Franklin Graham’s rallies typically draw thousands of evangelicals. Photo: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son, is bringing his Decision America California Tour to “godless” Berkeley on Friday. The outdoor prayer rally, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at Cesar Chavez Park, is expected to draw 2,000-4,000 people, according to a permit filed with the city. 

Berkeley is nothing if not progressive, and Franklin, famously, has said that “progressive” is “just another word for godless.” (A comment that drew a response from Rep. Nancy Pelosi this week, who characterized Graham’s statement as “un-Christian.”)

“Progressivism is nothing more than godless secularism, and it has stormed through the gates of America’s bulwark.”
— Franklin Graham

Franklin is far more political and more controversial than his father, Billy Graham, who died in February and was known as “America’s pastor.” Unlike his father, who was non-partisan, Franklin is an outspoken Trump supporter. He has referred to Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion,” and is anti same-sex marriage and abortion. In his recently published book, Through My Father’s Eyes, Franklin elaborates on the godless theme: “The progressives have infiltrated our schools, our government and our nation. Progressivism is nothing more than godless secularism, and it has stormed through the gates of America’s bulwark.”

Yet after “praying and thinking it through,” Graham decided to bring his “message of hope” to what might be called Ground Zero of the American progressive movement: Berkeley, California. Graham personally selected Berkeley as one of the 10 stops on his California tour because “he thinks this is where there is probably a need for hope,” according to Steve Rhoads, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association vice-president who oversees church engagement for the Decision America California Tour.

Graham’s coming to Berkeley “pushes the envelope a little,” Rhoads admitted, “but I don’t think he was trying to make a point. What everybody would say is lacking [here] is civility or open discourse,” he said. “That’s a shame, because we all believe in free speech.”

When asked to elaborate on the controversial preacher’s “civility,” Rhoads said that “Franklin has very clear views on things, but never ever have I sensed or picked up from him a sense of intolerance. Particularly as Christians, it’s important to be firm in what we believe: there is such a thing as right and wrong, and black and white. Everything is not gray, there are absolute truths.” At the same time, “it’s also important to be kind and generous and compassionate and nice. Franklin is not coming with any kind of hate message. His message is that God loves you — that shouldn’t drive anyone away.”

“I don’t think you would find anything on Friday that many people would take offense at,” Rhoads added. “That’s not the purpose of the rally. The purpose of the rally is not to divide, but to provide a solution. Like Dr. King said, you can curse the darkness but it’s better to light a candle.”

Twenty percent of adult Californians identify as evangelicals according to Pew research. Photo: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Graham’s rally will have three parts, Rhoads said. There will be a Christian contemporary music concert from 7:30-8 p.m.; a 15-minute prayer service; and then Graham will speak until about 8:45-9 p.m. Rhoads said that the religious part of the rally will focus on the fact that “sin separates you from God and God wants a relationship with people. He wants to tell people that you can have your life changed, you can become new, and all  your sins can be forgiven.”

Evangelical school boards

But Graham also has an overtly political message. In Fresno, he told his audience, “The enemy has gotten control of our schools, and our education. Not just in California, but all across the country. If Christians were to get control of the school boards, think of the impact it would have on California 10 years from now.”

“I’m not telling you who to vote for, or what party to vote for. You pray. Ask God to show you what to do,” he said. “Look for candidates that best support Biblical principles. That doesn’t mean the candidates necessarily live Biblical principles, but at least they support what we believe in.”

Graham has been an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, overlooking Trump’s numerous Biblical lapses.

That distinction is important, because Graham has been an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, overlooking Trump’s numerous Biblical lapses. What’s important, Rhoads said, is the fact that Trump “stands up for religious freedom and religious liberty. The president hasn’t missed a beat on religious freedom.”

According to an article in The New York Times, Graham selected his California rally locations with the intent of turning out the evangelical vote in critical House districts. The idea is to keep as many Congressional seats in Republican hands as possible in this fall’s elections. That “turn California purple” strategy makes sense in the Central Valley, but chances of turning Berkeley red are slim to none, so the Berkeley rally appears to be an anomaly. While Graham and Rhoads maintain this is a mere coincidence, the tour just happens to end on June 5, California’s primary day.

Graham urges his followers to support candidates who oppose abortion and same-sex marriage. He told one rally this week that abortion is “murder,” but that the “murderers” in his audience can be forgiven by God.

