Some of that’s by design, like Franklin’s frequent appearances on Fox News, but some of it comes from campaigns like the Decision America Tour he started in Iowa in 2016 and finished in Raleigh that October after visiting all 50 state capitals.
The tour ran concurrently with one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in United States history, and became intertwined with it; Franklin was a vocal supporter of then-candidate Donald Trump, and shares many views with now-President Donald Trump.
The Decision America Tour didn’t end in 2016, and neither did Franklin Graham’s evangelism, which often addresses moral issues that bleed into public policy. His comments on Trump, abortion, homosexuality, Islam and North Carolina’s “Bathroom bill” have drawn praise from some, ire from others and sign-wavers from all quarters.
In 2017, the Decision America Tour morphed into a series of regional expeditions, with one in Tennessee and one in Texas. In 2018, his website says 120,000 people saw him in California, Oregon and Washington. This May, it was 31,000 people in seven Northeastern states.
This month, he’s been busy crisscrossing North Carolina on the Decision America Tar Heel State Tour with stops in Fayetteville, Greenville, Wilmington, Raleigh, Greensboro, Hickory and Charlotte.
The Tar Heel Tour concludes in Asheville. Another tour is already planned for Florida in next year. All along the way, Franklin Graham will be asking Americans to make some decisions about God, gays, guns, immigrants, impeachment, Trump’s 2020 re-election and the role of evangelism in American government — past, present and future.
The Smoky Mountain News: The title of your tour is an interesting one and we’ve seen it on billboards, on yard signs, on flyers — what decision are you asking Americans to make right now?
Franklin Graham: First of all, the greatest decision that a person will make is the decision as it relates to God and His Son Jesus Christ. That is the biggest decision that anyone will make and that’s the purpose of this tour. It’s not a political campaign, it’s not a political rally, but we want to confront people with the truth and the reality that God made us and created us and sent His Son to save us from our sins.
SMN: It’s not a political rally, but the role of evangelism in American politics has always been an important one.
FG: Well, I can’t speak to the role of evangelism in politics. I think that’s overblown.
Evangelism, first of all, is the role of the church — to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to every generation. It’s not something that’s just preached once, but it’s preached many, many times, inviting people to put their faith and trust in Christ, and that’s the role of the church, to reach another generation.
The role of evangelism in politics, I don’t know of any historical role of evangelism in politics. I think that’s just something that maybe some of the media made up.
SMN: You’re certainly politically involved. Don’t you think that speaks to the role of what you do in influencing policy or commenting on current affairs?
FG: Well, I’m a citizen of the United States and as a citizen I have a right to speak. We have the First Amendment that allows us the freedom of speech. I think that’s very important, that we have a chance to speak out. I don’t endorse candidates or go out and campaign for candidates. I don’t do that, but I do speak out on political issues that pertain to morals.
Abortion is a moral issue, and for some it’s a political issue. LGBTQ, sexual orientation — it’s a political issue, but it’s also very much a moral issue, and so I may address some of those issues and I think those are important.
When the president speaks out on religious freedoms like he did at the U.N. last week, that’s a very important subject for all Christians, and not just for Christians, but for Muslims, Hindus, Yazidis.
When the president spoke up challenging countries to recognize the freedom of religion, that was a huge, huge statement. No president in the history of the United States has gone to the U.N. and challenged world leaders to recognize religious freedom.
SMN: This isn’t a political rally, but your father walked kind of a middle path and it seems like you’ve clearly chosen a side. Would you agree with that?
FG: No. I mean, my father was friends with, I think 11 presidents. No person in American history has known 11 presidents. Billy Graham was the only one, and he was friends with Donald Trump long before Donald Trump ever entered into politics. He knew him in New York, and of course Donald Trump came to Asheville for my father’s 95th birthday celebration. We had it at the Grove Park Inn, and Donald Trump was there and [hotel magnate] Bill Marriott. Rupert Murdoch came, Sarah Palin, her husband Todd came, Donald Trump and Melania came.
SMN: George W. Bush credits your father with saving him. Do you have any insight into that?
FG: I was not part of that, but it’s in his book and my father talked about it many times. My father did not actually remember that specific occasion because my father was friends with George H. Bush, and would go up to vacations with him there at Kennebunkport [Maine].
He’d go up there and spend a week with them every summer, and it was during one of those summer vacations that George W. Bush was really having some difficult times in his life. His life was kind of falling apart, and my father just sat down and talked to him and they had a wonderful conversation. My father had prayer with him. I don’t think my father really realized at that time  the impact that he had on George W. Bush. George W. tells people that it changed his life.
SMN: One could argue that your father was almost responsible for George W. Bush becoming president, because if Bush had continued on with his ways before he had met your father, he probably wouldn’t have entered into politics or perhaps wouldn’t have been elected president.
FG: For people who say that Billy Graham wasn’t involved in politics, that’s a good answer isn’t it? He was.
