Forget disinviting Franklin Graham from the Pentagon observance of the National Day of Prayer, he should never have been invited to begin with! And that initial invitation is what raises concern.
Franklin Graham is who he is and believes what he believes. We should all defend his right to hold and express even those beliefs of his which are racist and stupid, as are his past claims that Islam is a wicked and evil faith. But how people in decisions-making roles failed to appreciate that such views, however constitutionally defensible they may be, are totally inconsistent with public spiritual leadership is actually a little scary. Maybe those who simply say we are not ready for a national day of prayer are right.
Perhaps we really have not evolved past the dueling triumphalisms of absolutist faith, as embodied by Graham, and totalitarian secularity as embodied by those groups which oppose the Pentagon honoring the national day of prayer altogether. But if that is the case, the vast majority of Americans are poorly served.
Most Americans believe in some form of higher power and almost as many pray. And even in a country with as many as100 million evangelical Christians of whom Graham is one, most of us do not share his views. So the real issue here is who will be held accountable for issuing an invitation which betrays the spirituality of most Americans?
I am not asking for someone to lose their job, but I am asking, especially as one who believes that a National Day of Prayer is a good and proper thing, that Graham’s removal from the Pentagon program not be the end of this issue. It should actually be just the beginning of what we should require of public spiritual leaders.
Public spiritual leadership need not shrink from its roots in any particular faith. Mentioning Jesus or Allah in a prayer does not disqualify one from public service. But reductionist hate speech directed at any other faith most certainly does.
If we are going to share a public celebration of prayer, then it must be done by those who respect the entire public, which includes millions of Muslims and even more people who neither believe in a higher power nor in the power of prayer. And by respect, I do not mean those who pray, however artfully, for such people to “see the light”.
This is not, as some defenders of Graham have tried to claim, about insulating ourselves from any ideas which any of us find controversial or offensive. This is about disqualifying from public spiritual leadership anyone who cannot, in good conscious, respectfully represent all those before whom they pray. Franklin Graham has made a career of failing that test and so did people at the Pentagon when they invited him.