Bible Brigade

by Michelle Cottle | April 21, 2003

The Reverend Franklin Graham has long been something of a thrill seeker. In his quarter-century as head of the Christian relief agency Samaritan's Purse, the eldest son of the legendary Billy Graham (and heir to his evangelical empire) has earned international respect for supplying food, water, shelter, and medical care to regions where other angels fear to tread. Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, southern Sudan-the more stricken and war torn the area, the greater the opportunity to help, reasons Graham, who delights in personally piloting the group's small planes through airspace prone to artillery attacks and sniper fire. The personal risk only increases the appeal for the Harley-riding, machine-gun-collecting reverend: "War satisfies my need for danger," he once boasted to GQ.

Now, the 50-year-old Graham is preparing his organization for perhaps its biggest challenge ever: bringing relief to the freshly liberated populace of Iraq. Samaritan's Purse workers are amassing in Jordan, waiting to cross the border the moment U.S. bombs stop falling. It is a risky endeavor: Long after the U.S. military declares victory, pockets of Iraqi resistance and general chaos within the country could prove hazardous even to veteran volunteers. But the graver danger may be the one Graham's workers pose to U.S. policy in the Middle East specifically, their potential to convince the Arab world that Operation Iraqi Freedom was, in fact, the opening salvo in a modern crusade against Islam.

Like many faith-based relief agencies, Samaritan's Purse mixes its humanitarian aid with a liberal dose of proselytizing. Unlike the leaders of other organizations, however, Graham has long been an outspoken critic of Islam, the official religion of some 97 percent of Iraqis. And, since the attacks of September 11, Graham's harsh remarks against Islam-including his November 2001 assertion on "NBC Nightly News" that it is "a very evil and wicked religion"have earned the reverend a reputation as one of this country's leading purveyors of anti-Islamic bigotry. Already, news of Graham's intention to extend his aid ministry into Iraq has set off alarm bells among Muslim groups both at home and abroad. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has loudly denounced Graham's mission as an attempt to take advantage of a desperate, vulnerable people, with CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper predicting to the Web publication Beliefnet, "If it becomes generally known it's going to be a public relations disaster for the Bush administration." The publisher of the British Muslim magazine Q-News wrote of Graham's plan in The Guardian, "For the few remaining Muslims who doubted the crusading nature of the coalition forces, the final blow came last week." Under the circumstances, the White House might be well- served to ask that Graham sit this particular dance out. Samaritan's Purse, however, has said that thus far it has received no such request nor even heard any concerns raised by the administration, despite being in daily contact with American officials working in Jordan. Considering Graham's ties to both the Bushies and the Republican Senate leadership-not to mention the president's obsession with keeping his evangelical base happy-that is hardly a surprise.

When confronted with critics' concerns about their mission in Iraq, representatives of Samaritan's Purse seem offended that anyone would question their motive-seven as their responses send contradictory and often disquieting messages. Ken Isaacs, the group's international director of projects, told Newhouse News Service in March, "We do not deny the name of Christ. We believe in sharing him in deed and word. We'll be who we are." In a March 26 Beliefnet interview, Graham noted, "We realize we're in an Arab country and we just can't go out and preach." But he added that "I believe as we work, God will always give us opportunities to tell others about his Son. ... We are there to reach out to love them and to save them, and as a Christian I do this in the name of Jesus Christ."

Indeed, the history of Samaritan's Purse suggests that, when it comes to spreading the Good News, Graham and Co. often cannot help themselves. In 2001, for instance, Samaritan's Purse received a USAID grant to help with the reconstruction of El Salvador following a devastating earthquake. The organization soon came under fire, however, when The New York Times reported that agency volunteers were holding half-hour prayer services before each construction seminar. As the group's El Salvador director explained, "We are first a Christian organization and second an aid organization. We can't really separate the two. We really believe Jesus Christ told us to do relief work." Since no government money had been used to fund the actual religious meetings, Samaritan's Purse was ruled not to have technically violated government guidelines; USAID officials, however, directed the group to ensure a clearer separation between its ministry and its relief work in the future. Similarly, Samaritan's Purse sparked controversy in both Great Britain and Canada last December when it was reported that the group was soliciting donations for its "Operation Christmas Child" (which encourages school children to donate gifts to needy children overseas) without making it clear that Christian literature would be included with many of the packages.

