The Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, has recently been in the news for lambasting Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg for being gay. The younger Graham follows in his father’s footsteps in regarding homosexuality as a sin, something to be repented of. According to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), of which Graham is the head, God’s response to the so-called “homosexual agenda” is “certain and final judgment” – that is, damnation to hell. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Buttigieg, in contrast, has been talking openly about his gay orientation and his Christian faith.
There is a lot to unpack here, only some of which we can fully explore. First, there is the hypocrisy angle when it comes to Graham: even conservatives are calling him out for excoriating Bill Clinton for sexual indiscretions while giving great leeway to Donald Trump for far worse transgressions. The conservative National Review has weighed in on Graham’s comments, concluding, “Franklin Graham is under fire today. He should be. His double standards have cost the church. This mistake should not define him — he has done much good and preached the Gospel faithfully for many years — but it should grieve him. Through his blatant hypocrisy, he has earned his critics’ wrath.” This history of hypocrisy and controversy is tied to some extent to Graham’s personal history to some extent, which we will glance at below.
Second, there is the underlying assumption among right-wing anti-gay folk that someone who is gay can change his/her orientation, that s/he is choosing to have same-sex inclinations instead of heterosexual ones. This stance has long ago been completely debunked by psychological and psychiatric experts: sexual orientation is an intrinsic part of one’s being, not a choice. These experts and this assessment are completely ignored by Fundamentalists and anti-LGBTQ activists. It is thus extremely irresponsible for people in power like Graham to willfully ignore such evidence when their theological and personal opinions lead to such monstrous and hurtful practices as so-called “conversion therapy” and self-harm and suicide among LGBTQ youth.
Finally, there is the Biblical argument. While we will focus in Part II primarily on evidence from the time of Jesus and the first few centuries of the early church, with a brief examination of Christianity’s Graeco-Roman context, we can mention here certain passages from Hebrew Scriptures (traditionally referred to as the Old Testament) that refer to same-sex relationships. Graham and other Fundamentalists interpret the negative passages literally – even though they do not interpret other passages anywhere near as literally. For instance, Leviticus 20:13 forbids men having sexual intercourse with other men, but this chapter of the third book of the Bible also commands the death penalty or expulsion from the community for adultery, having intercourse when the woman has her period, etc.; only some extremists take such “commandments” seriously today. The conservative counter-argument is this, according to the First Baptist Church of Dallas: “The only rules of the Old Testament that apply to us today are the rules that are repeated in the New Testament.” We shall see in Part II the folly of this argument.
Significantly, the book of I Samuel documents the same-sex love between David, who became King of Israel around 1035 BCE, and Jonathan, a courageous warrior and the eldest son of King Saul. David and Jonathan lived together in Saul’s house; David “later took Jonathan’s surviving heir into his household to eat at his table;” and David lamented Jonathan’s death publicly: “thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26). As the late Yale scholar John Boswell points out in Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, “David and Jonathan probably appealed to early Christian residents of the Mediterranean as fulfilling the same human longings to which stories of same-gender fidelity and devotion had been directed in the ancient world” (136). A number of other modern scholars have made similar points. Conservative Christians, however, insist that the love between these two men is purely platonic and that “pro-homosex” commentators are misreading the texts.
Any reliance on Biblical texts written thousands of years ago must always take into serious consideration social context and larger ethical questions, including gender hierarchies, male and female prostitution, slavery, sexual exploitation, and linguistic and translation complications. Fundamentalists are, unfortunately, able to convince many followers that God gave these so-called “orders” against same-sex relationships exactly as they appear in English translation, without any critical examination.
Before we look in greater depth at same-sex relationships and same-sex love in early Christianity and its wider social context, let us note a few traits of Franklin Graham that are especially disturbing when compared to those of Pete Buttigieg.
Franklin Graham in Brief
Franklin Graham’s background can be found easily on the internet, so we will not belabor it here. Even though he is highly regarded by many people, and the organization he founded, Samaritan’s Purse, provides humanitarian aid around the world, several events in his life and his stances on current issues stand out as noteworthy.
- Early on, his parents sent him to Stony Brook, an elite Christian boarding school on Long Island. The younger Graham was sowing his wild oats and was expelled from the school. He had something of a conversion experience in 1974 and ultimately became CEO of the BGEA.
- Graham has been criticized for drawing two full-time salaries – one from BGEA and one from Samaritan’s Purse. He gave one up for awhile then started taking it again; he earns much more than most CEOs of similar nonprofits.
- In a March 2011 interview with Newsmax, Graham claimed that the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan “may be” the second coming and Armageddon.
- Graham maligned Islam after the 9/11 attacks and erroneously claimed that President Obama was a secret Muslim.
- Graham has long been virulently against the LGBTQ community. The Bible verses he cites to support his claims are in direct opposition to the dozens of Bible verses that speak of the love of God and Jesus.
Because Graham’s life and ministry is anchored almost completely on a conservative reading of the Bible, we must see how his interpretations stand up against mainline scholarship. Without tracing all of the considerable evidence-based scholarship on homosexuality and the Bible, we will take the opportunity in our next post to highlight some of the main points. We will also provide scholarly resources on this topic.
Boswell, John. Same-sex Unions in Premodern Europe. New York: Villiard Books, 1994.