The Bush administration is well aware that the Muslim world regards the liberation of Iraq as a war on Islam. Someone within the administration needs to convince the president that allowing evangelists into Iraq to push Christianity as well as humanitarian aid on a divided and defeated Muslim population will only deepen this conviction. This is one faith-based initiative the government cannot afford to support.
So far, the only comment from the White House has come from press spokeman Ari Fleischer, who said the government has no control over privately funded religious charities like Samaritan’s Purse, the agency headed by Franklin Graham, Billy’s son and Bush family friend. Graham is particularly toxic to Muslims because he has publicly branded Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.” So is evangelist-broadcaster Pat Robertson, founder of Operation Breadbasket, who has labeled Muhammad “an absolute wild-eyed fanatic.” Last summer the Reverend Jerry Vines, past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has an army of some five thousand missionaries operating overseas, many of them poised to enter Iraq, damned the Prophet Muhammad as a “demon-possessed pedophile”-a capital offense in many Islamic countries. Even before the war, the Arab press cited these and other American evangelists as proof that the United States intends a Christian crusade against Muslims.
Common sense dictates that the Pentagon, which will supervise humanitarian efforts in Iraq, bar these evangelizers and their organizations from entering the country. There are, after all, many other Christian relief and development agencies that the Pentagon can rely on. Old hands in international aid like Caritas, Lutheran World Relief, and World Vision, an evangelical Protestant agency, know how to help the suffering while respecting their non-Christian beliefs. Indeed, most Christians working in non-Christian countries have learned how to bear witness to their faith without demeaning the religion of those they serve. Mother Teresa, for example, identified as much as she could with India’s Hindus, adopting the sari as the habit for her order of nuns, and she showed her commitment to Christ by succoring the dying in the streets of Calcutta.
Many conservative evangelicals insist that they are different from other Christians-and in this instance, unfortunately, they are right. They proselytize as naturally as salesmen sell, salmon spawn, and pots cook pot roast. “A missionary is to a Baptist like your mamma is to you-or the pope is to a Catholic-not perfect, yet an icon,” says Charles Wade, president of the Baptist General Convention in the president’s home state of Texas. Indeed, according to a poll released last month by Beliefnet and the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C., 81 percent of evangelical Protestants consider it “very important” to evangelize Muslims abroad, and another 16 percent consider it at least “somewhat important.” The same survey also reports that of 350 evangelical leaders queried, 77 percent hold a negative view of Islam, and seven out of ten agree that it is a “religion of violence”-a view the president has sought to discourage.
Since evangelical Protestants voted massively for George W. Bush in the last election, it would take considerable political courage for the administration to bar evangelizing organizations from fishing for converts among Iraqi Muslims while giving them handouts. Even if the Bush administration were to establish strict policies prohibiting any form of religious proselytizing, there is no guarantee that American evangelists and their organizations would abide by them.
Franklin Graham, in particular, has a history of subverting such restrictions. During the first Gulf War, he arranged to send tens of thousands of Arabic-language New Testaments to U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia for distribution to the locals. General Norman Schwarzkopf complained to Graham that his action violated Saudi laws, not to mention U.S. agreements with the Saudis, to which the evangelist says he replied: “I’m also under orders, and that’s from the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”
Apart from the fact that Franklin is Billy’s son, it is hard to understand why the Bush political apparatus shows him such deference. Except for the reminders in his voice and facial features, Franklin is not his father’s second coming. He lacks Billy’s painfully acquired sensitivity to non-Christians, his Southern tact, and the recognition of his own limitations in matters theological as well as political. Franklin is not even the best preacher among Graham’s children; according to the Graham family, sister Anne Graham Lotz has that distinction.
To be fair, sons of well-known American evangelists rarely measure up when they follow Daddy to the pulpit. Yet the Graham dynasty is different. As if through divine right, Franklin has inherited not only the presidency of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association but also his father’s mantle as this country’s nonsectarian Dr. Christian. In that iconic role he preached at the inauguration of George W. Bush, twice gave benedictions at the Republican National Convention, and presided at the interfaith prayer service for the victims of the Columbine massacre in 1999. On Good Friday this year, he conducted services at the Pentagon, despite complaints from Muslim Americans who work there, and he was among two hundred notables invited to the White House last month as an Amen corner for the president’s announcement of his global aids program. If not Billy, who is ailing, perhaps the president ought to be the father figure who draws Franklin aside and explains the recklessness of his anti-Muslim attitude.
It is characteristic of evangelists like Franklin Graham that they preach but do not listen. It matters not at all to them that in some Islamic countries, a Muslim who converts to Christianity can lose his life. They cannot grant to Muslims or Hindus-in some cases even other Christians-that their faith has value in God’s eyes. Evangelistic organizations tend to publish books explaining what is wrong with another religion, not what might in fact be of value and worthy of respect. Conversion strategy is all. They cannot tolerate the possibility that God may be working through other faiths-or at least that he might have the power to save those who never encountered a Christian evangelist. It took Billy Graham a long time and a lot of prayer before he concluded, as he once confided to me in an interview: “I used to think that all those babies born in China who never heard the gospel preached could not be saved, but now I no longer think that is true.” That was in the 1980s, when Franklin was still a leather-jacketed young adult riding a Harley.
A Christian can hold the truth of his own religion while recognizing important insights and values in others. Indeed, it is a theological rule of thumb that you cannot truly understand the uniqueness of your own religion unless you understand another in the same depth. In any case, theology is not the real issue in granting evangelists access to Iraq. Evangelists are by definition entrepreneurs, creating organizations that depend not only on spiritual body counts-how many heathens did we save today?-but on donations. Public relations is key. To attract donors, evangelistic organizations must be seen in action wherever there is a human tragedy or crisis. In nearly forty years covering religion as a reporter and editor, I have witnessed, for example, an evangelistic organization videotaping their operatives rescuing boat people fleeing Vietnam-and then running tapes of these endeavors during televised fundraisers years after the boat people were no longer in the water. Right after 9/11, while other clergy aided victims, there were evangelists at Ground Zero, cameras grinding away on a flatbed truck, as they moved into what they should have regarded as sacred turf.
That is why many evangelists feel a need to be in Iraq-and why they will ignore the danger they represent to the American social-reconstruction efforts, just to be seen in action there. One hopes that Bush, a born-again Christian himself, will recognize the arrogance and the futility of allowing evangelists to do their thing. Surely he does not think that Muslims, Sunni or Shiite, possessed as they are of a faith and civilization that is much older and more sophisticated than evangelist-style American Christianity, will jettison all that for a blanket, a Bible, and a video on Jesus. Let Graham and his fellow evangelizers, if they wish to help, come to the aid of the tiny and threatened Abyssinian and Syrian Orthodox churches of Iraq, which were in existence centuries before the Protestant Reformation. The souls they save may turn out to be their own. end