Of greatest relevance to the recent debate, however, was Graham's clash with General Norman Schwarzkopf during the first Gulf war. As part of a project termed "Operation Desert Save," Graham arranged for the shipment of tens of thousands of Arabic-language New Testaments to the troops in Saudi Arabia to be passed along to the locals. The project was in direct violation of Saudi law and flew in the face of an understanding between the U.S. and Saudi governments to eschew proselytizing. As Graham later recalled to Newsday, Schwarzkopf had a chaplain from his office phone the reverend to complain about the diplomatic difficulties he was causing. Graham's response: "Sir, I understand that, and I appreciate that, but I'm also under orders, and that's from the King of Kings and Lord of Lords." Schwarzkopf went on to publicly slap Graham and Samaritan's Purse in a section of his 1993 autobiography—a scolding the reverend proudly points to as a symbol of his willingness to fight the good fight, no matter how unpopular.

In fact, Graham, like many evangelical leaders, regards criticism of his proselytizing and aggressive sectarianism as a badge of honor. His 2002 book, The Name, boasts of the various storms provoked by his insistence on invoking Jesus' name at politically sensitive times, such as during President Bush's 2001 inaugural or the prayer service following the 1999 Columbine massacre; there, Graham informed the crowd that only those willing to "ask God for his forgiveness and to receive his son, Jesus Christ, by faith into our hearts and into our lives" were eligible for eternity in heaven.

In many cases, the good that Samaritan's Purse achieves is arguably worth the risk of alienating some people's religious sensibilities. (The organization has, after all, been ranked the most efficient religious charity for three years running by Smart Money magazine.) But Graham's long-standing, increasingly vehement antipathy toward Islam suggests he is far too loose a cannon to unleash in an environment as politically volatile as postwar Iraq. While Graham's smear of Islam as "evil" and "wicked" prompted the fiercest firestorm, it was neither his first nor final remark along these lines. In the fall of 2000, for instance, Graham told a Kentucky journalist that "the Arabs will not be happy until every Jew is dead." More recently, in The Name, Graham writes extensively about the inherently violent nature of Islam, calls Christianity and Islam "as different as lightness and darkness," and asserts that the two religions are locked in an eternal struggle that will only end with the triumphant return of Christ. On his book tour last August, Graham warned Fox News that Islam poses "a greater threat than anyone's willing to speak." And, this February, he told the Sunday Times of London, "I don't wish evil on any Muslim, but their God is not my God. The true God is the God of the Bible, not the Koran." Even other faith-based organizations and aid groups have expressed concerns that the presence of Graham and his group in postwar Iraq could ultimately make life harder for everyone from nonsectarian aid workers to the country's Christian minority to other evangelicals. As Donna Derr, an official with the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox aid group Church World Service, told Beliefnet in March, "I would hate to see the tenuous balance that has been created [between the Christian and Muslim communities] made unbalanced by the entry into Iraq by people who may have less sensitivity." Last September, for instance, Reverend Jerry Falwell's characterization of Mohammad as "a terrorist" touched off a riot in Solapur, India, that left eight people dead and 90 injured. Who knows what might have happened if his missionaries had been on the ground at the time.

Despite all this, the Bush administration appears unwilling to ask Graham to tread lightly-or not at all-in Iraq. In part, this may be the result of domestic political concerns: Karl Rove would likely rather risk an international holy war than a drop in Bush's support among Christian conservatives. But Graham's personal ties to Republican leaders surely impact the situation as well. The Bush and Graham clans are longtime friends, and George W. loves to tell the story of how Billy Graham helped lead him to Jesus. Franklin, too, is fast carving out his own spot among the party players. He delivered the benediction at the Republican National Conventions in both 1996 and 2000, as well as the invocation at George W.'s inauguration. Later in 2001, Graham was one of a dozen religious leaders invited to the Pentagon by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to discuss the moral implications of the war on terrorism. Graham has also become fast friends with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who has traveled to Sudan with Samaritan's Purse a number of times to deliver medical care. So it seems unlikely that Senate Republicans will be leading the charge to have Bush rein Graham in anytime soon.

With the war's end, rebuilding America's image in the Arab world may well prove even more complicated than rebuilding Iraq. The last thing a postwar Middle East needs is an uncontrollable Reverend Graham dashing around trying to save the heathen hordes. Indeed, at this point, Graham's ugly disquisitions on the nature of Islam have made him so radioactive that, even if he doesn't utter one word about Jesus while in Iraq, his mere presence in the region could be considered a provocation. None of which is to suggest that Graham is operating with anything but the best of intentions. But, like the road to hell, the road to holy war is paved with good intentions.

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