By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Divide and conquer is an age-old strategy in war, and Satan has used it in his holy war against God’s efforts to reconcile and redeem humanity. Unfortunately, Satan does a convincing imitation of God in the church and in politics. That was evident in the 2016 elections when most white Christians voted for candidates who supported Satan’s strategy to divide and conquer.
America is as divided as it has been since its Civil War, but in today’s holy war there are no shots being fired and no prisoners being taken. The casualties are wounded in spirit, not in body, and are referred to as nones and the spiritual but not religious. The strategic objectives of this holy war are not geographical but human. It’s a battle for the hearts and minds of Christians.
Where are the battle lines drawn? Between those who believe that Christianity should be based on discipleship, or struggling to follow the teachings of Jesus on sacrificial love, and those who believe that Christianity should be defined by exclusivist beliefs that ignore the cost of discipleship but that are popular in America’s materialistic and hedonistic culture.
A reconciliation of competing forces within Christianity could end the holy war; but if reconciliation requires making it more important to follow Jesus than to worship him, the cost of discipleship would undermine the popularity of Christianity. Conversely, if exclusivist Christian beliefs continue to subordinate the moral imperative of the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves, then Jesus will become a casualty of America’s holy war.
Central to this issue is whether God sent Jesus as a blood sacrifice to atone for our sins, or to bring us God’s word—or both? Until the Reformation, the Church taught that both faith and works were required for salvation; then Martin Luther’s doctrine of sola fide asserted that faith alone in God’s grace was sufficient. In the 18th century John Wesley reasserted that both faith in Jesus as God’s Son and following his teachings as God’s word are required for salvation.
In the early 20th century, fundamentalist beliefs in an inerrant and infallible Bible revived ancient Jewish beliefs that God rewarded the faithful with wealth and power, and evangelicals joined with big business to promote conservative politics. Jimmy Carter was the last Democrat supported by evangelicals. By 1980 Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was committed to the Republican Party and had subordinated the altruistic teachings of Jesus to partisan politics.
Among American evangelicals, Billy Graham was an exception who proved the rule. As “America’s pastor,” he was a sincere and humble man who preached an exclusivist gospel of Christianity and struggled to follow the teachings of Jesus. He was in a long line of evangelical preachers, followed by his son, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Paula White, Robert Jeffress and others, all of whom gave partisan politics priority over the teachings of Jesus.
Evangelical Christianity culminated in the prosperity gospel. It’s a gospel of cheap grace that resonates with America’s materialistic and hedonistic culture. It’s more like Ayn Rand’s self-centered objectivism than the altruistic gospel of Jesus; and like ancient Judaism, it claims to reward the faithful with wealth and power. It demonstrated its political power when evangelicals elected Donald Trump and a Republican Congress in 2016.
Until 2016, Republican presidents and congress made an effort to balance individual rights with providing for the common good. But that changed with the election of a radical right president and congress. In 2017 they demonstrated more of a commitment to provide wealth and power for the rich than to provide for the common good.
Race is a salient factor in America’s polarized partisan politics. While most white Christians supported Donald Trump and Republicans in 2016, most black Christians supported Democrats. And while mainstream white Christians refused to mix religion and politics in church, most voted Republican. The prosperity gospel and Trump’s campaign to make [white] America great again defeated the gospel of Jesus in 2016.
Christian holy war is hyperbole intended to make a point: The gospel of Jesus is under siege. Robin Meyers has stated the issue as Saving Jesus from the Church. That’s a daunting challenge for an institution that relies on popularity for its power. It will be extremely difficult for a religion in America that requires self-denial and sacrificial love to win a popularity contest with one that has no cost of discipleship and promises wealth and power for its faithful.
George Will noted that Billy Graham was immensely popular, but that his effect on Christianity is hard to quantify. “His audiences were exhorted to make a ‘decision’ for Christ, but a moment of volition might be (in theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phrase) an exercise in ‘cheap grace.’ Graham’s preaching, to large rallies and broadcast audiences, gave comfort to many people and probably improved some.” Graham frequently vowed to abstain from partisan politics and almost as frequently slipped this self-imposed leash, almost always on behalf of Republicans. …Before the 1960 election, Graham, displaying some cognitive dissonance, said that if John F. Kennedy were a true Catholic, he would be a president more loyal to the pope than to the Constitution but that he would fully support him if elected. …In 1952, he said he wanted to meet with all the candidates ‘to give them the moral side of the thing.’ He was 33. He applied flattery with a trowel, comparing Dwight Eisenhower’s first foreign policy speech to the Sermon on the Mount and calling Richard Nixon ‘the most able and the best trained man for the job probably in American history.’ He told Nixon that God had given him, Nixon, ‘supernatural wisdom.’ Graham should have heeded the psalmist’s warning about putting one’s faith in princes. On Feb. 1, 1972, unaware of Nixon’s Oval Office taping system, when Nixon ranted about how Jews ‘totally dominated’ the media, Graham said ‘this stranglehold has got to be broken or this country is going down the drain.’ He also told Nixon that Jews are the ones ‘putting out the pornographic stuff.’ One can reasonably acquit Graham of anti-Semitism only by convicting him of toadying. When Graham read transcripts of Nixon conspiring to cover up crimes, Graham said that what ‘shook me most’ was Nixon’s vulgar language. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/billy-graham-was-no-prophet-thats-why-america-loved-him/2018/02/21/398ce31a-1722-11e8-92c9-376b4fe5.
