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Timothy Beal Headshot

Open Letter to Rev. Billy Graham

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Rev. Graham,

Over the past several days, newspapers across the country have been running a full-page ad with your picture and a letter from you imploring Americans to "vote for biblical values" this November by supporting candidates who will promote, among other things, "the biblical definition of marriage as between a man and a woman." This ad, paid for by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, a 501(c)(3), was apparently launched shortly after your meeting with Gov. Romney.

It truly pains me to call you out on your decision to be party to this ad. I grew up in a household that revered you as a deeply sincere man of God. We watched your crusades on television. My mother once sang in your choir. My home church in Anchorage, Alaska helped bring your crusade to town. In an evangelistic movement often plagued by hubris, greed, and lust, I have always seen you as exceptional, not only because you have been vigilant against such temptations in your own faith walk and professional life, but also because you have shown humility in questioning some of your own past decisions, including your public support of certain men in political power who probably didn't deserve it.

I believe something similar is happening now. You are allowing your voice, your face, indeed your "brand," to be leveraged for a political cause that is beneath you. I do not doubt that you support the positions that the ad promotes. What I do doubt, as a biblical scholar and as a Christian, is that you believe that such positions, especially with regard to homosexuality and gay marriage, are so clearly "biblical."

I am particularly disheartened that, even while your letter proclaims that there is a clear biblical viewpoint on the subject, it does not offer a single biblical reference or quotation. You and I know the handful of potentially relevant passages (Leviticus 18:19-22; 20:10-16; Galatians 5:19-20; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:9-10; Romans 1:26-2:1), even if most people who see your ad don't. And after decades of debate on this issue in the church and the academy, you know as well as I that what these texts do or don't say on this issue is a matter of translation, interpretation and context. And you know that responsible, faithful people who study them carefully can and will come to different conclusions. If your son and the other leaders of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association don't know likewise, then they need to go back to seminary. But I suspect that they do. They know that as soon as you crack open a Bible, things gets messy and complicated, leading to anything but a clear biblical view on homosexuality, let alone a biblical definition of marriage. Sadly, this is not about trying to be faithful to the text; this is about converting religious capital to political capital. Which is why it is so heartbreaking to see your name and face front and center. I guess I still expect you to rise above that cynical sort of political fray.

So I ask, can we go deeper? Where exactly are these "biblical values" clearly given in biblical texts? The New Testament book of Acts describes how those who heard Paul and Silas preaching in the synagogue "welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11). No doubt as a preacher you hope your own audiences do the same. Please put the Scriptures that the ad lays claim to on the table so that people can read and study them for themselves. Please don't treat the Bible as closed book. Let's have a real, substantive discussion about what the Bible says or does not say with regard to these current issues. And as we do, let's keep in mind Jesus' admonition against tithing mint, dill, and cumin while neglecting "the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith" (Matthew 23:23).

Sincerely,

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