SMN: Most recently, in some of your own political involvement, you had remarked on the impeachment inquiry that’s going on with President Donald Trump. You said it could possibly unravel our nation.
FG: I think it’s a very dangerous road that we’re on. Our country is so divided. The Democratic Party has refused to acknowledge the president as the legitimate president of the United States. They are still furious at losing the last election.
We had for two years the Russian investigation, which was a hoax. And then they talked about impeaching him for obstruction of justice and that was nothing. And now they have this whistleblower, which has a lot of concerns that this is all fabricated as well.
What happens when they do this is it distracts us from meeting the needs of the poor. There are a lot of poor people in this country that need our attention, but Congress — the Democrats and the Republicans — aren’t paying attention to it because they are fighting each other.
We have the Dreamers, millions of people in this country that have come in illegally, that have been living here for years that are very productive people, and we need to come up with a solution. Not kicking them out, but giving them a path to citizenship. And neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are facing this issue. We still have the issue of illegal immigration, and how to stop illegal immigration but make it easier for people who want to legally immigrate.
So many problems we’re facing as a country, and this is the distraction that is preventing us from dealing with the serious problems that are before us. I just feel that the Democrats are making a huge mistake and they just need to accept that he is the president and just a little over a year from now, they’ve got an opportunity to win the next election. That’s where the battle needs to take place, at the ballot box, not up there trying to impeach him. This is a huge mistake.
SMN: Democrats have fought this presidency tooth and nail, but you can also probably admit that the president has said some things that most people would consider pretty un-Christian. Recently it was revealed he said he wanted to build a moat on the Southern border and fill it with alligators and snakes. He suggested shooting immigrants in the kneecaps on their way into the country.
How do you reconcile the points of view that Democrats are obstructionists but this president has, in a very revolutionary way, been one of the most frank in history?
FG: Well, he’s the only person we have had that’s not a politician and he doesn’t have a filter. He just says kind of what he thinks. But he also says things to try to get a reaction, to get people to think about something. I don’t defend him when he cusses. I don’t defend when he says shoot people in the kneecaps. I mean, you don’t defend that, but I do know him well enough to know he doesn’t mean that when he says it.
He’s just trying to get a reaction, and he’s very good at that. During the last election, during the Republican debates, he didn’t know how to debate. He wasn’t a member of a debate club. So he said, “I’ve got to find out how to get under their skin,” and he started nicknaming them, Little Marco [Rubio] and Lyin’ Ted [Cruz] and Crooked Hillary [Clinton]. He gave nicknames to people and they stuck, and it got under their skin. He was very clever in that way.
SMN: What do you see as Trump’s fate at the ballot box in the next year? Do you believe there’s a Democrat out there that presents a reasonable alternative for most Americans?
FG: The thing is, you have to have a vision for America and the Democrats don’t have a vision. If you look at it, their vision is, “We’re going to take your guns away from you and we’re going to raise your taxes.” That’s their vision.
Donald Trump actually has a vision and that vision is to “make America great again.” The American economy today is the best economy that we’ve had in 70 years, since the end of World War II. More Hispanics are working, more African-Americans are working, more whites, everybody. The country is on a roll and this last month, we added 136,000 new jobs to the job market. It’s just incredible what he’s been able to do in such a short time with all of opposition that he’s had against him. He’s a business person. He understands what it takes to get this country moving forward, and I don’t see the Democrats having anyone that can come close to it.
The Democratic Party today is a socialist party and socialism isn’t working. In Venezuela, it’s destroying the country. Socialism has destroyed Cuba. It destroyed Eastern Europe. It destroyed Russia, and they’ve rejected socialism and the Democrats are embracing socialism. So I don’t think they have a have a vision that the American people are accepting.
SMN: Certainly we have elements of socialism in our society and have since even prior to the New Deal, obviously Social Security and possibly socialized medicine. There are a lot of Americans that don’t have a problem with the socialism that currently exists. You can even boil that down to public libraries.
FG: Everything that the government takes control of, it gets worse. They deliver mail, but it’s interesting in that UPS can do it better, faster, cheaper than the U.S. Postal Service. The government just doesn’t know how to manage and run things. For them to be in charge of our health care is a huge mistake. With the socialized medicine that President Obama and the Democrats brought in, only the insurance companies, really, are the ones that benefit. The American people have not benefited from this. This is a terrible system. We do need healthcare, but we don’t need the government running it, that’s for sure.
SMN: After the New Deal, in the 1950s Baptist South especially, Christianity started to assert itself a little bit more, weighing in on moral issues. Your dad was certainly a part of that, too.
FG: As a Christian, I have a right to weigh in on moral issues. I mean, that’s our job to speak out on moral issues. I think there’s some that wish we would not speak out on that, but that’s something very important that God would want us to speak on those issues.
SMN: And then in the 1970s, you see a guy like President Jimmy Carter, who brought maybe a little bit more Christian-mindedness to that office.
