His father was one of the greatest evangelists of this or any other age, but Franklin Graham ain’t your daddy’s evangelist. His work with Samaritan’s Purse, particularly in Sudan, is legendary, but his $416,000 salary and $117,000 benefits package (according to the organization’s 990, available on www.guidestar.org) gives one pause about his commitment to the people of the world living on less than $1 a day. (I guess that could be said about most of us who work to bring justice to the poor; Jesus, after all, told us to sell all our belongings and give the money to the poor. I am as unfaithful as Franklin Graham in that regard, just not as highly compensated.) But this is not about Franklin Graham’s salary, this is about Franklin Graham’s theology.
In a half-hearted acknowledgment of Barack Obama’s Christian faith on CNN, Graham commented:
“I think the president’s problem is that he was born a Muslim, his father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born a Muslim, his father gave him an Islamic name.” He continued: “Now it’s obvious that the president has renounced the prophet Mohammed and he has renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ. That is what he says he has done, I cannot say that he hasn’t. So I just have to believe that the president is what he has said.”
The reason that Graham is wrong has nothing to do with Sharia law, which does, indeed, regard the child of a Muslim father as Muslim. When a baby is born, the Islamic call to prayer is whispered in its ears, and parents are expected to make every effort to raise their children as believers. And he is quite correct that Jewish tradition views the mother as the legitimate transmitter of Jewishness. Islam is patrilineal and Judaism matrilineal. In the Hebrew version of the Abraham story it is only the child of Sarah (Isaac) not the child of the Egyptian slave Hagar (Ishamel) who fulfills the promise of God. The Qu’ran reverses this, making Ishmael the legitimate fulfillment of God’s promise, while still presenting the birth of Isaac as a miracle.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that Graham is supposed to be a Christian, and Christian theology is that “God shows no partiality and that in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God. ” (Acts 10:34) That’s what St. Peter figured out after meeting the Italian soldier Cornelius and his family. St. Paul continued the push for a universal gospel, and proclaimed that “Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith.” (Galatians 3:6-9)
What Graham has done with his backhanded compliment of Obama’s faith is to undermine the very basis of both Evangelicalism (his father’s faith) and Biblical Christianity. If one’s faith is predetermined by birth, than Evangelicalism is demonstrably false in its insistence on converting the world to Christianity. But more importantly, if God hates Muslims, than both Peter and Paul were wrong, not to mention the entire sweep of Biblical universalist faith from Abraham on. After all, Yahweh promises Abraham that “all nations would be blessed through” his faith. Amos (9:7) claims that God had covenant relationships with the Cushites (Ethiopians), Phoenicians, and Arameans (Arabs). Micah (chapter 4) looks forward to the time when “all nations” shall live together in peace, the verse that is chiseled into the monument in front of the United Nations building. In spite of both Jewish and Christian attempts to own God, their own book proclaims that God’s love is universal. (John 3:17–yeah 17, look it up!)
There is one last point of Graham’s commentary that bears comment: the President’s name. While it is true that Barack (the English spelling is the name in both Arabic and Swahili–the language of the President’s Kenyan father) is a popular Muslim name that means “blessed,” it is also a Hebrew name, spelled in English as “Baruch.” Graham hints that by giving him a Muslim name, the President’s father made him forever Muslim. That’s like saying that, because Graham’s father named him “Franklin,” he’s French. It’s just plain silly, as etymological games usually are.
I am not going to question Graham’s faith, taking his word that he accepted Jesus Christ. That is what he says he has done and I cannot say that he hasn’t. But I can say, without a doubt, that he doesn’t understand Jesus Christ at all. And that he’s not French, in spite of his name.