Earlier this week, Rev. Franklin Graham sat down with Newsweek editor Jon Meacham for a brief interview about his disinvitation from the National Day of Prayer ceremony held at the Pentagon. Mid-way through the interview, Meacham pointedly asked Graham: “Do you believe that Christianity is under siege?” Graham replied in the affirmative. In a separate interview with Newsmax, Graham reiterated this persecuted Christian theme and suggested that secular oppression was right around the corner.
This rhetoric of Christian (read: evangelical) persecution is not unfamiliar to Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. On May 4, 2010, Mohler posted a lengthy blog post titled “It’s Getting Dangerous Out There – A Preacher Is Arrested in Britain.” Mohler’s column begins: “We have seen this coming for some time now. The public space has been closing, especially when it comes to Christian speech – and especially when that speech is about homosexuality.”
Mohler goes on to tell the story of Dale McAlpine, a British Baptist street preacher, who was arrested in London’s Hyde Park for preaching against homosexuality. Without a doubt, McAlpine’s religious liberty has been violated. However, Mohler implies to his largely American audience that what happened to McAlpine in England will soon happen to conservative evangelicals in the United States. Mohler concludes: “Do not think for a moment that this troubling development is of consequence only for street preachers in Britain. The signal sent by this kind of arrest reaches right into every church in every nation where a similar logic takes hold.”
Mohler’s comparison of England to the United States is less than honest. He ignores a number of inconvenient facts. First, England does not have a codified constitution. There is no equivalent in England to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Freedoms are found in statutory laws passed by Parliament. Religious freedom in England has always been treated as a right subject to legislative restrictions.
Mohler also conveniently fails to point out that the relationship between religious institutions and government is quite different in England. Conservative evangelical scholar Stephen Monsma has described this relationship as “Partial Establishment.” The Church of England is recognized as the official established church, the Queen holds the title of “Supreme Governor” of the Church of England, and seats are reserved in the House of Lords for senior Anglican officials. Most importantly, the advancement or promotion of religion is considered to be a charitable purpose by the English government. As a result, the overwhelming majority of religious schools in England are partially subsidized by the state. The English government also heavily subsidizes the work of religious social service providers. One survey found that government funds amount to 80% of the budgets of the top 3,800 charities in England, religious and secular alike.
Mohler never mentions to his readers that those of us in the United States enjoy real religious liberty and freedom of speech in the United States. Our First Amendment provides protections unparalleled in other nations including England. Congress cannot strip away our freedoms. We have a Constitution that protects Mohler’s right to speak out against homosexuality. The English do not.
We’re talking about Apples and Oranges. Mohler would have his readers believe we’re talking Apples and Apples. Mohler is not ignorant of the fact that England has a different (and liberty limiting) church-state model than the United States.
Mohler is certainly not a dumb guy. In fact, I would argue that he is a masterful “interpreter” of culture, facts be damned. However, when you are selling fear and actively pushing this persecuted Christian identity, sometimes facts get in the way. Nuances and real differences get in the way of the argument that Mohler is trying to make. And many of Mohler’s readers will eagerly buy what Mohler is selling – an excellent salesman, no doubt!
I’m always somewhat humored though by prominent evangelicals like Franklin Graham and Al Mohler who position themselves as part of some persecuted Christian minority. Franklin Graham is the son of Billy Graham who is probably the most famous religious leader of the 20th century. Franklin grew up the son of a man who held the title of “Pastor to Presidents.” Throughout his life, Franklin has had access to some of the most powerful men and women in the world. Now, Franklin is the victim of oppression.
Meanwhile, Mohler has been dubbed by TIME Magazine as the “reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the United States.” He too has access to powerful elected officials in addition to having the ear of the media. Nonetheless, Mohler would have you believe that he and his fellow conservative evangelicals are under attack.
These evangelical men have invested much time and energy in shaping American culture. Evangelicals have been credited with the re-election of President George W. Bush in 2004. Evangelicals of the Mohler/Graham variety wield a tremendous amount of influence in the Republican Party. That’s undeniable. White evangelicalism is a political force to be reckoned with. Al Mohler and Franklin Graham are leading voices in that movement, a movement that oozes privilege and has not experienced persecution.
All that said, Mohler and Graham both have done a true disservice to those facing actual oppression in American society by encouraging other evangelicals to embrace this persecuted Christian identity. Let’s hope that one day Mohler, Graham & Company will stop peddling fear and stop trivializing the plight of individuals who suffer from real oppression.