Did Franklin Graham say COVID-19 was punishment for ‘sin’?
My mother didn’t squeeze me out of her loins to parse the tortured grammar of Franklin Graham, even if he is the premiere Evangelical cleric. But here I am trying to figure out what the hell he’s saying.
“How could God allow this thing to happen?” asks Jeanine Pirro, the Fox News talk show host, of the Coronavirus crisis.
Graham replies: “Well, I don’t think it’s God’s plan for this to happen. It’s because of the sin that’s in the world. Man has turned his back on God, we have sinned against him, and we need to ask for God’s forgiveness.”
And what does that mean?
If you “ask for God’s forgiveness”—do the sick recover? Or was their “sin” too bad?
First of all, the Bible does not have any consciousness of viruses. Little is said about ordinary medical problems. “Healings” are typically exorcisms of evil spirits. No human is blamed for being possessed.
A Christian wishing to talk about the origin of ordinary illness has an extremely limited range of references to refer to, like John 9:2. The disciples of Jesus ask him who’s to blame for a man being born blind.
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus replies, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
Notice who else isn’t being blamed: Adam and Eve.
But Jesus doesn’t seem to play the blame game at all. As the messiah he has defeated death. His focus is the “works of God” being done—and this includes care for the sick and needy.
Graham avoids such references, and I’m left trying to figure out what biblical associations he is making. He continues:
Jesus Christ came to save sinners. He didn’t come to condemn the world but to save the world. And if we put our faith and trust in him, he’ll forgive our sins. And he’ll heal our hearts, and he’ll change the course of our lives. And this pandemic — this is the result of a fallen world. A world that has turned its back on God. And so I would encourage people to pray, and let’s ask God for help.
In a theological stew, there’s dashes of the Creation story, which ends with humans having to die. The type of death, whether from a virus or in one’s sleep at age 930 (the age Genesis cites for Adam at his death), isn’t a focus.
Then Graham adds in some of the later Christian belief that viruses are special punishments for those who are “bad.” He is saying that humans today have “sinned against Him” in some new, post-Eden way.
An appeal to Jesus, then, will help not just with the general problem of death and the afterlife, but with our situation now.
Trying to figure out Graham’s theology is a pretty quick ride.
For all his prominence in addressing medical crises as the leader of Samaritan’s Purse, he has no writings on illness, and in his biography, almost no religious education.
He has a super-famous father, the evangelist Billy Graham.
Franklin’s story is that he staved off his father’s influence for years, then became a Christian in 1974, at age 22. He writes in his 1995 memoir, Rebel With a Cause: “I wasn’t interested in seminary training, and I didn’t care about degrees. I just wanted a practical, working knowledge of God’s word.”
He doesn’t list this in his “education” now, but notes that he and his wife for several months attended a “Bible school called Raven’s Crest” as he describes it, in Estes Park, Colorado, run by Major W. Ian Thomas, a Plymouth Brethren man known for seminars for self-appointed ‘evangelists’.
Graham writes in his memoir: “The courses were a challenge — I still wasn’t really the ‘student type,’ but learning more about Scripture was a fantastic experience.”
Major W. Ian Thomas himself appears to have had no religious education, and so we’d understand Graham to be coming from a long tradition of Christian leaders who are intent on “evangelism” but who invent the theology on the fly.
Graham was “ordained” by his father in 1982 at a church in Tempe, Arizona, which neither attended. I wrote to Des Wadsworth, current pastor of Grace Community Church, asking to see Graham’s official ordination papers, but he has not replied.
If Graham had his father as a theological mentor, we have some context, at least, for how disease is understood. In 1983, Billy Graham is out campaigning against the “raging plague” of herpes. “It may be a judgment of God on the country,” Graham said, “or it may be a warning from God.”
When AIDS came along, as Anthony M. Petro details in After the Wrath of God, Graham attacked its sufferers using exactly the same terms.
Even in 1993, Graham was pitching the same lines.
“Is AIDS a judgment of God?” he said at a famous rally. “I could not say for sure, but I think so.” This time he got pushback in the local press, and was forced to apologize.
Or as it reads in period news coverage:
Calling from his home in Montreat, North Carolina, Graham said in the telephone interview regarding his AIDS remark, ‘I don’t believe that and I don’t know why I said it.’ He said he never intended to make the statement and explained he was tired during the service and forgot to retract or clarify the remarks.
He ‘forgot’ to deal with the mistake of having said that AIDS was a judgment of God. A message he had been delivering for years.
Samaritan’s Purse, a missionary organization dressed up as a humanitarian one, was started in 1970. But it was later given to Franklin Graham and he presided over its vast expansion. He developed their AIDS policy, which seems to have been: African kids don’t deserve it.
“If you take the millions of children that are infected by HIV/AIDS, they didn’t do anything wrong,” he says in 2002. “I want to try to do something for their lives. I wish I could do something for every one of them.”
I’m struck by his messaging of the time. “These are children that have a very narrow little window of life left, and that window isn’t going to be very pleasant,” he says. “We want them to know that there is a God and that he loves them.”
Treatments for AIDS were available in 2002. But Graham seems not to hold out hope that afflicted children will lead full lives while taking protease inhibitors. We’d have to recall here that AIDS being treatable was a problem for Evangelical theology.
How had science been able to avert the “judgment” of God?
If I was cynical, I would say that Graham did want to comfort children, famously handing out shoe boxes with toys, but was less focused on publicizing treatments for AIDS, or fundraising for them.
I might wonder if he was fundraising off the help he’s giving to afflicted children, without really doing that much.
A donation to Samaritan’s Purse to help AIDS-afflicted children, at the time, might have helped Christians get over any bad feeling at having spent a decade proclaiming that those with the virus should die.
I might even suggest that the “success” of the organization is largely in alleviating Christian guilt, or offering an easy way to feel better about worldwide crises—without actually doing anything.
“We need God’s help,” he tells Jeanine Pirro, when appraising her of the medical relief being administered by Samaritan’s Purse in New York City. It’s not clear what “God’s help” means in this context.
He might identify it with the work of his organization, which is, after all, a religious messaging outfit.
“Of course, in Central Park, our doctors and nurses are Christian men and women,” he says. “We pray for our patients. We have chaplains there to pray for our patients. We care for everybody that comes in. And of course, we want people to know that God loves them and He hasn’t forgotten them. We are there to care for them in Jesus’ name.”
Or as a doctor who works at Mount Sinai Health System puts it:
“We should not be politicizing health care in times of need, which is what this organization is all about.”