For someone professing to be convinced that “God” placed Donald J. Trump in the office of the U.S. presidency and implying that Russia had nothing to do with it, evangelical heavyweight Franklin Graham—president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse—sure can’t seem to leave the topic of Russia alone. Most recently, he’s taken to Facebook and Twitter to comment on the tensions between Russia and the United States in connection with the recent shooting down of a Syrian plane by U.S. forces.
Graham noted correctly that the Syrian situation is a “powder keg,” and thus requires a careful foreign policy approach. However, he also took the opportunity not only to repeat the banal “Russia and America should fight ISIS together” talking point pushed by both the Kremlin and the Trump administration, but also to accuse Trump’s political opponents of wanting “to escalate the tensions between the U.S. and Russia, which would end up hurting all Americans.” Despite Graham’s insistence that “political agendas should have no place in the quest for peace and stability,” his framing of this issue is political and indeed highly partisan.
Graham’s concerns about escalating tensions with Russia echo not only the Trump administration, but also statements made in Russian propaganda outlets such as RT to the effect that liberals who insist that Russia should be held accountable for the annexation of Crimea and for the influence campaign targeting the 2016 U.S. presidential election are willing to risk war with Russia. Many Americans who expressed concerns about Russian interference on Twitter during the election cycle encountered similar talking points from trolls and bots who were a part of that Russian campaign.
Furthermore, in contradiction to Graham’s framing, it is very much possible to call for a coolheaded approach in Syria while not sweeping the seriousness of the investigation into the Trump team’s ties to Russia under the rug. The president’s statements, tweets, and actions—notably his firing of former FBI Director James Comey—have clearly indicated that Trump would like nothing more than to make the Russiagate scandal disappear, and Graham seems willing to assist. And yet Graham himself has very publicly cultivated intimate relationships with Russian political and religious leaders in recent years, and his statements about Russia must be understood in this context.
On the one hand, Graham’s fascination with Russia is understandable. Graham grew up in the shadow of his famous father, “America’s pastor” Billy Graham, who was known for promoting religion as a solution to social issues in opposition to “godless Communism,” as seen for example in his 1959 sermon “What’s Wrong with the World.” Thanks to Russia’s shift to a hardline “traditional values” and anti-LGBTQ stance in Putin’s third term, Franklin Graham warmed to the post-Soviet state and its leadership, buying the Putinist line that since Russia survived Communism, Russians can help Westerners resist the “new totalitarianism” of “political correctness” and secularism.
On the other hand, at a time when Moscow continues to violate the rights of Protestants and other religious minorities, it seems that for Graham, host of a recent World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians, some persecuted Christians are more equal than others. With that in mind, tell me again who exactly is playing politics?