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National Day of Prayer: Franklin Graham Deserved to Be Booted

4 years ago
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Imagine if a leading American imam decried Christianity as an "evil" religion and then was invited to participate at a National Day of Prayer event at the Pentagon. How would conservative pundits, shouting heads, bloggers and politicians react? There would be denunciations, calls for rescinding the invitation, demands for explanations from the Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and questions hurled at the Obama White House. Fox News execs could only be happier if this occurred during sweeps weeks. But if a prominent Christian evangelist described Islam as an "evil" religion and subsequently received a similar invitation, would the same thing happen?

Well, the answer to that question is no. Franklin Graham, a brand-name evangelist (as the son of Billy Graham), has repeatedly denigrated Islam -- not Islamic fundamentalists who engage in terrorism, but the entire religion. In 2001, after 9/11, Graham said that Islam "is a very evil and wicked religion." Five years later, he told ABC News this was still his view. He added, "Do they want to indoctrinate me? Yes. I know about Islam. I don't need an education from Islam. If people think Islam is such a wonderful religion, just go to Saudi Arabia and make it your home." And in a CNN interview last year, Graham reiterated this sentiment, calling Islam a "very violent religion."

Thus, Graham probably ought not to be at the top of the invitation list for an ecumenical prayer session. But he was indeed asked to speak at the Pentagon's National Day of Prayer event on May 6. The invitation was not issued by the Pentagon brass; it came from the Colorado-based National Day of Prayer Task Force, which has been helping the Pentagon mount this event and which is run by Shirley Dobson, the wife of controversial conservative Christian leader James Dobson. Why the Pentagon is partnering with this fundamentalist outfit, which has been criticized for trying to turn the National Day of Prayer (established six decades ago by an act of Congress) into a Christian right celebration, is another story. (In 1999, Dobson's NDP Task Force said that every one of its volunteers "must be a Christian" with a "personal relationship with Christ.")

After learning of the invitation extended to Graham, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group, objected to his participation, noting Graham's presence would offend Muslim employees at the Pentagon and could imperil U.S. troops by riling up Muslim extremists. The Defense Department announced it would consider rescinding the invitation. And the Council on American Islamic Relations joined the call for disinviting the evangelist. In a statement, the group said, "To have an individual who calls Islam evil and claims Muslims are enslaved by their faith speak at the Pentagon sends entirely the wrong message at a time when hundreds of thousands of our nation's military personnel are currently stationed in Muslim countries."

When such cultural skirmishes -- or religious wars -- break out, I root for sanity and reconciliation. Teachable moment, right? Though it's probably a mistake for government agencies, including the Pentagon, to get mixed up with a Christian right group to put on a National Day of Prayer, here was a chance for Graham to engage in healing, to call a truce. But he chose not to do so. And Fox News helped him make matters worse.

While the Pentagon was pondering what to do about Graham, he appeared on the conservative cable network on Thursday morning. When "Fox and Friends" host Gretchen Carlson asked if Graham still believes Islam is "evil," he did not take the mending route. Instead, he gave no direct response but said,
I love Muslim people. . . . I want Muslims everywhere to know . . . that Christ can come into their heart and change them. . . . They don't have to die in a car bomb . . . to be accepted by God. . . .They can be free through faith in Jesus Christ and Christ alone.
With a tone of surprise -- or was it indignation? -- in her voice, Carlson noted that the Pentagon was considering excommunicating Graham from the prayer event. She asked Graham if this signaled "an assault against Christianity, against prayer."

Go back to the scenario at the top of this column. Would Carlson pose a similar question to an imam or rabbi who had denigrated Christianity as "evil"? Is the Pope Jewish? ("You called Christianity 'evil,' and now they don't want you to speak at a Pentagon prayer service. Is this an attack on prayer?")

Had Graham used this dust-up as an opportunity to reexamine his past rhetoric and reach out to the Islamic community, this year's National Day of Prayer could have been quite useful. But he opted to stick to his fundamentalist views -- which, unsurprisingly, is what most fundamentalists do. On Thursday afternoon -- perhaps after watching Graham's interview on Fox -- Pentagon officials yanked Graham's invitation.

That decision was a no-brainer. But in addition to showing the public that he's unwilling to reconsider his extremism, Graham has placed the National Day of Prayer into the glare of public scrutiny. That's not good for the folks organizing it. These social conservatives hijacked this event years ago -- and they have gotten away with it mainly because not many reporters pay attention to it. The National Day of Prayer -- it sounds innocuous. The Graham imbroglio may now prompt journalists and others to take a closer look and wonder why the Pentagon and other government agencies have joined forces with extremist social conservatives. (In 2008, James Dobson accused Barack Obama, the future commander-in-chief, of "distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible," and he claimed that if Obama were elected, there would be pornography on prime-time television, terrorist attacks across the United States, complete economic catastrophe, and a nuclear attack on Israel.) Moreover, is a National Day of Prayer necessary? Especially at the Pentagon? I assume the guys and gals in the foxholes don't need reminders to pray.

UPDATE: Sarah Palin--of course--has weighed in on the Graham controversy. Outraged with the Pentagon's decision to bounce Graham, she wrote on her Facebook page,
It's truly a sad day when such a fine patriotic man, whose son is serving on his fourth deployment in Afghanistan to protect our freedom of speech and religion, is dis-invited from speaking at the Pentagon's National Day of Prayer service. His comments in 2001 were aimed at those who are so radical that they would kill innocent people and subjugate women in the name of religion.

Are we really so hyper-politically correct that we can't abide a Christian minister who expresses his views on matters of faith? What a shame. Yes, things have changed.
If she had read the above column--or anything else on this tussle--she would have known that Graham's comments (in 2001 and later years) have not been aimed at Islamic radicals, but at the entire faith of Islam. She has gotten the fundamental fact of this case wrong.
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