights to anyone marginalized by the established church.

UPDATE: Nov. 5: Graham endorses amendment in Minnesota that defines marriage as being between one man and one woman.

Becky Garrison is a panelist for The Washington Post's On Faith column and contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, The Revealer, American Atheist magazine and Religion Dispatches. Her books include Roger Williams' Little Book of Virtues (forthcoming) and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church, and Ancient Future Disciples: Meeting Jesus in Mission-Shaped Ministries.

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