Whether it’s Celebrated by CT or Denied in NYC, Evangelical Proselytizing Isn’t in Quarantine

Screen shot from Samaritan's Purse video of their New York City field hospital.

One has to imagine that the rabidly anti-LGBTQ Franklin Graham, President and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse, expected the kind of culture war conflict he evidently relishes when he mobilized the latter to set up and operate a 68-bed field hospital in New York City’s Central Park in partnership with the Mount Sinai Health System. In addition to being the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, New York City is, of course, one of the country’s most LGBTQ-friendly urban centers. 

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has bullied states governed by Democrats and played politics with the federal distribution of medical equipment needed to protect healthcare workers and treat coronavirus patients. Under the circumstances, already-valid mistrust of Samaritan’s Purse is amplified, and New York State Senator Brad Hoylman seems entirely justified in tweeting, “It’s a shame that the federal government has left us unprepared for a pandemic so we’re forced to accept charity from bigots.”

After all, Samaritan’s Purse requires paid staff, like those working in the Central Park field hospital, to sign a statement of faith that includes the exclusionary tenet: 

“God instituted monogamous marriage between male and female as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female.” 

On the basis of this policy and Graham’s notorious record, it wasn’t just logical but even ethically imperative for politicians like Hoylman, along with the New York City Commission on Human Rights, to raise concerns about possible discrimination in patient care by Samaritan’s Purse staff. But even if it is true, as Graham maintains, that Samaritan’s Purse will treat all patients equally, valid concerns about how the organization interacts with patients remain.

Graham, who has consistently been one of the Christian Right’s staunchest supporters of both Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, may not have been primarily motivated by the possibility of courting culture war controversy when he chose to bring Samaritan’s Purse to New York. But it’s clear that he’s not above exploiting those made vulnerable by the pandemic in order both to win converts and to air his grievances about criticism of his bigotry in a way that seems calculated to represent him and his organization as above the political fray. Prominent right-wing Christians like Graham are, after all, masters of spin and of the DARVO tactics—deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender—common to authoritarians and abusers of all kinds.

In a particularly tone-deaf article, “Coronavirus Searches Lead Millions to Hear about Jesus,” evangelical magazine Christianity Today (founded by Franklin’s famous father Billy Graham) heaped praise on evangelistic organizations creating online resources that play on people’s fears of the new coronavirus in order to convert people to their version of Christianity. Naturally, evangelical powerhouse BGEA—also founded by the late Billy Graham and led by Franklin—is prominently featured:

In March, BGEA launched landing pages with coronavirus resources in six languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, and Arabic). The association also launched social media campaigns themed around fear.

In the first four weeks, 173,000 people visited the websites and more than 10,000 clicked a button indicating they made decisions for Christ, said Mark Appleton, BGEA’s director of internet evangelism.

The article goes on to relate how a teenager named Donmere who happened upon one of the sites began chatting with a volunteer, saying “I’m not really a religious person, but I don’t know who else to turn to but God.” According to CT’s none too subtly gleeful reporting, “Forty-five minutes later, Donmere was a follower of Christ and had been pointed to discipleship resources.”

Such “discipleship resources” are sure to teach converts like Donmere the abusive fundamentalist view that being queer is incompatible with being a Christian. Of course, not all Christians agree. In fact, the New York Times reports that part of the reason plans to use New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine as a field hospital fell through is that the Episcopal leaders who engaged with Mount Sinai Health System about the possibility privately objected to the involvement of Samaritan’s Purse, whose “approach to L.G.B.T. issues runs counter to that of the Episcopal Diocese of New York.”

In light of the above, Graham’s assertion that “we have never asked any of the millions of people we have served to subscribe to anything” seems particularly disingenuous. While representatives of Samaritan’s Purse insist that the organization does not require conversions before providing aid, its workers have been observed  requiring attendance at prayer meetings before providing earthquake relief in El Salvador, and of similar abuses, on more than one occasion

Graham made this claim in the petulant statement he issued on April 14 on both the Samaritan’s Purse website and his Facebook page, in which he also accused his critics of being “tone-deaf” and registered his objection to “being harassed into diverting precious resources of time and energy and personnel away from serving COVID-19 patients in New York City in order to respond to demands for documents and other information from eight Democratic members of Congress, the Human Rights Commission and the Reclaim Pride Coalition.”

Of course, Graham is the harasser in the picture here, and it is absolutely crucial that we remain vigilant toward fundamentalist zealots like him and clear-eyed about how they’re exploiting a pandemic to advance their right-wing authoritarian agenda. And Samaritan’s Purse is hardly the only case. The Homeschool Legal Defense Association and a new initiative called Public School Exit, which is backed by members of the John Birch Society and whose rhetoric is clearly derived from Christian Reconstructionism, are both using the current crisis to recruit parents into the far right-wing Christian Homeschooling movement. We need to be aware of these stealth assaults on the separation of church and state, and we must not let Graham’s pretensions to be a disinterested provider of medical aid distract us.