Oct 12, 2012

Did Billy Graham just try to convert Mitt Romney?

Billy Graham has been challenged, many times, on his relationship to power. The famed evangelist has "met with every sitting American president from Harry Truman to President Obama," as the Washington Post puts it, and has, at least on some occasions, been used politically by powerful figures, made into a  religious fig leaf for presidents without much faith of their own.

His relationship to Nixon, especially, has been criticized. It was said his presence as Nixon's spiritual adviser served to lend tacit if not explicit approval of the administration. His presence implied his blessing.

Graham has, in recent years, admitted he made some mistakes in this regard. He's said if he could do it again, he'd do it differently. Yet, his argument has always been and continues to be that he would go anywhere, talk to anyone, accept any audience, as long as he could preach the gospel.

He told Christianity Today in 1974:
"I have said for many years that I will go anywhere to preach the Gospel, whether to the Vatican, the Kremlin, or the White House, if there are no strings attached on what I am to say. I have never had to submit the manuscript to the White House or get anybody's approval. I have never informed any President of what I was going to say ahead of time. They all know that when I come to preach, I intend to preach the Gospel."
A year ago, he reiterated this, telling the magazine that he was "grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to."

This context of "no strings attached" might inform how one views yesterday's closed-door meeting between the now 93-year-old Graham and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  Of course there are many reasons Graham might have wanted the 30-minute meeting to be private, allowing only for a few pictures at the end, but one also has to wonder: Did Graham preach the gospel to the Mormon Mitt Romney?

Did Graham ask Romney if he'd been born again, or tell Romeny he needed Jesus in his life, to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior?

And what did Romney say?

L-R: Romney, Billy Graham, Franklin Graham.

Reporters were given an official statement at the meeting, a statement that said nothing about Jesus or the cross or Graham's position on the Church of Jesus Christ of the Later-day Saints, and whether or not Mormons are, from his Baptist perspective, saved. Rather, as reported by the Washington Post, "Mitt Romney asked the Rev. Billy Graham for his prayers Thursday and the ailing evangelist came through by praying with the Republican presidential candidate and offering his support."

Politically, the point of the meeting was to get Graham's support for Romney and hopefully sway leery religious right voters, assuaging any lingering fears they have about Romney's religion, and his soft and shifting commitment to religious right issues such as abortion. The meeting came, after all, only a day after Romney told the Des Moines (Iowa) Register that his administration would not make banning abortion a priority. If one believers, as many conservative evangelical Christians do, that babies are being slaughtered wholesale across America, and that this is the crucial moral struggle of the age, Romney's inconsistent and lackadaisical stance on the issue is not confidence-inspiring. Getting a public statement of support from a conservative evangelical as respected as Graham, then, could be important.

And Graham gave the benediction the Romney camp was looking for. Campaign staff told the press that Graham said, "I'll do all I can to help you. And you can quote me on that." Graham's organization released a statement in his name after the meeting that said as much. As CNN reported it, the statement read:
"What impresses me even more than Governor Romney's successful career are his values and strong moral convictions. I appreciate his faithful commitment to his impressive family, particularly his wife Ann of 43 years and his five married sons .... It was a privilege to pray with Governor Romney—for his family and our country. I will turn 94 the day after the upcoming election, and I believe America is at a crossroads. I hope millions of Americans will join me in praying for our nation and to vote for candidates who will support the biblical definition of marriage, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms."
The politics of the meeting were pretty much the focus of the news reports, along with some things Romney said at the end of the meeting as pictures were being taken about his father's death. The idea is that "The 30-minute meeting between the world-renowned Christian leader and Romney could provide the former governor with a major boost among evangelical Christians skeptical of supporting the first Mormon nominated for president."

Perhaps Graham's meeting and endorsement will work to encourage evangelical support.

I suspect, though, even if it does that, it will also raise this issue: Did Graham present the gospel to Romney?

The religious right has always had very strong utilitarian tendencies in their voting patterns. From the beginning, when they formed as a bloc to support the ambiguously religious Ronald Reagen over Jimmy Carter, the very first self-declared evangelical in the White House, policies have mattered more than a candidate's personal faith. I don't see that changing just because Romney's Mormon. His bigger weakness with this voting bloc is that he hasn't convincingly demonstrated a deep commitment to the things that are important to the religious conservatives. His personal ballast seems to be political expediency. That has little to do directly with whether he's been "born again," in evangelical terminology.

Franklin Graham -- Billy Graham's son and successor -- made this point during the Republican primaries, when he supported Rick Santorum. The younger Graham said he wasn't opposed to Romney, and thought that "He would be a good president if he won the nomination because I think he’s got the strength, business-wise, politics-wise. He’s sharp guy. And he's proven himself."

That comment, though, came in the context of Franklin Graham saying that Romney was not a Christian, but a Mormon. Pressed on whether Mormonism wasn't part of the broader, "Judeo-Christian faith," Franklin Graham said "Most Christians would not recognize Mormons as part of the Christian faith."

The Billy Graham Evangelical Association, for the record, lists Mormonism as a cult.

For the Grahams, as for evangelicals generally, this question of Christianity is the most important question. While it may not be necessary to be a good president that one have accepted Jesus, prayed the prayer, asked for sins to be forgiven, it is the most important thing, eternally. It is the most important thing for an individual. Which is why Billy Graham dedicated so much of his life to exactly that message. As much as the Grahams really do care deeply about these other issues, personal salvation and internal transformation are more important.

So one wonders about those 30 minutes, and those closed doors.