Three Sundays in April (Part 4)

If you had thirty minutes to say something to the most powerful man in the world, what would you say?

This is how I started our short series titled “Three Sundays in April.”

On April 19, 2020, the Sunday after Easter, Donald Trump watched the service at Jack Graham’s Prestonwood Baptist Church in West Plano, Texas.

What did he hear?

Jack Graham is sixty-nine-years-old and a life-long Southern Baptist. He has a Masters of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Southwestern in “Church and Proclamation.” After serving several Southern Baptist Churches in Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida, Graham came to Prestonwood, a prominent Dallas-area megachurch, in 1989. Today the church claims 45,000 members. Graham was president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2002-2004.

Graham has strong court evangelical credentials. Here are some of his greatest hits:

  • Has has defended Trump’s immigration policies.
  • He is part of the Southern Baptist faction who opposed Russell Moore’s criticism of Donald Trump.
  • He has supported Trump’s handling of the coronavirus.
  • He believes that Trump is the “most pro life president” in his lifetime.
  • He rarely misses a photo-op with Trump.
  • He was one of the several evangelical leaders who prayed for Trump at the “Evangelicals for Trump” gathering in January 2020. (I wrote about this event at USA Today).
  • He signed a letter criticizing Christianity Today after former editor Mark Galli wrote an anti-Trump editorial. (He said the magazine was “increasingly liberal and out of step and out of touch with conservative Christians and churches”).
  • He defended Trump during impeachment, calling the proceedings against the president “ludicrous” and a “sham.”

When Donald Trump pointed his browser toward Prestonwood Baptist Church he watched a few praise songs and then saw Graham interviewing Texas governor Gregg Abbott. The Republican governor knew that his primary audience was not Graham or those sitting on their couches at home awaiting Graham’s sermon. Abbott was talking to the President of the United States. Abbott said that “Texas wants to lead the way” in opening the nation’s economy. He told Graham, “put your faith in God and Texas will once again rise-up to be the number one economy in the United States of America.”

Graham’s sermon was titled “We are Alive.” It was based on Acts 2, a passage chronicling the coming of the Holy Spirit and the first days of the early Christian church. Christians around the world celebrate these events on Pentecost Sunday. This year, May 31 is Pentecost Sunday. Since Southern Baptists do not follow the historic Christian calendar, Graham felt comfortable preaching on Acts 2 six weeks early.

Graham’s delivered a standard 3-point message. Based on the text, he exhorted his listeners to “exalt” Christ, “evangelize” the world, and “engage” the life of the church. Because several listeners had made professions of faith (by contacting the website on the screen) the week before–Easter Sunday–Graham wanted to make sure that these people got connected with a church characterized by these three practices. Those in the evangelical world call this “follow-up.” Billy Graham (no relation to Jack Graham as far as I know) would have new converts fill-out “decision cards” and the Graham organization would “follow-up” with them to make sure they got connected with a local congregation. This became very controversial during the 1957 Billy Graham New York Crusade when some of the decision cards were distributed to the “liberal” churches of the Protestant mainline. Jack Graham does not want this to happen to his new online converts.

In Graham’s first point, “exalt Christ,” he came closest to reminding Trump that because of the events of Holy Week there is another leader in charge. (Unlike Greg Laurie on Palm Sunday and Robert Jeffress on Easter Sunday, Graham never acknowledged the fact that Trump was watching). “Christ is King,” Graham said, and “there is no president or King above him.” I am not sure Graham meant this as a political statement addressed to the current President of the United States, but he said it nonetheless and it is true. But such a statement does not seem to match-up with Graham’s court evangelicalism. I don’t think he has teased out the full political implications of Christ kingship. He is not alone. Most evangelicals have not thought about the Kingdom of God in this way. As a minister, Graham represents an alternative Kingdom. Yet he wants to rely on the corrupt king of an inferior kingdom to advance the mission of the superior and victorious Kingdom to which he holds his higher loyalty. If you view the world through the eyes of faith, this does not make sense. It is also a form of idolatry.

Graham’s second point, “evangelize” the world, represent the classic evangelical understanding of the church’s mission. Christians should preach the “simple” message that Jesus died for the sins of the world, rose again on Easter Sunday, and offers eternal life to all those who believe. When Christians do this, Graham notes, they are following the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20. In that passage, Jesus tells his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Italics mine). Jesus had a lot to say during his ministry about the ethics–including the political ethics–of His Kingdom. The Great Commission is not just about evangelism as Graham defines it. It is also a call to discipleship.

