Graham, the son of Billy Graham and a leading evangelical figure in his own right, last week told Beliefnet that workers from his charitable group, Samaritan's Purse, were "poised and ready" to enter Iraq after the war to help with humanitarian aid.
That's infuriated Muslim leaders because: First, Graham has been one of the most strident critics of Islam, calling it a "very evil and wicked religion." Second, he made it clear that while converting Muslims wasn't the goal, "I believe as we work, God will always give us opportunities to tell others about his Son.We are there to reach out to love them and to save them, and as a Christian I do this in the name of Jesus Christ." Third, he's closely associated with President Bush, having delivered the invocation at the inauguration.
Yet Tuesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said he'd have no comment on Graham's activities, and referred questions to the State Department. A State Department spokesman referred calls to the Agency for International Development, which coordinates humanitarian aid. "What private charitable organizations choose to do without U.S. government funding is ultimately their decision," said Ellen Yount, an AID spokeswoman. "How could the U.S. government control that? We can't just say to an organization, 'you can or cannot do something,' if we don't fund them. Imagine what the United States Congress would say to us."
Hopefully, Congress would say: Secretary Powell, President Bush, pick up the phone and tell Graham that although his intentions may be noble, he's now interfering with American foreign policy.
The stakes could not be higher. The administration is struggling unsuccessfully to convince the world that this isn't a "crusade" against Islam. Suicide bombers, eager to be part of the new Holy War, are reportedly entering Iraq. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is warning that the U.S. posture will create "a hundred Bin Ladens."
And now the news of Graham's activities is starting to spread in the Muslim media. The publisher of the British Muslim magazine Q-News responded to the reports about Graham by writing in The Guardian, "For the few remaining Muslims who doubted the crusading nature of the coalition forces, the final blow came last week." The website khalifah.com, an Arabic site, reported the news as "Enhancing the conviction among some Arabs and Muslims that the U.S.-led war of aggression on Iraq is part of a new "crusade" campaign."
The activities and rhetoric of American Christian leaders are noticed abroad. When Jerry Falwell said Muhammad was a terrorist it literally triggered riots in India.
Obviously other factors besides the activities of American Christians are helping fuel the notion that this is an anti-Islam war. But this is one that the White House could almost certainly control--if it so chooses.
Not only will the White House not rebuke Graham, but the Christian leader told Beliefnet he's been in "daily contact" with US Government officials involved in the humanitarian effort and has never heard any concerns expressed. "We would not go in and participate in something that would embarrass our administration," Graham says. But he added, "We don't work for the U.S. Government, so we don't get our permission from them."
I have tremendous respect for Franklin Graham. His humanitarian missions and spiritual writings have brought comfort and inspiration to millions. Indeed, Beliefnet has published some of his writings and his book has even been advertised on this site.
So it's with some trepidation that I write that Graham's activities not only undermine long-term strategic objectives but may even put American troops at risk right now by helping to fuel anti-American sentiment among Iraqis.
So why has no one in the administration been willing to rein in Graham? The most generous explanation is simply that they were slow to understand the significance of Graham's intended move. Another possibility is that they're conscious of Graham's popularity with evangelical Christian voters, a key to Bush's election and to his re-election.
I know that's a serious criticism--implying that the President is putting domestic politics over national interest. But this isn't the first time Bush has weighed domestic political factors in dealing with Graham and other evangelical leaders. Throughout 2002, Christian leaders like Graham, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson issued ever more caustic criticisms of Islam - at the same time President Bush was saying it was a "religion of peace."
Yet the White House remained quiet -- until after the midterm election. Eight days after the votes were counted, Bush and Powell then rebuked the Christian leaders. "Some of the comments that have been uttered about Islam do not reflect the sentiments of my government or the sentiments of most Americans," Bush said. Referring to a comment from Robertson comparing Muslims to Nazis, Powell said, "This kind of hatred must be rejected. This kind of language must be spoken out against. We cannot allow this image to go forth of America because it is an inaccurate image of America."
Why did they wait until after the election? Michael Cromartie, director of the evangelical studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Institute, speculated at the time that they didn't want to dampen enthusiasm among crucial evangelical Christian voters: "Why alienate the base before the election? Why not do it now when you have serious political capital?"
Since the post-election rebuke, Graham has been careful not to criticize Islam publicly. But, according to Graham, no one at the White House or State Department told him to stop his people from going to Baghdad.
Are domestic politics keeping Bush or Powell from doing what's right for the country? Sure looks like that way. If that's not the reason, why won't they tell Franklin to stay home?