FG: Jimmy Carter was, I mean he went to church and he was involved in his church while he was in office, and I appreciate the fact that he did that. Reagan had church at the White House, when he was president. Same thing with Richard Nixon. They realized that by going to local churches it disrupted the congregation, bringing the Secret Service and the big entourage in, so they had services at the White House as did other presidents in the past.
SMN: Speaking of Reagan’s era you have some other, I suppose you would probably call them moral issues, like AIDS and drugs emerging, and we saw a lot of Christian denominations start to push back against those issues.
FG: First of all, I think in the early ‘80s, AIDS was something that lot of people did not understand. We saw it totally as a gay disease and also, politicians in Florida who were trying to keep Haitian boat people from coming into Florida were saying that the Haitians had AIDS, so there was a stigma to that in the early days.
A good friend of mine, [late U.S. Senator] Jesse Helms here in this state, a very strong conservative, fought against [helping AIDS patients] then he called me one day and said “Franklin, have I been wrong on this issue?” And I said, “Well, senator, let me just share with you my opinion. God made us and created us, and when Jesus confronted a woman who had lived a very immoral life he did not accuse her. He didn’t ask her how many guys she had slept with or whatever, he just told her, “Go and sin no more. I think for people that have AIDS, we need to show compassion.”
If Jesus were here, he would certainly use his power as the Son of God to bring healing into their life, so I said, “Senator, I think we should do everything we can to reach out to people that have AIDS and show compassion to them and help them if we can.”
He said, “Well, Franklin, thank you,” and he changed his position on that and became an advocate for federal funding for HIV/AIDS. So I think as Christians, we have a role to play in helping to alleviate suffering.
SMN: Do you think that role is being played by Christians today? Going back to what you mentioned earlier with the LGBTQ community or even with AIDS and immigration, do you think Christians are doing what the Lord has called them to do?
FG: Well, I can’t speak on behalf of all Christians. All I can do is to speak on my behalf. I don’t represent Christianity. I represent Franklin Graham. Right now we’re treating Ebola in West Africa, in the Congo. There are only two organizations in the world that treat Ebola. That’s Samaritan’s Purse here in Boone, and Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, in Belgium. We have a hospital right now in The Bahamas as a result of Hurricane Dorian. We’re reaching out to the Bahamian people. We have the only hospital in the northern part of the country.
So I do what I can to try to alleviate pain and suffering, and I certainly want to warn people in the LGBT community — not condemn them, not judge them, I’m not their judge — but I want to warn them that God gave sex for us to use and it’s to be used in a marriage relationship between a man and a woman. If we get outside of that, we run the risk of hurting ourselves physically. There are so many different types of diseases that are sexually transmitted.
I would certainly love the LGBTQ community enough to warn them that this can lead to their death. So again, I’m not judging them. I don’t condemn them. I love them enough to warn them.
SMN: Is there a place in the modern body politic for these people who don’t care to accept Christ and don’t want to heed your warning and just want to live their life and be left alone? Do you think that’s something that we can accept as Americans?
FG: Of course, and we do that as Americans. The LGBT community is very involved, politically. They are very strong in the political realm of this country. Their voice is certainly heard and they certainly speak out and they have a right to. This is America. They have that freedom to do that.
SMN: Activity on social media suggests there will be some people here in Asheville that are going to protest your appearance. Have you seen that yet on your tour?
FG: I think we had a few protesters, maybe it might’ve been Fayetteville but I don’t remember. I know there was like four or five people outside holding up a sign, and that’s fine. They certainly are free to protest, but we’re not coming to protest them, we’re just coming to preach the gospel, and everybody’s welcome.
SMN: What would you tell them, if you could go out onto the street and talk to these protestors?
FG: I would tell them they are welcome to come on in, and that I’m not speaking against anybody. I’m for everybody.
SMN: If your dad was here today looking at the current political environment, what do you think he would say?
FG: I think he would say it’s important to pray for our nation, and that’s what I encourage. When I come to Asheville I’m going to ask people to pray for the president, for our governor, for our representatives in Washington, Democrat and Republican. Only God can heal this country. There’s no politician out there that can unite this country. We are too fractured.
Back during the Nixon administration, when we had Watergate, you didn’t have social media, and today you have social media and all kinds of lies and various things said on social media, people would take it as true. So it’s a much different world than it was 30 years ago. I would encourage people to pray for our leaders that God would bring healing to their hearts, [and] forgiveness. I think of the courtroom yesterday down in Dallas when the police officer was convicted of murder, the brother of the man that she murdered says, “I forgive you,” and he goes up and he hugs her there in the courtroom. We need this kind of forgiveness, this kind of unity. Maybe if it can happen in a murder trial, maybe it can happen in Washington, too.
Franklin Graham’s Decision America Tar Heel State Tour comes to Asheville’s U.S. Cellular Center this Sunday, Oct. 13 at 4 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.