Graham calls himself a “gospel preacher” and subtly distinguishes this kind of preaching from the kind of preaching that helps Christians grow in their faith. “Gospel preachers” like Graham are always trying to ignite a revival. They want to get people saved in the way I described above.  Revival is thus a major theme in Graham’s April 19 message. Such an appeal to revival might even perk-up the ears of Donald Trump, especially since Graham talks about “revival” during this service in both spiritual and economic terms. The message is clear: President Trump and Governor Abbott will revive the American economy and spur a spiritual revival. People will return to church, preach the Gospel, and lead more people to salvation. We know that Trump already thinks his presidency is responsible for a great revival in the church. Now Graham, by inviting Abbott to his service, is implying that Trump will continue to be such a spiritual leader by opening the economy. These two ideas are inseparable in the mind of this president.

But again I ask, what might such a revival look like? Graham said that once the economy comes back, the church will “turn the world upside down.” If this is true, did Trump get the message? Does Graham understand the meaning of such a message?

Graham believes that a revival will come when people accept Christ as Savior, but “turning the world upside down” seems to be a revolutionary political act. I imagine that Graham thinks this means revived Christians will turn the world upside down by reclaiming it as a Christian nation characterized by conservative Supreme Court justices, the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, a restoration of biblical values related to marriage, the defense religious freedom, and the flourishing of a free-market economy. When the revival comes, America will be great again.

As I listened to Laurie, Jeffress, and now Graham talk about the large numbers of people making “decisions for Christ” after watching their coronavirus services, I thought about the mid-20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr‘s critique of this kind of evangelism. Writing in the context of Billy Graham’s New York crusade, Niebuhr said that Graham’s success depended on “oversimplifying every issue of life.” Evangelicals like Billy Graham, he added, failed to address “the social dimensions of the Gospel.” Billy Graham’s gospel, Niebuhr argued, “promises new life, not through painful religious experience, but merely by signing a decision card” (Life, July 1, 1957).

So I return to my question: What might Jack Graham’s revival look like? Will it announce the Kingdom of God by speaking truth to the corruption and immorality of this presidential administration? Will it cause Christians to address the structural problems of race in America? What will such a revival mean for the “least of these”–the poor, the immigrant, the unborn, the elderly? How might such a revival inspire Christians to care for the creation?  Or will this be a Christian nationalist and capitalist revival? Or perhaps it will be solely a pietistic revival, with little effect on sin-infested social institutions and practices.

N.T. Wright has been a lodestar for me during this series.  Here Wright in The Day the Revolution Began:

True, in recent years several thinkers have made a distinction between ‘mission’ (the broadest view of the church’s task in the world) and ‘evangelism’ (the more specific task of telling people about Jesus’s death and resurrection and what it means for them); but the word ‘mission’ is still used in the narrower sense as well, often referring to specific events such as weeklong ‘evangelistic rally.’  Part of my aim in this book has been to widen the scope of the ‘mission’ based on what Jesus did on the cross without losing its central and personal focus. I hope it is clear, in fact, that this task of telling people about Jesus remains vital. But I have also been arguing that the early Christian message is not well summarized by saying that Jesus died so that we can go to heaven  That way of looking at the gospel and mission both shrinks and distorts what the Bible actually teaches. It ignores Jesus’s claim to be launching God’s kingdom ‘on earth as in heaven’ and to be bringing that work to its climax precisely on the cross. It ignores the New Testament’s emphasis on the true human vocation, to be ‘image-bearers,’ reflecting God’s glory into the world and the praises of creation back to God.” (p.356-357)

According to Wright, the vocation of the image-bearing Christian extends beyond Christian Right talking points.

Finally, in point three of his message, “engage the church,” Graham talks about how the church grew in numbers, prayed together, and studied the scripture. This is good. But it is also a pretty selective view of Acts 2. For example, Graham fails to mention Acts  2:42-47:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,  praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

What might this passage mean in the larger context of debates over the opening of a capitalist economy defined by individual accumulation of property and possessions? How might this passage in Acts relate to the “spiritual awakening” Graham believes is coming to America and the world?

I have been reading Eugene McCarraher‘s provocative book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. In his discussion of early 20th-century businessman Edward Filene, McCarraher writes, “‘The right and power to buy must lead to a great new religious awakening,’ Filene proclaimed, ‘a religious experience such as humanity has never had an opportunity to know before.”

If Trump managed to make it through the entire service, he learned that his attempts to open-up the economy will lead to a religious awakening that will make America great again and secure him the evangelical votes he needs in November.