With the exception of his unfortunate post-Sept. 11 call for a "crusade" against terrorism, President George Bush has fashioned his rhetoric about Islam carefully. The administration has scrupulously crafted numerous speeches that make clear that the United States is not making war on Islam, even as it hunts down Osama Bin Laden and invades Iraq.
I believe him: Ever since he was the governor of Texas in the mid-1990s, Bush has been friendly to Muslims and to Islam and has pointedly referred to "churches, synagogues, and mosques" in speeches. But I wouldn't believe Bush if I were a Muslim in the Middle East and saw his attitude toward Franklin Graham.
Franklin Graham is the son of Billy Graham and a far more influential figure in the evangelical Christian community than Jerry Falwell or even Pat Robertson. Graham is viewed as the torch-carrier for his father, who is still among the most beloved figures in American Christianity. Moreover, the Graham family is close to Bush. Billy Graham led Bush to Christianity in the 1980s; Franklin Graham delivered the invocation at his presidential inauguration.
In addition to being publicly allied with the Bush administration, Graham also happens to be stridently anti-Islam. His list of anti-Islam comments is long; his most succinct was that Islam is a "very evil and wicked religion."
Graham is also, he says, "poised and ready" to send representatives of the charity he runs to Iraq as soon as possible. His primary purpose is humanitarian aid—providing food and shelter—but he also admits, "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."
Graham is not alone in wanting to work in Iraq. A number of other Christian groups—including the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination—are packing their bags and heading to Iraq (if they're not already there), equipped with food, shelter, and Bibles. (These well-wishers are not to be confused with an Army chaplain who forced his troops to get baptized if they wanted a bath.)
There are reasons to have great respect for Graham: He has used his considerable fund-raising prowess to build up a humanitarian organization, Samaritan's Purse, rather than a crystal cathedral or a Bible theme park. Samaritan's Purse has done extraordinary work in many of the most difficult and impoverished places in the world. It spends a more than $100 million a year on aiding the needy. (It should be noted that Muslim radicals have attacked hospitals and projects run by Samaritan's Purse, which may, in some small way, have incited Graham's anti-Islam rhetoric.)
But I'm not sure any of this means that America's foreign-policy objectives are served by having a Bush-loving, Islam-bashing, Muslim-converting Christian icon on the ground in Iraq tending to the bodies and souls of the grateful but deeply suspicious Muslim population. Or, to put it more simply, the idea is absolutely loopy.
The Bush administration has taken a highly principled position of removing itself from discussion of the matter: Ari Fleischer insists that the administration can't block a private group from doing its thing. Ellen Yount, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is coordinating the humanitarian efforts, elaborated: "What private charitable organizations choose to do without U.S. government funding is ultimately their decision. 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."
The idea that the U.S. government is powerless to do anything about Samaritan's Purse seems odd. We can obliterate another nation's army in a few weeks, but when it comes to reining in a disruptive charity, well, our hands our tied? Besides, given the Bush-Graham connection, reining in Franklin Graham need not even be an official government action. I'm pretty sure that if George Bush or Colin Powell called up Graham and asked him to stand down, he probably would, without a single regulatory shot fired.
Some, like the highly respected Michael Cromartie, director of evangelical studies for the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, may argue that such interference would endanger a fundamental American principle. "Religious liberty and religious freedom trump other concerns," Cromartie says. "And it is not the job of the Bush administration to tell private relief agencies which countries they can and cannot enter."
In fact, religious liberty does not trump all concerns. Among the concerns it does not trump is the safety of our soldiers and the desire not to have the entire Muslim world wanting to wage war against America. And make no mistake: Franklin Graham's mission to Iraq will help convince the Arab world that America is out to convert Muslims to Christianity. What Graham is doing probably isn't illegal; it's merely immoral.
The administration's sudden fastidiousness about civil liberties has everything to do with who Franklin Graham is: not only a friend of Bush's, but, along with his supporters and the Southern Baptist Convention, arguably the largest and most loyal voting bloc in Bush's re-election strategy. And so Bush refuses to do unto Franklin Graham as was done unto Sister Souljah. This is cowardly. To be fair—or maybe to be generous—Bush may be leaving Graham alone because he thinks that Samaritan's Purse does good humanitarian work and that's what the Iraqis need most desperately. And I do believe that half of Graham's motivation is genuinely to help feed people—the other half being the desire to save the souls of some Muslims by helping them find Jesus before they die of thirst.
There is a way Graham can help Iraqis without hurting America. He could organize a national fund-raising effort to help Iraqi families and pledge that all funds will be distributed by a neutral group like Mercy Corps, Save the Children, or Doctors Without Borders. Better yet, he could give the money to the Red Crescent. Imagine the photo of Franklin Graham—and George Bush—handing over a check, generated by gifts of millions of Christians, standing in front of a great big Islamic crescent. This would not only help the Iraqis in the aftermath of the war, but could improve interfaith tolerance.
Though it frightens me to engage in a battle-of-the-Bible-verses with Franklin Graham, I do have to point out that when Jesus was sending forth his disciples to preach the word, he pointedly told them to stay away from Gentiles and out of Samaria because the Gentiles/Samarians would not welcome the message (Matthew 10:5). There would be a time for that, he seemed to be saying—but not now.