Franklin Graham in Russia

God: Big Enough to Stomach Us Both


A commentary on evangelist Franklin Graham in Moscow    


M o s c o w -- Rev. Franklin Graham’s visit to Moscow from 28 October to 1 November was surely the most “politically incorrect” visit of a Western church leader to Eastern Europe in decades. A foreboding of things to come had arisen when Graham assured at the outset that he was praying for Vladimir Putin. Franklin Graham, chairman of the “Billy Graham Evangelistic Association” had previously only visited Russia in 1984 along with his famous father. Franklin did hold evangelistic campaigns in Ukraine in July 2007 and June 2014.


Ukrainian Baptists had ridiculed the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” for a statement on 30 May 2014 which lauded the divorced Russian leader for “protecting and strengthening spiritual and moral values”. Graham repeated the transgression in his meeting with RUECB leadership on 28 October by assuring that Putin “defends Biblical values from the attacks of secularism”. On the basis of his statements in Moscow, Graham sees Putin as a major defender of the historic Christian faith. Barack Obama on the other hand is “without a Christian worldview” and “promotes atheism”.


Mainstream media – the “Washington Post” for ex. - have repeated branded Putin a “fascist”. Yet Graham insisted in Moscow that millions of simple Americans would like to see Vladimir Putin candidate for the office of US President. God has given Putin the wisdom necessary to “lead a massive country, which God has blessed”. Graham met personally with the Russian president for 45 minutes during the Moscow sojourn.


Kirill, the Patriarch of the world’s largest Orthodox community, the “Russian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate”, is another “favourite enemy” of Christians allied with Maidan-ruled Ukraine. Yet in their meeting on 28 October, Graham thanked the Patriarch’s church for its “strong voice in the defence of moral values”. In the global context, its voice is “extremely important”. Graham assured that Russia’s spiritual revival had “warmed his heart” and stressed the “special relationship” between their two organisations. Earlier this year, the two had cooperated on humanitarian projects dedicated to refugees from war-torn eastern Ukraine.


Graham’s long-term opposition to the Obama administration could be understood as narrow, one-issue politics, for he has constantly criticised the President’s stance on family and sexual issues. But he branched out into foreign policy during his Moscow visit by attacking anti-Russian sanctions, noting that it is always the little guy who suffers most.


The persecution of Christians has also become a major concern for Graham, and he praised Russia for taking up arms against IS in Syria. Though a Muslim, Bashar al-Assad has proven to be a defender of the Christian faith. Graham warned: “The fall of Assad would lead to a blood bath in which tens of thousands of Christians will die.” Without him, Christianity will be destroyed in that country. Distracted by his struggle for gays, Obama has according to Graham failed to come to the aid of Syria’s Christians. Graham and the Orthodox are planning to hold a large conference on religious persecution in the next 12 to 18 months


A new church alliance

Global support for Geneva’s reputedly liberal “World Council of Churches” is flagging and the Moscow Patriarchate has for over a decade entertained the thought of forming an alternative global movement. Until now, most of the ROC’s prospective allies in the evangelical camp were minor, right-wing lights such as the US anti-gay activists Paul Cameron and Scott Lively. But now a true heavy-hitter such as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has appeared on the scene – a development which could be a game changer.


After Graham spoke in his church on 1 November, the Norwegian Pentecostal Mats-Ola Ishoel, head of Moscow’s largest Protestant congregation, mirrored the present euphoria. I believe Protestants “will in our generation . . . discover how much they have in common with traditional Catholics and Orthodox”. Liberalism and changes in doctrine “have created greater distance between us and other Protestants. I am convinced we will find a new level of cooperation.” Bishop Ishoel even claimed that Orthodox priests have attended his church’s Bible seminars in hopes of “learning about the Orthodox faith”. Very recently, on 27 October, Russian Baptists and the Orthodox held their first internal theological dialogue since 2007.


