Franklin Graham isn’t running for president in 2016, but his election-year schedule looks a lot like those who are.
Starting Tuesday, the North Carolina-based evangelist will embark on a 50-state tour, holding prayer rallies on the steps of each state capitol and calling on conservative evangelicals — “born-again” Christians who tend to care most about social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage — to go to the polls and vote for “godly leaders.”
His first stop: Iowa — site of the February caucuses that will officially kick off the 2016 presidential race.
What is Graham up to?
He has promised not to endorse any candidates or even let any of them speak at his rallies. Just before Christmas, he even announced he was quitting the Republican Party, partly out of frustration at the failure of the GOP-controlled Congress to defund Planned Parenthood — a group he compared to the Nazis in a Facebook post.
“I’m not going to support any party,” he told the Observer last year. “This 50-state tour is not for the Republican Party. … I’m as disappointed in them as I am the Democrats.”
But those who study the historic relationship between religion and politics say that, despite Graham’s claims to be nonpartisan, his tour could play a role in both the GOP presidential primary race and in the eventual Republican nominee’s general election campaign.
By shadowing the presidential contenders during the primary season, Graham’s tour “is not only sending a signal to voters, but also to all of the (Republican) candidates right now that (evangelicals’) strength still plays a significant role in the party,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. “And if these candidates want to win, they better address (evangelicals’) concerns and key issues.”
By the fall, when Republicans face Democrats up and down the ballot, Bitzer and others say, Graham won’t have to endorse anybody by name. His plea for Christians to back candidates who’ve taken Bible-based stands would be a green-light to vote for GOP candidates. And, if it works, Graham’s campaign could help the Republican Party achieve one of its crucial election-year goals: Swelling turnout by conservative Christian voters.
What could complicate this scenario: Donald Trump.
It’s still too early to tell whether he’ll get the Republican presidential nomination — he’s currently the front-runner — or whether he might eventually bolt the GOP and run for the White House as an independent.
Some evangelicals have been cool to Trump, a thrice-married owner of gambling casinos who has, in the past, supported abortion rights.
But Graham, still royalty in many evangelical circles because of his family name, has found himself agreeing with even some of Trump’s more controversial stands. Like the temporary ban on Muslim immigrants, which Graham proposed in July — months before Trump did.
In America’s increasingly polarized political culture, Graham’s outspokenness and his frequent appearances on Fox News shows have given him a high profile as a hard-right combatant. That’s even as he’s also widely credited for using his ministries — the BGEA and Samaritan’s Purse, a Boone-based charity — to help people in need in the United States and around the globe.
Graham has been called extreme by liberals and by some of his fellow evangelical Christians. But his words are celebrated as courageous by many conservatives. And the controversy he courts doesn’t seem to be hurting his ministries’ coffers — contributions were up for both in 2014, the latest year where totals are available.
Graham’s almost-daily and often-provocative posts on Facebook, meanwhile, are often “liked” and shared by 100,000-plus people. “Thank you for standing against the devils in DC,” one supporter, Dusty Schwartz, commented on Graham’s Facebook page.
Graham’s prayer rally tour will start in Iowa, where evangelical Christians traditionally dominate the Republican presidential caucuses. This year, according to current polls, the Republican to beat in Iowa is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a hard-right Republican who has lined up support from key evangelical pastors and other leaders.
On the Democratic side, the front-runner in Iowa, according to the latest polls, is former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She sought pastoral care from Billy Graham in the late 1990s after President Bill Clinton’s sexual liaison with Monica Lewinsky. But Hillary Clinton the presidential candidate is a strong supporter of abortion rights and same-sex marriage, which makes her a hard sell with most white evangelicals.
Later in January, Graham will take his “Decision America Tour” to New Hampshire, which will hold the country’s first primary. And in February, he’s scheduled to be in South Carolina, another early-primary state, where evangelicals are expected to decide the outcome of the GOP presidential primary.
The full schedule is being worked out, but Graham is expected to end his tour in Raleigh in October, when Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who is close to the Graham family, will be in the midst of what many are predicting will be a tough re-election battle.
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SOURCE: Winston-Salem Journal, McClatchy Regional News