Graham is visiting 10 California cities before the June primary, and he urges his followers to vote “for candidates that best support Biblical principles,” but don’t “necessarily live Biblical principles.” Photo: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

One in five adults in California identifies as an evangelical Christian, and the state is home to more megachurches (219) than any other state.  “California is more conservative than people think it is,” Graham told ABC10 recently.

Evangelicalism cuts across all kinds of churches: it’s an ideology, not a denomination, said LeAnn Snow Flesher, vice-president of academics at the American Baptist Seminary in Berkeley. Some evangelicals are fundamentalist, but others are more progressive, she said. Not all evangelicals are as conservative as Graham, and many strongly disagree with his views.

Snow Flesher herself is uncomfortable calling herself an evangelical.

“The word ‘evangelical’ has been coopted, and holds some seriously negative connotations,” she said. “I find I have to explain myself an awful lot.” There are over 35 denominations of Baptists in the US, and she is part of the American Baptist church, which is more progressive. Graham is part of the Southern Baptist denomination, which is the largest American denomination and also much more conservative. 

“I would define evangelical as ‘those who would proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ’,” she said. “But a big part of that conversation is how do we separate our religious belief from sociocultural values and norms. What I am seeing coming out of the white evangelicals of the South, I personally don’t find that to be Christian.”

Snow Flesher said she would be “surprised” if 2,000-4,000 people actually come to the Berkeley rally.

“If they do come, they are probably coming from out of town,” she said. “I think Franklin is coming here because this is the ‘den of iniquity,’ and he needs to preach the gospel in good soil and hard soil. He’s not going to get a big following here, but if he can get converts out of Berkeley, he can do something significant. Seeing as they are making their way through the whole state, rather than trying to avoid Berkeley, they are going to jump in there and see what happens.”

Berkeley as culture war Ground Zero

Pastor Mike McBride of The Way church on University Avenue also doubts Graham will attract thousands of followers to his Berkeley rally. “I think he is obviously trolling us,” McBride said. “In the imagination of the alt-right and the extremist political community, Berkeley has become some culture war Ground Zero of sorts,” he said. “For all of us who are Christ-followers, it’s an affront, a deep offense, to suggest we need these kinds of people coming in to bring any kind of Jesus or salvation to us. It mirrors back to the days of colonization.”

“For all of us who are Christ-followers, it’s an affront, a deep offense, to suggest we need these kinds of people coming in to bring any kind of Jesus or salvation to us. It mirrors back to the days of colonization.”
— Pastor Mike McBride

McBride said that Graham is “peddling Christofascism,” a term that he said was coined in 1970 “to describe a false kind of Christian faith wedded to political extremism.” He added that he knows of no black churches that would describe themselves as evangelical, and described himself as Pentecostal. McBride said that a group of local pastors has been discussing a possible protest of the Graham rally, but he is not sure whether that will actually happen as he is the main organizer and he has been ill.

Rhoads said that the Graham organization monitors social media, and so far they have not heard anything unusual about protests in Berkeley. The tour has not attracted protests in any of the other California cities either.

“You would think we’d have had protests in California, but we haven’t,” Rhoads said. “I don’t know what we will get in Berkeley. As long as it can be civil and respectful, we’re glad they are there. You hope nothing will be ugly. We certainly don’t need any more chapters of that in our history. I hope they show up: we would love to meet them.”

A group calling itself Refuse Fascism Bay Area has posted a protest of “fascist preacher Franklin Graham” on Facebook for Friday evening, but only a small number of people had signed up as planning to attend.

Berkeley spokesman Matthai Chakko said the city is also not aware of any planned protests.

“We have people who have different views, and we welcome different views if people want to express them,” he said.

Chakko stressed that the Graham organization has done its due diligence in taking out permits and making arrangements for shuttles, parking, police protection and other details.

“They have been very organized, very responsible, and they have worked with us in a very constructive fashion,” he said. The Graham organization paid over $48,000 in fees to cover the city’s costs in hosting the event.

Traffic around University Avenue and Frontage Road, near Cesar Chavez Park, is likely to be more congested than usual at rush hour this Friday, Chakko said. The Graham organization has been working with about 100 area churches to build attendance, and many of them will be arriving by bus, which will help the traffic situation somewhat. The Berkeley Police Department will be issuing traffic alerts and directing traffic around the area.

Freelancer Daphne White began her reporting career in Atlanta and then worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, for more than a decade. She covered Congress, education and teachers’ unions, and then...