A second National Day of Prayer controversy this year opens the window on why all this matters. The dis-invitation of Franklin Graham to speak at the Pentagon’s observance of the National Day of Prayer is unfortunate, uncomfortable, and unpleasant. This difficult decision could have been avoided earlier, but once the issues were brought to officials, the Pentagon had no other legitimate option.
It is unfortunate because Rev. Graham has much to respect in terms of advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Beyond his iconic name, he has pushed for social and spiritual transformation through his organization, Samaritan’s Purse. Neither his good works nor his faith should be questioned by this rescinding.
Further, his fitness to be the honorary chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force (which I will address in another post) or his appropriateness to pray at non-governmental public events should not be in question. The problem arises when that group with this prominent voice marries itself to a government event.
Rev. Graham is entitled to his opinion and has the right to publicly express his belief that Islam is “evil” and “wicked.” But that view is not consistent with the military’s practice of religious freedom, and after repeatedly expressing that view in public, Rev. Graham should never have been invited to speak at the Pentagon. To say so and to rescind this invitation does nothing to curtail (as a friend of mine suggests) Rev. Graham’s freedom of speech. He is free to express his views, just not these views as the featured speaker at a state-sponsored event.
In a nation that defends religious freedom, at an event that calls on all Americans to exercise that freedom in prayer, at the monument that represents all of our military regardless of religious affiliation, someone who continually maligns a major world religion should not be presiding. This is not about “appeasing Muslims.” It is about demonstrating our American commitment to religious freedom. A Muslim leader who repeatedly described Judaism as evil, citing atrocities done in the name of Judaism, would be just as unfit to speak at such events.
This is not about religious persecution of evangelicals. Any number of other evangelical leaders would be appropriate. They might believe that Islam is misguided, deceived and dead wrong. But if they believe that the religion in and of itself is “evil,” how could they pray on behalf of American Muslims who risk their lives in war for all Americans?
I’m a military brat. In my experience, no-one navigate the intricacies involving religion and government better than military chaplains. They must constantly support the religious practices of all of their service men and women, without maligning any of them. Surely they believed the views of Billy Graham’s son needed no significant vetting before inviting him.
And they might have been justified. To be fair, Franklin Graham has tried to explain his words. While some of his clarification is refreshing and helpful, other points only reveal his ignorance. When he speaks of the inhumane treatment of women, for instance, he is justified in decrying “evil.” Same with suicide bombing. But he is talking about particular evil expressions of Islam, not the religion itself. He seems to confuse Islam with Arab states, Middle Eastern customs, and political actions. There are more Muslims in the democratic nation of Indonesia than in any Arab state. And until recently that Muslim country was run by a woman, something “Christian” America has not managed to accomplish.
So far I’ve been defending the Pentagon’s unfortunate actions. But what grieves me more has to do with the cause of Christ. Ironically, the U.S. Army seems to have a better grasp on Christian charity than does one of our most prominent evangelists. And Christians who wear this incident as a badge of persecution are taking their eye off the evangelistic ball. This is a perfect opportunity to learn the truth about Islam without caricature. Committed Christians can do so without agreeing with or embracing the teachings of Islam.
More importantly Christians can use this incident to perfect their evangelistic strategies. I believe Franklin Graham means well, but in his boldness (and ignorance) he seems to forget his evangelistic mission. Calling another major world religion evil does nothing to win people to Christ. It does not speak the truth in love. It is not preaching the good news of Jesus.
Make no mistake: I want everyone to know and follow Jesus. It is because of that desire that I cringe whenever anyone, particularly a prominent evangelist of the gospel of Jesus says something that stands in the way of the advancement of gospel of Jesus Christ. But the opportunity to tell the truth in love remains.