Franklin Graham recently wrote that he supports the ban on refugees coming to the US and did not see it as a “bible issue”. He clarified that he also believes that caring for refugees is the role of the church. Writing on Facebook, Graham stated “The president’s job is not the same as the job of the church. As Christians we are clearly taught in the Bible to care for the poor and oppressed…”
This is an important statement for the position it takes, stating that Christians can support a government policy that harms the vulnerable while themselves acting on a biblical command to care for the vulnerable. Graham supports this position by emphasizing the need for security. He writes “We are a nation and we need to protect our borders. There are threats today, that we did not have even 10 years ago. …”
The controversy over whether refugees pose any threat aside, and putting aside what “extreme vetting” means, I want to focus on the distinction between supporting government for one policy and taking a different stand as the church and as committed Christians. Graham defends this distinction by saying “The president’s job is not the same as the job of the church. As Christians, we are clearly taught in the Bible to care for the poor and oppressed.” This position goes to a basic and long standing weakness in faith-based development work. Christians devote great resources, in time and money, to care for the vulnerable, but have typically not been present for policy debates that in many cases create those who need care. Graham completely fails to acknowledge that the church has a role in policy, and that Christians should also be prepared to advocate for the vulnerable to their government, in addition to direct service.
In effect Graham argues that Christians can take a position on government policy that is at odds with their theology. While this may be good conservative politics, many would not agree that this is good theology. My interest in this is not simply to point out what I see as an inconsistent position, but to ask if it reflects something more basic, and if so, what is the evidence for my assertion that there is a more fundamental cause for concern.
Franklin Graham is politically active and makes frequent political statements. Could politics be influencing his theology? There is some interesting evidence from social science on the corrupting effect of church engagement in politics. Reich and dos Santos, writing in Latin American Politics and Society, studied corruption in Brazil and the connection to the evangelical community. Brazil is an interesting case for study as it has the largest evangelical community in South America, and Evangelicals in Brazil tend to be active and influential in politics. The authors compared three ways evangelicals relate to politics: outright rejection of politics, engagement as concerned individuals only, and formally engaging as a function of the church or denomination. They then linked these three modes to known cases of corruption to see if there were any connections. In the first case, rejection of politics, there was no connection to politics and political influence. In the second, personal engagement, political engagement is the result of personal theology and commitment and not church or para-church organizational needs and priorities, and is not connected to corruption. In the third, organizational, formal, or systematic involvement, there was a link to corruption, at least in Brazil. It resulted from the power and influence of political office impacting the values and theology of the participants. As the authors put it, “affinity with a style of machine politics … is particularly corruption-prone”. The corruption of theology in this case was the adoption over time of the “prosperity gospel” and using it to justify corrupt political acts.
To be clear, I am not suggesting Franklin Graham is corrupt. What I am saying is that active engagement with politics on a formal (organizational or political system) level changes one’s theological views so that they align more with political beliefs and action. There are other examples of this in the research literature…
Burchardt, writing in Sociology of Religion, looked at how churches in South Africa were impacted by their working with government agencies and non-government organizations (NGOs) on the campaign to end the spread of HIV. Government agencies and NGOs quickly recognized local churches as providing both a means of access and influence due to their embeddedness in the community. This, by the way, is now going on globally. They recruited churches in the AIDS campaign, providing resources and political influence. Many churches participated at the church and denominational level, and began learning the methods of NGOs in what the authors called the “FBO-ization” of the church (turning the church into an NGO). On follow up it was clear that this was not without consequences for the church. Many of the participating churches turned their ministries into projects and gave priority to those most aligned with government and NGO programs. Their methods increasingly reflected those of their NGO patrons, in some cases so much so that they were no longer recognizable to the local community as a church. In an example of the poor becoming poorer, church in poor communities, which themselves tend to be poor, which most vulnerable to this influence. Wealthy churches, with less need of support from any NGO or government, were largely independent of this influence.
There is a large body of research evidence supporting the existence of this phenomenon of those in need becoming more like those with wealth, power or prestige. When a weaker organization partners with a stronger one, such as a church with a large NGO or government agency, over time it adapts to reflect the values and methods of the stronger partner. The process is called “organizational isomorphism” and it occurs in most organizational partnerships.
Circling back to Franklin Graham’s statement, I am suggesting his convoluted logic that Christians can assert one position personally (welcome and care for refugees) while supporting a different position politically (bar refugees from entering) is evidence of this influence. It compartmentalizes a basic Biblical commandment to seek justice, act with mercy and walk humbly (Micah 6:8) and to care for the foreigner (Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodus 23:9) Nowhere does scripture suggest Christians first seek their own safety. Perhaps such a head spinning contradiction can be explained by the need to maintain a politically conservative position and at the same time adjust theology to make it fit. It is political isomorphism at work.
 Reich, G., & dos, S. P. (March 08, 2014). The Rise (and Frequent Fall) of Evangelical Politicians: Organization, Theology, and Church Politics. Latin American Politics and Society, 55, 4, 1-22.
 Burchardt, M. (March 01, 2013). Faith-based humanitarianism: Organizational change and everyday meanings in South Africa. Sociology of Religion: a Quarterly Review, 74, 1, 30-55.