In a recent New York Times piece by Elizabeth Dias, President and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse Franklin Graham is quoted as defining “progressive” as “just another word for godless.” This language might strike some readers as mere hyperbole, or as a polemical swipe at political opponents meant perhaps to be taken seriously, but not to be taken literally. Those of us who spent decades fully immersed in evangelical subculture, however, immediately understand Graham’s claim to be much more substantial than that, and much more concerning. Evangelicals understand Graham’s meaning as excluding anything deemed “progressive” from “true” Christianity, and, as I unpack and illustrate this assertion below, I hope my analysis will serve to underscore the need for religion reporting to be informed by ex-evangelical perspectives.
Over at The Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta treated Graham’s assertion about progressivism as an empirical claim and thoroughly debunked it (at least for the American context), although he adds, “Countries where religion doesn’t have a stronghold are indeed progressive in all the right ways.” Here Mehta cites Phil Zuckermann’s excellent 2010 study Society without God, a book I enthusiastically recommend, but Mehta’s empirical approach to Graham’s assertion misses the mark.
In insisting that progressivism is tantamount to godlessness, Graham isn’t making an empirical claim about whether there are faithful, practicing, self-identified Christians who support progressive politics. There are, but what Graham is doing is impugning, indeed denying, their Christianity. His claim is normative. It’s a rhetorical power grab meant to establish boundaries, and it is deeply familiar to those of us who grew up in Jesus Land, USA, where “liberal” is an antonym for “Christian.” Graham’s claim derives from an ideological construct that hardline evangelicals like Graham refer to as “the Biblical worldview.”
Graham’s very radical, black and white way of thinking, with its specific conflation of progressivism and atheism is, in its most immediate American context, a product of the Cold War, though it also has deeper historical roots. While specific terminology varies over time and with respect to particular confessional vocabularies, this general way of thinking about religion and secularism (which Graham also conflates with Communism) can be found among Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and, as shown in the illustration below, Catholics. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as conservative Christians pushed back against modernizing forces, the association of Christianity with freedom and atheism with unfreedom was a useful tool for right-wing Christians, one that has often been, and continues to be, employed for the kind of interfaith efforts among traditionalists geared toward domination rather than the common good, a phenomenon I refer to as “bad ecumenism.”
When those of us who support democracy speak of freedom or liberty, we are speaking of a very different thing from the concept that theocrats and other authoritarians invoke when they use the same term. This was less obvious during the Cold War, but we need to be very aware of it now, as the theocrat’s version of “freedom” is a species of positive liberty (freedom to, often associated with authoritarianism), rather than negative liberty (freedom from, often associated with liberalism).
The “religious freedom” sought by Graham and his ilk entails the ability to “force others to be free,” as they insist that true freedom and human flourishing are only realized by obedience to one narrow understanding of God’s plan–an understanding that, in its clash with the realities of lived human experience and scientifically acquired knowledge, can be maintained only through the repression of non-conformists and the generation of numerous “alternative facts,” along with the parallel social and institutional infrastructure necessary to insulate and defend these #ChristianAltFacts. If you find this discussion a bit abstract, noting that Trump has appointed Tony Perkins, the evangelical head of an SPLC-designated anti-LGBTQ hate group, to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, should help bring the stakes down to earth.
So let’s get back to “the Biblical worldview.” Here’s how Franklin Graham himself defines the concept:
First and foremost, the Biblical worldview says emphatically there is a God who has created all things in Heaven and earth. Think about it for a moment. The evolutionist is always searching for how to describe the origin and development of life in purely quasi-scientific or materialistic terms. He completely dismisses any notion of a Creator God, and thus is forced to come to ridiculous and preposterous assumptions, unsubstantiated by proof.
An atheist communist state rejects any acknowledgment of God, and thus seeks to assert itself as the sovereign authority, leading to inevitable ruin and misery. Just a few weeks ago, Fidel Castro’s son, a nuclear physicist who studied in Russia, took his own life. With no God, there is no hope.
In addition to the blithe assertion that life without God is so meaningless as to be not worth living (and the classic exploitation of a political foe for a religious object lesson), here we see a hint of a position associated with Christian Reconstructionism called presuppositionalism, essentially the insistence that we all bring various presuppositions to how we view reality that shape our interpretations, and that these presuppositions have consequences. The use of the ridiculous term “evolutionist” (only used by fundamentalist Christians) is a clue, as conservative evangelicals and other fundamentalist Christians insist that evolution is ideology rather than science, part of a secular “worldview” that opposes Christianity but that is no more inherently scientific. (Yes, this is pernicious nonsense.)
As I experienced growing up in an evangelical enclave community, many evangelicals who are not Christian Reconstructionists also adhere to presuppositionalist reasoning. They insist that the only path to truth is for us to be enlightened by the Holy Spirit and submit to the authority of the Bible. In essence, the argument boils down to something like this: “Everything is relative; therefore we’re right.” Thus, when a creationist and an “evolutionist” look at the Grand Canyon, the former will conclude that it was formed rapidly by Noah’s flood, and the latter will understand that it formed gradually through a long stretch of geologic time.
