There is a lot going on in the runup to the June 5 primary in California. But in a long, puffy piece for the New York Times, Elizabeth Dias draws attention to a development that is probably less important politically than she seems to believe, but is fascinating from a historical and sociological perspective. Franklin Graham, who inherited his looks and his ministry from his father, the late Billy Graham, has returned to the California arena where Billy Graham’s ministry first gained major national attention (especially in a 1949 “crusade” in Los Angeles that made him an anti-communist icon as well as a celebrity winner of souls).
As Dias notes, Graham the Younger is much more directly engaged in political agitation than the old man was when he invaded the intermittently sinful Golden State more than a half-century ago:
Mr. Graham is leading a three-bus caravan up the middle of the state, one of the biggest political battlegrounds this year, to urge evangelicals to vote and to win California for Jesus. The two week tour ends on the day of the primary, June 5.
Along the way — at a park in Escondido, outside the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, on the beaches of Oxnard, at the fairgrounds of Fresno and Modesto — Mr. Graham is hosting 10 campaign-style rallies, complete with highly-produced videos, top Christian singers and laser light shows, to urge evangelicals to join his mission.
That mission, Mr. Graham says, is about faith and Jesus, but the parallel political message is just as resounding: Support candidates who will advance the socially conservative causes dear to many evangelicals — especially opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage — and get to the polls and vote for them. Three of his stops are in or bordering critical House districts in the Central Valley, and others hug the line between red and blue up the state.
Anyone who has paid attention to both Grahams is aware of the sad irony that while Billy largely abandoned partisan politics after his close association with Richard Nixon (and notoriously, with Nixon’s anti-semitic leanings) came to grief, Franklin has fully joined the Christian right from which his father kept a conspicuous distance. Worse yet, Graham has gone out of his way to identify with a president who makes Nixon look like a choirboy:
Franklin Graham has defended the president on television and social media through the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., the crackdowns on immigrants and refugees, the Stormy Daniels scandal, and the slur against Haiti and Africa.
“People say that the president says mean things. I can’t think of anything mean he’s said. I think he speaks what he feels,” Mr. Graham said in a wide-ranging telephone interview.
Such a rigorous standard for godliness!
In any event, Graham has completely fused the ideas of spiritual and political redemption; his current barnstorming effort in California is, says Dias, aimed at “saving” an “increasingly heathen state.”
Activities like those in which Graham is engaged can always, of course, matter at the margins. But Dias conflates two very different statistics from two different sources (a Pew finding that all Evangelicals together make up 20 percent of the state’s adult population and and a 2016 exit poll finding that 13 percent of voters were white “born-again or Evangelical Christians”) to suggest that Graham’s target audience is underrepresented in the California electorate, presumably just waiting for mobilization. According to another, more nuanced survey, from PRRI, white Evangelicals are 9 percent of the California population, while “Hispanic Protestants” represent 8 percent and “Black Protestants” represent 5 percent. Some non-white Evangelicals will welcome Graham’s religious message, but far fewer will pay attention to his paeans to the immigrant-bashing champion of white self-esteem in that very White House.
Similarly, Dias implausibly compares conservative Evangelical (and Republican) opportunities in California this year to what happened nationally in 2016:
On the lawn outside the Rose Bowl, as churches dropped off busloads of people for his second rally, attendees spoke freely of a recent memory. In 2016, Mr. Graham held rallies in all 50 state capitals to urge Christians to vote. Donald J. Trump won the White House that year, defying all predictions, in large part thanks to a groundswell of white evangelical turnout.
Maybe, they hoped, the 2018 midterms in California could produce a similar surprise.
If you define “surprise” as exceeding crazy-low expectations for the midterms, then perhaps Graham and the GOP can do that. But let’s don’t get carried away and buy into the idea that California is going to “go red again” (in Graham’s words) any time soon.
Graham might do better if he had a little bit of his father’s ecumenical spirit. Reading Dias’s account, you don’t get the sense that the evangelist feels any fellowship toward Christians who don’t live on his small patch of global Christianity (actually, Dias doesn’t even mention non-Evangelical Christians until the third-from-the-last paragraph, when she mentions that Nancy Pelosi and Jerry Brown are Catholics, which according to Pew represents 28 percent of the state’s adults, narrowly leading the “unaffiliated” as California’s top religious category). Graham himself is contemptuous of non-conservatives:
The blue wall of California, Mr. Graham told the gathering, represents secular values that have taken root on the country’s west coast.
“Progressive?” he went on, “That’s just another word for godless.”