Church, meet state

Celebrity evangelist Franklin Graham encourages local Christians to get political

Thousands of people gathered from as far away as Reno to see The Rev. Franklin Graham and Christian rock star Jeremy Camp at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico.

Thousands of people gathered from as far away as Reno to see The Rev. Franklin Graham and Christian rock star Jeremy Camp at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds in Chico.

Photo by Charles Finlay

On Sunday, June 3, Kyle Walling was sitting with some friends at a table facing the hot afternoon sun and watching as a river of people carrying lawn chairs streamed into Chico’s Silver Dollar Fairgrounds.

This was a gathering of Christians come from far and wide to see the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, and listen to his fiery call for salvation politics. It was the penultimate stop on his 10-city tour of California, during which he would combine a call to political action—with a conservative twist—with a sermon leading to a mass confession of sins.

Walling had a different confession in mind. Taped to his table was a handmade sign that read: “Will you hear our confessions?”

I stepped forward to volunteer. I said I was a reporter and might like to include his confession in my story. That was fine by him. He drew close and said softly, “I live in a neighborhood in Chico where there are lots of homeless people. They walk past my house every day. I know they’re hungry, but I don’t feed them. I feel guilty about that.”

Walling is a devout Christian, but his Jesus is not the same as Graham’s. He gave me a copy of an open letter he’d written to “the Christian Church in Chico.” In it he writes that Jesus’ “politics was to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger/foreigner, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned, regretfully we (especially of the Evangelical tradition) are now known for pledging our allegiance to idols such as political parties, flags, countries, and ideologies that, in effect, are anti-Christ.”

He was speaking, of course, of Graham, who he points out has made public statements calling for “banning Muslims from the country, disallowing LGBTQ+ people in our churches and homes, [regarding] our President’s election (and God’s role in it) [and] whether or not Jesus would use nuclear weapons on terrorists.”

The event itself was a lot like a rock concert—vast stage, huge sound and light systems, large twin projection screens. A crowd of somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 people filled the lawn area in the center of the fairgrounds.

For them it was a fun—and free—event. Two opening music acts, including a performance by Christian music star Jeremy Camp and his band, were part of the draw.

Jimmy Giombetti, who sported a Maori-style tattoo that ran up his neck and onto his cheek, and his wife, Tarrah, said they’d driven from Reno mostly to see Camp perform, but also to see Graham preach. They were soft-spoken and amiable, gentle people despite the dramatic tattoo.

Bob Wenzinger, a 78-year-old retired insurance agent from Gridley, said he was there because his wife wanted to come and his church had asked parishioners to attend. He said that he’d never had a chance to see “the dad,” so he was determined to see his son instead.

Rev. Franklin Graham.

Photo by Charles Finlay

I asked him whether he agreed with Graham’s widely publicized statement that progressives—that is, Democrats—are “godless.”

“No, no, absolutely not,” he replied. “We need to keep politics separate from religious belief.”

He added that he was deeply concerned about the partisanship and tribalism that afflicted the body politic.

A number of Christian motorcycle clubs were in attendance. One biker, a burly black man with the unusual name of Choir (surname Tennin), explained that the event’s organizers had invited them to attend because their very presence and visibility—all wore biker vests—helped keep order.

He’d been a little reluctant, Tennin said, because he’s a big sports fan and the Chico Heat and Golden State Warriors were both playing that evening. But as a member of the Lord’s Prospects club, he felt called to take part in the Rev. Graham’s ministry.

Tennin said he knew a number of men who once had been outlaw bikers. Somewhere along the way—often in prison—they discovered Jesus and abandoned their outlaw ways.

Franklin Graham’s sermon began as a call to spiritual and political arms and ended with a mass absolution of sins.

Graham was ostensibly nonpartisan, saying that our country was a mess and “the Democrats are not going to fix it, the Republicans are not going to fix it. Only God can fix it.”

But the politicians who needed Christians’ prayers most, he said, were Democrats such as Jerry Brown and Nancy Pelosi. “It doesn’t mean you vote for them; you pray for them. But wouldn’t it be good if prayer changed them?”

He encouraged the audience to get involved in politics—to run for the city council, the school board or mayor. He urged them to “saturate the ballot and get a majority of born-again Christians in office.”

But he warned any potential candidates that they would need thick skins. “Progressives,” he said, “are going to attack you with their evil ways.” Be not afraid, he said. “Church, take your state back!” he exhorted.

Then it was on to sin. “We’re all sinners, and God knows it,” Graham said. But just like a computer, God has a delete button that can wipe away a believer’s sins. Graham asked those who wanted to be absolved to stand, but less than half did so. Undeterred, he said, “I want you to know God has forgiven you. God has hit the delete.”