This new Christian unity will supposedly happen in concert with the Russian state. After a meeting with Graham on the 29th, Yaroslav Nilov, a leading representative of Vladimir Zhirnovsky’s “Liberal Democratic Party”, concluded that “we all are one big Christian world”. Russia is free of religious discrimination, he added. “With our traditional confessions, as well as with Protestants, we have extremely friendly and warm relations.”


Franklin Graham himself appealed for a new East-West alliance akin to the anti-fascist coalition of WW II. That unity is necessary to “ward off present-day dangers”.


This movement is not free of an occasional side jab. After a meeting involving Graham on the 29th, Pavel Begichev, a pastor now associated with the tiny “Evangelical-Lutheran Church of the Augsburg Confession”, announced that only his Lutheran church remains free of compromise through association with the mainline Lutheran denominations of Germany and Finland. These churches, he claimed, are plugging the cause of same-sex marriage even within Russia.


The Ukrainian reaction

Understandably, the evangelicals of Kiev-run Ukraine are in shock following the latest developments in Moscow. The Baptist intellectual Mikhail Cherenkov wrote on Facebook: “I am speechless. This amounts to a total compromise of the Christian faith.” Yet those remarks were soon deleted and he emailed the author instead that issues of evangelisation and humanitarian aid “dare not be separated from issues of fairness, integrity and honesty”. The costs for preaching a Gospel in sympathy with the Kremlin are too high.


Elsewhere on Facebook, Olga Westfall, a Ukrainian émigré living in Atlanta, exclaimed in Russian: “Do not believe the Russian press! Graham has complimented Putin strictly for opposing the unpleasant influence of homosexuals. The Russian press has invented all the rest. .   . . I attend the church of the famous preacher Charles Stanley. He and Pastor Anthony George courageously label Putin a political criminal.”


A sidelight: It was the Baptist Stanley*s mission society which supplied a great number of West-Ukraine’s soldiers with electronic players containing inspirational messages a year ago. (See our release from 31 January 2015.)


Accusations of fascism have sailed back–and-forth across the barricades for years. A Ukrainian Charismatic leader was incensed that Billy Graham’s organisation had hosted the Moscow Patriarchate’s Minister for External Affairs, Metropolitan Hilarion, during a visit to the USA a year ago. Hilarion had then warned of relations with “Ukrainian fascists”.



In short, the BGEA has dropped a wrecking ball on convictions close to the heart of pro-Kiev Protestants. Their view has assumed that Russia is the aggressor, Ukraine the victim. Morality is strictly on their side and the entire “civilised” world sees things likewise. In hopes of limiting damage to the Gospel witness, Ukrainian evangelical leaders have repeatedly instructed dissenters not holding these views to keep silent. Yet Graham is taking his orders from elsewhere.


Thanks to Graham, it is abundantly clear that the conservative Western world is no longer unified behind Maidan. Ukraine’s pro-Kiev evangelicals are suddenly out on a limb defending a liberal and secular Western order without being liberals themselves. On issues of the family, Kirill and the Ukrainian evangelicals want the same thing – yet Ukrainians intend to achieve that objective without a major conservative force called Russia.


Essentially, I am grateful for the geopolitical stance taken by Franklin Graham in Moscow. His actions support the view that God doesn’t restrict himself to pro-Western points of view. God is multipolar – he is tolerant enough to stomach both pro-Kiev and pro-Kremlin views. That is a question vital for the acceptance of an evangelical witness in regions beyond the stretch of Washington and the European Union.


Mikhail Cherenkov fears that Franklin Graham has compromised the Gospel – I regard the exact opposite to be true. In the Ukrainian context, Graham has helped rescue the Gospel from the danger of partisan embracement by Washington’s political establishment. Graham is helping save the evangelical witness in the BRICS (Russia, India, and China in particular) countries. And the BGEA Is big and wealthy enough to weather storms sinking lesser organisations.


