THE EVANGELICALS FIGHT TO WIN BACK CALIFORNIA – NEW YORK TIMES – 5.27.18

May 28, 2018 by

5.27.18 – The New York Times

 

“The Evangelicals Fight To Win Back California”

 

By Elizabeth Dias

 

PASADENA, Calif. — Franklin Graham stood in a packed locker room at the Rose Bowl, surrounded by fellow evangelists, pastors, and his top Los Angeles donors. It was two weeks before the California primary, and Mr. Graham was urging them to take a stand against their state’s “blue wall.”

The blue wall of California, Mr. Graham told the gathering, represents secular values that have taken root on the country’s west coast.

“Progressive?” he went on, “That’s just another word for godless.” Now is the time for churches to “suck it up” and vote.

“We’re tired of being stepped on,” Felix Martin del Campo, a board member of Samaritan’s Purse, Mr. Graham’s international humanitarian organization, said in an interview as the meeting ended and worship music played. “Only as we change the heart of the people of California can California go red again.”

 

Mr. Graham is leading a three-bus caravan up the middle of the state, one of the biggest political battlegrounds this year, to urge evangelicals to vote and to win California for Jesus. The two week tour ends on the day of the primary, June 5.

Along the way — at a park in Escondido, outside the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, on the beaches of Oxnard, at the fairgrounds of Fresno and Modesto — Mr. Graham is hosting 10 campaign-style rallies, complete with highly-produced videos, top Christian singers and laser light shows, to urge evangelicals to join his mission.

That mission, Mr. Graham says, is about faith and Jesus, but the parallel political message is just as resounding: Support candidates who will advance the socially conservative causes dear to many evangelicals — especially opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage — and get to the polls and vote for them. Three of his stops are in or bordering critical House districts in the Central Valley, and others hug the line between red and blue up the state.

Don’t be afraid to preach about it, Mr. Graham told the pastors. “Lose your tax exempt status; the progressives want to take it away anyway,” he said.

One in five adults in the state are evangelical Christians, according to the Pew Research Center, and there are more megachurches in California than in any other state.

Finances play a role, too. After Mr. Graham’s home state of North Carolina, California is the second largest donor base for Samaritan’s Purse and his other organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Many of Mr. Graham’s supporters in California are frustrated with their state legislature’s Democratic supermajority. Last Sunday, the day Mr. Graham began his bus trip, a large Los Angeles church on the border of an open House seat ended its services early and directed its 3,000 congregants to write letters protesting a state assembly bill that would prohibit conversion therapy, intended to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, as a form of consumer fraud. In 2012, California passed a law restricting the practice on minors.

 

…On the lawn outside the Rose Bowl, as churches dropped off busloads of people for his second rally, attendees spoke freely of a recent memory. In 2016, Mr. Graham held rallies in all 50 state capitals to urge Christians to vote. Donald J. Trump won the White House that year, defying all predictions, in large part thanks to a groundswell of white evangelical turnout.

Maybe, they hoped, the 2018 midterms in California could produce a similar surprise.

“That’s what we are praying for,” said Peggy Brown, who runs a Christian drug rehabilitation program and who traveled to nine of Mr. Graham’s rallies in 2016. She teared up. “We saw a move of God with Christians. It gives me chills just to talk about it.”

An Evangelical Paul Revere

…As a youth, Mr. Graham, now 65, was the prodigal of the Graham family, a college dropout fond of alcohol. After he got ordained, he joined the family business, and as his father retreated to the mountains of North Carolina later in life, Franklin became the heir of his religious empire. Unlike Billy Graham, who was known for bridging political divides, Franklin has sought them out, especially when it comes the current president.

…“All of California is like a university town now,” he went on. Referring to the state’s leader, Jerry Brown, he said: “But you are beginning to see a groundswell of revolt out here. Orange County, San Diego County, are beginning to take on Governor Brown. It’s good for Christians to capitalize on that. So yah, we could help turn the tide.”

In California, one clear goal is to change the makeup of school boards. “Can you imagine if your school boards were controlled by evangelical Christians?” he asked the pastors in Pasadena, a not so subtle reference to conservative religious protests of California’s new sex education curriculum, which includes lessons on LGBTQ sexuality…

And school boards are just the start. He wants Christians to run for city council, for mayor, and every level of government. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which reclassified its tax-exempt status in 2015 from a religious nonprofit to an association of churches, has devoted some three-quarters of a million dollars for each California rally.

Later this summer, Mr. Graham will host rallies in two more blue states, Oregon and Washington. And as part of a strategic plan that will run through 2020, he has planned a similar tour next year up the country’s other prominent blue wall, the northeast.

Some Discomfort With His Message

When Mr. Graham reached his third stop, the State Beach Park in Oxnard, nearly 4,000 people showed up, big for a Wednesday night in a working-class city, but less than half of what his appearance drew in Escondido. Before he went on stage, a group called Bikers for Christ, an evangelistic motorcyclist ministry of which Mr. Graham is an honorary member, huddled around him to pray.

Mr. Graham looked out at the crowd, mostly white and Hispanic families, waiting for him in their beach chairs. “People like this out here, that’s what makes America great,” he said quietly, and walked out to the podium to begin his stump speech.

He asked everyone to pray out loud together, specifically for Governor Brown and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, both Democrats, and both Catholics. People began to boo. Mr. Graham caught the energy. “Let’s pray that they get saved, all right? How’s that?” The crowd cheered.

Then, for the next 40 minutes, as the sun set behind him, beyond the sand dunes and into the Pacific, Mr. Graham preached. More than 250 new converts accepted Christ into their hearts that night.

“God bless you,” Mr. Graham told the crowd. “I’ll see you in heaven.”

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