Franklin Graham’s tour evokes evangelical support for Trump

Greenville, N.C. • The Rev. Franklin Graham did not utter the word “impeachment” as he spoke to thousands of Christians here this week, the latest stop on a long-running tour he has dubbed Decision America — a title with political and religious undertones.

But evangelicals who turned out to see Graham didn’t necessarily need his warning that “our country is in trouble” to tap into their deep-rooted support for President Donald Trump during an intensifying political crisis hundreds of miles north in Washington.

“I do feel like we are, as Christians, the first line of defense for the president,” Christina Jones, 44, said before Graham took the stage.

Trump is “supporting our Christian principles and trying to do his best,” she added, even as “everybody’s against him.”

The impeachment furor is the latest test of the president’s seemingly unbreakable bond with conservative evangelical Christians. Trump suggested this week that the peril of impeachment would only cement his ties to that voting bloc, which helped propel him into office, and supporters who have stood by him through accusations of sexual assault and infidelity see no reason to back away from a president they view as unfairly beleaguered.

Frances Lassiter, 65, dismissed Democrats’ pursuit of a case against Trump as “all a bunch of crap” designed to push him from office.

Asked about comments Trump circulated from an ally and Southern Baptist pastor who warned of a “civil warlike fracture” if the investigation succeeds, Lassiter and others in the crowd at Graham’s tour shared concerns about political polarization putting further strain on the country.

“Could have a war ... you just don’t know,” Lassiter said. “It’s scary.”

Graham sounded a similar note in an interview with The Associated Press aboard his tour bus. The 67-year-old evangelist and son of the late Rev. Billy Graham said the inquiry into Trump’s solicitation of help from Ukrainian leaders in investigating former Vice President Joe Biden was “a lot over nothing.”

“It’s going to destroy this country if we let this continue,” Graham said of the impeachment investigation, urging Americans “to come together as a nation and focus on the problems” that beset both parties, such as immigration and international trade.

Graham sought to keep his tour, which he opened in 2016 and took to a half-dozen Northeastern states earlier this year, separate from politics. But he also openly echoed arguments Trump has made in pressing unfounded Ukraine-related corruption allegations against Biden.

Trump has tried to sully Biden in scandal, questioning his Democratic rival’s role steering the Obama administration’s relationship with Kyiv while son Hunter Biden sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. Although some anti-corruption watchdogs raised eyebrows, no evidence of improper actions by the Democratic presidential hopeful or his son has materialized.

Graham, for his part, encouraged Trump and others to keep looking, citing the vice president’s son’s acknowledged drug addiction as a reason Hunter Biden is “suspect.”

“So it’s probably worth looking into to see what Vice President Biden (did) at the time, what kind of promises he made to help his son with the Ukrainians.”

According to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, 13,800 people attended Graham’s Wednesday event in Greenville, seat of a county that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Greenville also hosted a July Trump rally where the audience broke into a derogatory chant against a first-term congresswoman who had drawn Trump’s ire. The strong turnout for Graham underscores the formidable reach of the evangelist’s message in his home and occasional swing state of North Carolina.

And the programming was as festive as it was introspective. Graham’s group counseled the faithful after a Christian singer performed live and the night ended with a fireworks display.

Graham’s preaching tour featured another touch, one more reminiscent of a political rally: counterprogramming from evangelicals on the left. An hour outside of Greenville, a group of progressive Christians led by the Rev. William Barber and his Poor People’s Campaign held a “Red Letter Revival” this week to offer an alternate vision of policymaking aligned with biblical values.

That revival aims to redefine public understanding of issues of faith, encompassing an inclusive immigration agenda as well as more focus on helping the poor and the environment, explained Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a liberal evangelical preacher helping to organize it.

Wilson-Hartgrove described Graham’s tour as a “coordinated effort to intertwine” religion and conservative politics. While he had little hope that supportive evangelicals would abandon the president for “personally offensive” actions — Trump used profanity to slam Democrats this week — Wilson-Hartgrove cast impeachment as “a moral question.”

“Does a president of any party have a sort of unquestioned right to, in this case, break [Federal Election Commission] rules and to break the law in order to win an election?” Wilson-Hartgrove asked in an interview. “It’s a question of right and wrong which people of faith should have concerns about.”

In the crowd at Graham’s tour, which will stop in six more North Carolina cities over the next 10 days, believers had reserved their concern for Trump’s Democratic antagonists.

“They’re just digging things up and making things up just to try to take him down,” said 64-year-old Mike Fitzgerald, “and I don’t think that’s fair.”

That sentiment tracks with polling, which shows an overwhelming majority of white evangelical Protestants consistently expressing approval of Trump’s handling of his job since his inauguration. Even among white evangelicals, those who attend church weekly have been just as or even more likely to approve of the president over the course of his term, according to Pew Research Center data.

In August, a Pew Research survey found 77% of white evangelical Protestants approving of Trump’s performance. Those who report attending church weekly were more likely to approve than those who attend less often, 81% versus 73%.

Graham has said that he invites all races, religions and sexual orientations to hear him, although he has aired anti-LGBTQ views. He reiterated them when asked about Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., a married gay man and devout Christian seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

Graham’s father, a renowned preacher who died last year, aired regrets later in his life about having “sometimes crossed the line” in his involvement in politics.

Franklin Graham said he is cognizant of his late father’s perspective, averring that “you want to be careful, because politicians are going to want to use you.”

But he did not appear to count Trump in that judgment: “One thing I appreciate about President Trump, he’s not a politician. And that’s why he gets in trouble all the time,” Graham said.

Associated Press writer Hannah Fingerhut contributed from Washington. AP religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.