At least since the 1970s, the BGEA has been going there where other missions fear to tread: for ex. North Korea, the USSR and East Germany. That’s been a big selling point in the competition for donor dollars. Granted, the BGEA has In its rush to befriend the mighty occasionally overlooked the sensitivities of its small, local Protestant allies. But I am happy that the BGEA wants to meet the other side. The BGEA has its own agenda; national churches have others. But when the interests of the two overlap, both sides can get helped.


Not for the first time, Russian policies on religion are moving in two directions at once. Legislation from the past summer attempts to limit evangelical activity by requiring the registration of individual congregations and their members. Franklin Graham supports the opposite movement. The BGEA can do good by slowing movement in negative, restrictive directions.


Not least of all, Graham’s struggle for the survival of ancient Catholic and Orthodox communities in the embattled Middle East invokes tremendous appreciation in Russia. The BGEA cares about more than just evangelicals. Elsewhere, the Moscow Patriarchate is interested in expanding its influence westward, The BGEA is one institution willing to lend them a hand.


Negative ramifications

I personally appreciate the positive, geo-strategic ramifications of Graham’s efforts. But I am less enthusiastic about the rationale and ideological underpinnings of the pro-family stance. The suspicion remains that the campaign for family values is little more than an elegant form of gay-bashing. Being anti-gay and being pro-family are not synonyms; one can readily be for one of these without being for the other. The anti-gay movement certainly has its questionable elements – Cameron and Lively have already been mentioned.


Much like the US-American evangelist Billy Sunday (1862-1935), Franklin Graham is a highly divisive figure – more so than his own father. Billy Sunday won and lost legions of people for the cause of the church. And today in the USA, the young and educated are leaving the evangelical movement in droves. Franklin Graham will not be retarding that process. Unlike the present Pope, Graham is often not a unifying figure.


Victor Hamm, a member of the BGEA team born in a Soviet Gulag, has been regarded as a kind of Russian-speaking Billy Graham. In view of the newest developments in Moscow, Hamm will be facing an uphill battle to restore his good name in Ukraine.


Franklin Graham imparts the issues of gay rights and same-sex marriage with incredible significance. He stated repeatedly in Moscow that the US has strayed from the Christian path during the past 10-15 years. I would argue that the straying occurred much earlier. One could start for ex. with the massacre of native aborigine peoples in the 16the century or the introduction of slavery. Same-sex marriage is not the only sin.


Along with the Russian Orthodox, the Southern Baptist Franklin Graham has a statist, state-church understanding of Christian morality. The government is called upon to push Christian, family values. Taras Dyatlik on the other hand, an evangelical educator from Rovno (Rivne) in western Ukraine, questions whether the needs of the family are solvable with politics. He writes: “The protection of traditional family values is not above all a public fight against LGBT rights”. It is not accomplished with mine fields and assault rifles. It is much better addressed by loyalty to one’s wife “until death do us part”. At least in the European context, Dyatlik sounds much more like a Baptist and free-church adherent than Graham.


An angel with a fractured wing

Russians enthused about Franklin Graham should remember that if he indeed is angelic, than he can only qualify as an angel with a fractured wing. Pulling down full-time salaries from both the BGEA and its “Samaritan’s Purse” offshoot, Graham may well qualify as America’s highest-salaried humanitarian relief executive.


Currently, his combined salaries total roughly a million dollars per year. (See “Charlotte Observer” of 8 August 2015.) Franklin’s aged father, Billy, as well as Franklin’s son Will, pull in an additional $400.000 per year combined as members of BGEA’s board. Besides Franklin as CEO, four of the 14 members on BGEA’s governing board are family members. In most countries of the world, including Russia, such structures would qualify as sleaze. The irreverent call his salary from Samaritan’s Purse “making mullah from misery” - a not uncommon phenomena within the so-called “aid industry”,


Which of his many messages is the true message of Franklin Graham? Perhaps he is a sum total of these contradictory messages. People indeed are a study in contradictions – not everyone is Pope Francis or a Franz of Assisi.


William Yoder, Ph.D.
Colorado, 09 November 2015

A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #15-11, 2.109 words.