Jon Meacham noted that “Graham’s first mission was not the Christian faith but Fuller brushes, a popular household item sold door to door. In the summer of 1936, the 17-year-old Billy threw himself into the job. “Selling those brushes became a cause to me,” Graham recalled. “I was dedicated to it, and the money became secondary. I felt that every family ought to have Fuller brushes as a matter of principle.” He learned a lot in those warm months of knocking on doors. “Sincerity is the biggest part of selling anything,” he said, “including the Christian plan of salvation.” Which raises a question: What, exactly, was Graham “selling” — the term is his — when he preached to untold millions? It’s more than an academic inquiry. With the possible exception of Pope John Paul II, Graham articulated the Christian religion to more people over a longer period of time than any other man who ever lived. In the popular post-World War II mind — in America and around the world — Graham arguably was Protestant Christianity. And his vision of the faith was one that sought, if not exactly a mushy middle, then a center. …He preached a Christianity that eschewed the extremes of the theological fervor of the 20th century.
Graham came of age as theological liberalism, which had grown out of higher criticism of the Bible in the 19th century, roiled the religious world. Called “modernism,” the higher-criticism movement was deeply influenced by Enlightenment insights about the nature of reality and of sacred texts. Biblical stories of supernatural events, including the Virgin Birth and the miracles of Jesus, were seen not as historical accounts but as literary and theological inventions.
Some Christians responded by seeking refuge in what became known as fundamentalism, a term coming from a series of orthodox tracts, “The Fundamentals,” published between 1910 and 1915. Ordained as a Baptist preacher in 1939, Graham was neither liberal nor fundamentalist but evangelical. Where fundamentalists took a stark, separatist view of religion and culture, evangelical Christians such as Graham tended to focus their faith on the salvific work of Jesus. Where fundamentalists read the Bible as the inerrant word of God, evangelicals read it seriously but not literally. Delineating the difference between his vision of Christianity and that of the fundamentalists in the 1950s, Graham said: “We would attempt to lead and love rather than vilify, criticize and beat. Fundamentalism has failed miserably with the big stick approach; now it is time to take the big love approach.”
Perhaps his most significant attempt to systematize his theology came in 1974, when he was a leading sponsor of a conference of global evangelicals in Switzerland that issued the Lausanne Covenant. “To evangelize,” the document said, “is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gifts of the Spirit to all who repent and believe.” Like Graham, the covenant accepted the biblical truth that Jesus was the only route to salvation. “There is no other name by which we must be saved,” the document said. Pretty standard evangelical stuff, but as he grew older Graham became less dogmatic about salvation, at least in conversation. In 2006, when I was interviewing Graham, I asked him whether he believed heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people. “Those are decisions only the Lord will make,” Graham said. “It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t . . . I don’t want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”
And now, presumably, he has discovered whether that’s true. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/what-was-billy-graham-selling/2018/02/22/cf51357c-17ea-11e8-b681-2d4d462a1921_story.html?utm_term=.d.
Eric Alexander, Editor-in-Chief of Progressive Christianity, responded to a reader’s question, What does progressive Christianity think about the life of Billy Graham? as follows:
“Overall I’m sure Billy Graham was probably a decent and caring person with genuine motives to help the world. But in many ways I think Billy Graham was one of the worst things to happen to Christianity over the past few decades. He harnessed his magnetic type of passion and charisma to convince a whole generation about a very flawed theological understanding of Jesus and the Bible. And on top of that he raised his son Franklin Graham, who is now one of the leaders in the radical right wing political movement. A movement which has co-opted American evangelicalism as a primary voting block for tea party Republicans – the types who prioritize guns, benefits cuts to the poor and sick, and mass deportations – which is very different than what the historical Jesus stood for.