When push comes to shove, however, conservative Christians will often admit that what they’re really concerned about in these matters boils down to a sort of consequentialist ethics. Espousing an extremely dark view of human nature, traditionalist Christians literally believe that without absolute Truth and values derived from God, humans will become incapable of moral behavior, leading to social decline and disorder that can only be contained by authoritarian governance that will deprive individuals of their freedoms. They are quite explicit about this. Take this passage from Francis Schaeffer’s 1982 A Christian Manifesto:
The humanists push for “freedom,” but having no Christian consensus to contain it, that “freedom” leads to chaos or to slavery under the state (or under an elite). Humanism, with its lack of any final base for values or law, always leads to chaos. It then naturally leads to some form of authoritarianism to control the chaos. Having produced the sickness, humanism gives more of the same kind of medicine for a cure. With its mistaken concept of final reality, it has no intrinsic reason to be interested in the individual, the human being. Its natural interest is the two collectives: the state and society.
In addition to channeling Fyodor Dostoesvky, what Schaeffer is doing here–in line with many traditionalist Christians of a variety of specific confessions from the late nineteenth century into the present–is denying the validity of secular liberalism, and presenting us with a false dichotomy. He is arguing that either we will have a “Christian consensus” constraining freedom (earlier T.S. Eliot used the language of “Christian society” to make the same point), or we will have some kind of authoritarian regime imposed on us. This argument is clear projection, ignoring, as it does, the very real possibility of religious authoritarianism, and it only seems to make sense if you reject the possibility of robust democracy and pluralism out of hand, as Franklin Graham and today’s Christian Right do. This, of course, makes them a serious threat to human rights and democracy, given the amount of power and influence they have.
Franklin Graham also has this to say about the “Biblical worldview”:
Almighty God is a sovereign God, ruler over nations, states, empires and governments. He is to be worshipped and obeyed through the precepts and principles revealed in His infallible Word. He not only exists, but He is sovereign over all of history according to His wisdom and purposes, and He is intimately involved in every aspect of life.
The Biblical worldview also asserts the existence and reality of sin and evil. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). War, disease, violence, injustice and the myriad of problems that beset the world are the result of man’s rebellion against God. No amount of higher education, no enlightened political agenda or social program can cancel or remove the devastating consequences of sin.
This is a lot like Billy Graham’s Cold War rhetoric (see my assessment of Billy Graham’s legacy, published in Playboy, here), and indeed, as Anthea Butler has observed, “Franklin Graham simply represents a more strident version of 1950s Billy Graham.” Franklin Graham uses this rhetoric constantly. For example, when he was in Moscow meeting with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the fall of 2015, having become enamored with Putinist Russia because of the state’s active persecution and scapegoating of LGBTQ Russians, Graham stated, “Secularism, which is almost no different from communism, is an atheistic movement.” Indeed, now that Putinist Russia is a right-wing authoritarian state, Russian “traditional values” activists are selling Americans and Europeans the argument that since they survived Communism, they are now positioned to help Western Christians resist “the new totalitarianism” they associate with the sexual revolution and “political correctness.”
Pleased to make common cause with Western Christians in a spirit of bigoted bad ecumenism, after Graham’s 2015 visit, Patriarch Kirill declared such rabidly anti-gay Christians “confessors of the faith” (precisely because they are opposed to LGBTQ rights). The ideology that gives rise to such rhetoric leaves no room for a religiously neutral government or a pluralist civil society. In this regard it is worth noting that in the New York Times article cited at the beginning of this piece, Graham speaks of “gays and lesbians” in a way that locates them clearly outside Christianity as he understands it. This rhetoric represents an essentially anti-pluralist, anti-democratic, dominionist program.
Franklin Graham does not adhere exactly to Christian Reconstructionism (he believes in the rapture, whereas Christian Reconstructionists, as postmillennialists, don’t), but he is certainly a dominionist in the sense that he believes Christians should shape society and law in accord with what he understands to be divine imperatives. To invoke the sovereignty of God over nations and history in the context of a “Biblical worldview” is to assert an understanding of authority and dominion essentially in line with that of Christian Reconstructionism. It is to maintain that nations ought to “obey God” by using coercive law to enforce hardline Christians beliefs (namely, to implement extreme patriarchy with no abortion rights and no civil rights for members of the LGBTQ community).
Julie Ingersoll’s book Building God’s Kingdom demonstrates the powerful and diffuse influence of Christian Reconstructionism in the establishment of Christian Right institutions and the curricula used in Christian schools and by Christian homeschoolers; these have served as powerful vehicles for the mainstreaming of dominionist ideology among evangelicals. Part of this ideology that many evangelicals adhere to is the understanding that public schools cannot be religiously neutral, because (they argue) there is no such thing as religious neutrality. If schools are not teaching “the Biblical worldview,” the thinking goes, then by default they are indoctrinating children in “secular humanism” (the horror, the horror).
This context is essential to understanding what Franklin Graham means when he insists that “progressive” is “just another word for godless” or equates secularism with Communism. These are not mere rhetorical flourishes. Instead, these statements represent an entire ideology with an intellectual genealogy in Romantic and Christian reactions against modernity that is opposed to pluralism and democracy. And this ideology is frighteningly prevalent both in today’s right-wing media and in the Trump administration. As recently as 2014 Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared that belief in God is necessary for those in government. And in 2015, FOX “News” entertained the notion that employers should have a right not to hire atheists.
Make no mistake, American democracy is up against a relatively large, well-heeled, and highly organized Christofascist bloc whose rhetoric reveals their contempt for pluralism and democratic norms and their desire to impose theocratic authoritarianism on the rest of us. To resist, we need to know how to understand and contextualize that rhetoric. Many of us who have lived and left right-wing evangelicalism and who have been trying, in some cases for years, to expose the Christian Right as authoritarian and abusive, are ready to serve as interpreters.