(RNS) — Jerushah Armfield has been publicly criticizing President Trump, both on CNN and in The Washington Post. In one interview she said that not only has Trump not said or done anything that gives evidence of a personal Christian faith, but that he has actually “encouraged racism, sexism and intolerance, exactly what Jesus taught against.”
Armfield is no left-wing activist. She is a granddaughter of Billy Graham, and she regularly gives expression to her deep evangelical convictions in her writing and speaking. Her husband is a Baptist pastor in South Carolina.
She is also a niece of Franklin Graham, the well-known evangelical leader who has been an outspoken supporter of the president. Armfield sees her uncle as seriously misguided in doing so. When Franklin Graham portrays Trump as aligned with the cause of Jesus, she says, he “diminishes not only my Jesus but all he stood for and came to Earth to fight against.”
But Armfield also has something positive to say about her uncle: “He has an incredible humanitarian ministry that’s been on the front lines often before a lot of ministries have been there,” she told a CNN interviewer. And then she added: “I think he probably needs to stick to doing that.”
I agree with Jerushah Armfield on both counts. Commending Franklin Graham for his humanitarian efforts should not be dismissed simply as a niece wanting to play nice to an uncle whom she will be seeing at family gatherings. Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse organization is accomplishing some important things in addressing needs of suffering people.
I experienced the ministry’s positive impact on a brief visit to North Korea seven years ago. I had just returned to my room from breakfast at my Pyongyang hotel when the phone rang. It was a medical doctor whom I had gotten to know in California. He had seen me in the lobby and suggested we get together to chat.
When we met he told me he was in North Korea providing medical services for Samaritan’s Purse. “Have you been here before?” I asked. He replied that the ministry spends considerable time serving people in North Korea. This was, in fact, his 24th visit. And, he said, Franklin Graham was arriving later that day with more than a million dollars’ supply of medicine — an arrival confirmed that evening in local TV news coverage that I watched.
No publicity that I know of back home is given to these efforts. So, yes: credit where credit is due. Franklin Graham is doing some admirable things.
And his niece is also right in her second point. He should stick with those humanitarian activities and stop offering his public support for Trump.
I would only add another point. Graham should publicly admit that his support for the president has been seriously misleading and harmful. Graham, a member of Trump’s informal evangelical advisory board, has consistently encouraged evangelicals not to focus on character issues in thinking about Trump’s leadership. We don’t need the president to be, he says, a “pastor in chief,” as long as Trump does what we want him to do as commander in chief.
There are issues to argue with Graham about on that. But this much is certainly clear: Graham does have a “pastoral” role among evangelicals, and he is not serving us well in this role by asking us not to focus on matters of moral character.
Here Graham can learn much from his father’s example. Billy Graham got very cozy with Richard Nixon in the 1970s — preaching at worship services in the White House, spending time as a spiritual counselor to the president and testifying to Nixon’s positive qualities as a Christian leader. Later, Graham learned from the Watergate-related tapes how terribly wrong he had been. To his credit, the evangelist publicly apologized for having misled Christians about Nixon.
Franklin Graham, heed your father’s example — and also listen to your niece! We don’t need any kind of elaborate political critique from you, but we do need reassurances about your own spiritual integrity. Your father knew that he needed to admit to his fellow Christians that he had endorsed attitudes and behaviors that were unbecoming in a presidency. If you have not yet seen the evidence for doing that yet, what would it take?
Some of us have not only admired your humanitarian efforts, but we have also listened carefully and appreciatively to what you have preached about in the past. We need a word from you that reassures us that we were not wrong in having seen you as an important voice for moral and spiritual clarity.