Now that said, compared to that movement which reflects the likes of his son Franklin Graham, Billy seemed a lot more moderate in his tone (especially as he aged). He seemed to have a type of love in his voice that we don’t sense as much from modern fundamentalists. He was probably a good man to others around him, and he probably helped a lot of people in need. He probably also convinced a lot of people to live for something more holy and meaningful in their lives, which is definitely a good thing. He was also once recorded later in his life as saying that everyone will go to heaven as long as they have Christ in their heart (see here), even if they’ve not realized it or understood it consciously – which is a very inclusive message when compared to what we hear from many of today’s fire-and-brimstone-veiled-by-a-starbucks-latte-and-skinny-jeans type of pastors.
But again, he has hurt a lot of people with his message; especially the LGBT population with his hard line stances claiming that being gay is a serious sin which will be met with God’s judgment. And his views that we were in our “last days” with Jesus returning at any moment also caused many of his followers to pay little regard to urgent environmental and climate justice issues. There were also reports that he once suggested that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “put on the brakes a little” when he started to practice civil disobedience for political change.
And lastly, I also recall years ago a story about him and one of his best friends. They both began to recognize the many inconsistencies and logical errors that came along with a literal interpretation of the Bible. And it was recalled that when faced with that dissonance Billy simply decided on faith to deem the Bible as God’s inerrant word and live his life accordingly without any further questions. When the facts and cognitive dissonance came, he simply shut it down to any further evolution, which I think can be one of the most unfortunate things anyone could ever do, especially if we plan to go out and evangelize the world to our point of view. See https://progressivechristianity.org/resources/what-do-progressive-christians-think-of-billy-graham/.
Progressive Christians are those committed to follow the moral teachings of Jesus and are not compelled to believe in mystical man-made doctrines like those of the atonement doctrine or Trinity. Unfortunately, few if any churches promote their 8 Points of Progressive Christianity: By calling ourselves progressive Christians, we mean we are Christians who…
1. Believe that following the path and teachings of Jesus can lead to an awareness and experience of the Sacred and the Oneness and Unity of all life;
2. Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the Sacredness and Oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey;
3. Seek community that is inclusive of ALL people, including but not limited to:
Conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, Believers and agnostics, Women and men,
Those of all sexual orientations and gender identities, Those of all classes and abilities;
4. Know that the way we behave towards one another is the fullest expression of what we believe;
5. Find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning than in absolutes;
6. Strive for peace and justice among all people;
7. Strive to protect and restore the integrity of our Earth;
8. Commit to a path of life-long learning, compassion, and selfless love.
Related commentary on Christian sectarian conflict:
(12/8/14): Religion and Reason
(1/11/15): The Greatest Commandment: A Common Word of Faith
(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
(2/8/15): Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?
(2/15/15): Is Religion Good or Evil?
(3/8/15): Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice
(3/29/15): God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty
(4/12/15): Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy
(4/19/15): Jesus: A Prophet, God’s Only Son, or the Logos? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2015/04/jesus-prophet-god-only-son-or-logos.html
(5/3/15): A Fundamental Problem with Religion
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(7/5/15): Reconciliation as a Remedy for Racism and Religious Exclusivism
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(7/26/15): Fear and Fundamentalism
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(8/23/15): Legitimacy as a Context and Paradigm to Resolve Religious Conflict
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(10/25/15): The Muslim Stranger: A Good Neighbor or a Threat?
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(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
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(2/7/16): Jesus Meets Muhammad on Issues of Religion and Politics
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(2/25/17): The Need for a Revolution in Religion and Politics
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(4/29/17): A Wesleyan Alternative for an Irrelevant Church
(5/27/17): Intrafaith Reconciliation as a Prerequisite for Interfaith Reconciliation
(6/17/17): Religious Exclusivity: Does It Matter? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/06/religious-exclusivity-does-it-matter.html.
(7/1/17): Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy
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(8/5/17): Does Religion Seek to Reconcile and Redeem or to Divide and Conquer?
(8/12/17): The Universalist Teachings of Jesus as a Remedy for Religious Exclusivism
(9/9/17): The Evolution of the American Civil Religion and Habits of the Heart http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/09/the-evolution-of-american-civil.html.
(9/23/17): Tribalism and the American Civil Religion
(11/11/17): A Politics of Reconciliation that Should Begin in the Church
(11/18/17): Radical Religion and the Demise of Democracy
(12/2/17): How Religious Standards of Legitimacy Shape Politics, for Good or Bad
(12/16/17): Can Democracy Survive the Trump Era?
(12/23/17): If Democracy Survives the Trump Era, Can the Church Survive Democracy? http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2017/12/if-democracy-survives-trump-era-can.html.
(1/6/18): The Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Diversity in Democracy
(1/20/18): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Morality and Religion in Politics
(1/27/18): Musings on Conflicting Concepts of Christian Morality in Politics
(2/3/18): Musings on the Search for Truth through Interfaith Dialogue