I received a stunning amount of clarity from an unlikely source this week. It’s always fascinating to learn things from people I strongly disagree with. It doesn’t happen often (or often enough?). But I don’t think I’m alone. In this age of bunker idealism it’s hard for an opposing voice to break through.
I have Rev. Franklin Graham to thank for that. Graham, a fierce Trump supporter and partisan loyalist, is not someone whose views I admire. He’s on record as having said that Islam is a religion of hatred. He boosted “birther” theories about President Barack Obama. He’s supported President Trump on a range of contentious issues from Charlottesville to Stormy Daniels.
But Franklin Graham was in the news for a different reason this week. His father, the Rev. Billy Graham, died at 99. Billy Graham was a cultural icon when I was growing up, a beacon for the faithful. He’s often viewed as a prime influence for the Christian conservatism that remains a major force in American politics today. In the summaries of Billy Graham's life work, it was noted that he became somewhat uncomfortable with this mantle over time. He eventually expressed regret over some of his actions earlier in his career when, as an advisor to presidents, he may have been too partisan.
Virtually every article about Billy Graham’s death also mentioned his son Franklin Graham, the heir apparent to his father’s religious legacy. Franklin Graham has no fondness for political impartiality and has been unafraid to align himself publicly with President Trump. The differing approaches of the two men are detailed in The New York Times article, “Billy Graham Warned Against Embracing a President. His Son Has Gone Another Way.”
This piece explores the nagging issue that many Christians grapple with when it comes to Trump. How can a man so seemingly devoid of Christian values be a representative of the Christian faith? Graham explained his support for Trump this way, “That doesn’t mean he is the greatest example of the Christian faith, and neither am I, but he defends the faith,” he said. “There’s a difference between defending the faith and living the faith.”
I found this to be an incredibly lucid description of why human beings cling so fiercely to their idols. Somehow, we don’t expect our politicians to live their ideals — just to fight for them. Granted, Trump lives this divergence writ large. He doesn’t appear to be even trying to live the ideals of Christianity.
But this simple explanation illustrates why people support President Trump with such vengeance. In other words, we believe what we believe. We know what we believe. And we aspire to those beliefs regardless of how we get there or who leads us.
When I read the quote from Franklin Graham ("defending the faith" versus "living the faith"), I had a surprising first reaction: I thought of President Clinton. How many Democrats shrugged when Clinton had an affair with an intern in the White House, then lied about it repeatedly? For a large swath of the American public, it didn’t matter how Clinton acted personally. They believed in his ability to make the country better because they liked his policies. Diehard Clinton supporters said it was none of anyone else’s business how he acted in his personal relationships.
Heaven knows, there was enough evidence of Clinton’s infidelities before he was elected. Like Trump, Clinton’s transgressions were well known to the voters who put him in office. Still, Clinton managed to successfully present himself as a God-fearing man, a church goer. A defender of the working class. A friend of African Americans. Clinton supporters embraced the politics and turned a blind eye to the unsavory personal behaviors. They bet on the fact that Clinton was a good politician who’d be good for the country. And he largely was. Remember that booming economy?
We can certainly argue about the relative egregiousness of Trump’s flaws versus Clinton’s. I believe that Trump’s personal inadequacies seep far more into his presidential duties than Clinton’s ever did — and that it does matter to policy making and effective leadership (for example, taunting a foreign leader).
But let’s not argue that point for now. I’m looking to find common ground by listening to people who don’t think like I do. I want to understand how to move forward in some way that resembles unity. We can learn things, all the time, from anyone. But we have to put ourselves in a position to listen.
For now, I’m surprisingly grateful to Franklin Graham for illuminating a paradox so concisely. Americans have a long tradition of separating the person from the policies when it comes to electing politicians. And while many of us are particularly rankled by the mean-spiritedness, inappropriateness, and unpredictability of our current President’s personal style, other Americans have simply accepted the fact that they didn’t elect the man. They elected a fierce defender of the policies they believe in. We’ve all chosen our politicians in the same way from time to time. Consequences be damned.