Like millions of other Americans, Franklin Graham watched the disturbing images of last week's riots at the U.S. Capitol with swelling concern and
Like millions of other Americans, Franklin Graham watched the disturbing images of last week’s riots at the U.S. Capitol with swelling concern and anger.
Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham and head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said he was sickened to see “people attack my Capitol and break down the doors of my Capitol” and was dismayed to see how President Donald Trump riled up the protesters.
“I don’t think it was the president’s finest moment,” he said.
But Graham said he doesn’t expect the tumult at the Capitol to deter evangelical Christians from continuing to support Trump.
“I don’t think he had any understanding in that moment of what was going to take place,” he said. “None of us did.”
Graham added: “He regrets it.”
Since his victory in a very competitive Republican primary in 2016, Trump has relied on evangelical Christians and other influential religious groups as powerful voting blocs to shore up his influence. In exchange, he has appointed more than 200 federal judges and three conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court who support limits on abortion and gay marriage and other policies favored by many conservative religious leaders. In the November presidential election, 76% of White evangelicals voted for Trump and 24% for President-elect JoeBiden, according to Edison exit polls.
The attack on the Capitol, where thousands of protesters broke into the building as Congress finalized the Electoral College vote count and acknowledged Biden as the election winner, have led to nearly 100 arrests and motivated House Democrats to introduce articles of impeachment against Trump for allegedly inciting the crowds. During a speech just before the violence broke out, Trump told his followers, “we’re going to have to fight much harder.”
“If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he added hours before rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol threatening to kill Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers.
On Tuesday, before leaving on a trip to South Texas, Trump said calls for his impeachment were divisive and his comments to supporters before the Capitol insurrection were “totally appropriate.”
None of the recent turmoil has eroded much of his support among evangelicals, experts and religious leaders said.
Part of the reason is that, for the past four years, evangelical leaders have created an “echo chamber” where they blamed all of Trump’s digressions and missteps on the Democratic Party or the mainstream media, said Sarah Posner, an investigative journalist and author of “Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump.”
After the deadly Capitol riot, which resulted in five deaths, evangelical leaders who supported him have largely continued to stand with him and deflect blame away from Trump, while those who have been critical of the president denounced the riots and blamed him for playing a role, she said.
Evangelicals “are so conditioned not to trust the media, it’s going to be really hard to convince them of the truth of what happened on Wednesday,” Posner said.
In the wake of the Capitol riots, many evangelical leaders have also continued fueling Trump’s baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud in last year’s elections, she said.
“Because it’s the leaders who are again churning the same conspiracy theories, I don’t see a lot of progress in changing anybody’s minds,” Posner said.
Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the 14,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas, said Tuesday he had “absolutely no regrets” over his “enthusiastic support” of Trump over the last four years.
“He is without doubt the most pro-life and pro-religious president in history,” Jeffress said in an e-mail. “The president has every right to hold the view that the election was fraudulent and to invite those who share that belief to peacefully protest. He neither called for nor condoned the despicable actions of those who invaded our Capitol and assaulted the police.”
In an editorial published over the weekend on Fox News, Jeffress called the storming of the Capitol “not only a crime” but “a sin against God.”
“Peaceful protest is a vital part of our political tradition, and it has long served us well,” he wrote. “What happened on Wednesday when a mob infiltrated the Capitol building was not a protest. It was lawlessness…. Celebrating evil is evil. It corrodes the soul.”
Jeffress said he would be discussing how Christians dismayed by the election results should respond to Biden in his sermon on Sunday.
“If we are ever going to heal our country,” he said, “we must learn how to lay aside the anger and bitterness that are tearing our country apart without demanding that people surrender their deeply held convictions.”
Trump has also courted support from Orthodox Jewish leaders, who applauded when he moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem two years ago and the signing of peace accords with a handful of Mideast countries brokered by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.
According to a survey by the American Jewish Committee published in October, Trump was preferred by 74% of Orthodox Jews. Biden was favored by 83% of secular Jews.
Among the mob of Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol were Orthodox Jews who have adopted far-right political views and supported the president, even though there were anti-Semitic images in the crowd, including a man with a T-shirt emblazoned with “Camp Auschwitz.” One rioter arrested Friday was revealed to be the son of a prominent judge in New York’s orthodox Jewish community.
Rabbi Mendy Mirocznik, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, a national organization that represents over 900 orthodox clergy members, called the events at the Capitol very painful. The Rabbinical Alliance of America does not endorse any political candidates for office.
“This is more than the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Mirocznik, whose parents are Holocaust survivors from Poland. “America needs to begin to heal.”
A poll by the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization that tracks extremism nationwide, found approximately two-thirds of Americans said Trump and members of groups with white supremacist beliefs were responsible for the violence.
“Most Americans now see the direct connection between the dangerous rhetoric from President Trump, others on the far right, and extremist groups,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the ADL.
During religious services this past weekend, Jewish clergy took to the pulpit to speak out against white supremacy, anti-Semitism and the attack on democracy.
As Rabbi Rachel Timoner began reciting the blessing, “Baruch Atah Adonai,” to welcome the sabbath in Congregation Beth Elohim in New York City’s Brooklyn borough, she attempted to comfort her congregation.
“We are going to kindle light because the world needs light,” she said as she lit the two white candles.
Joseph W. Daniels, Jr., pastor of Emory Fellowship, a United Methodist church in Washington, D.C., cited the attack on the Capitol during his sermon Sunday and urged congregants to call out wrongdoing when they see it.
“For our nation to heal, for America to heal, we have to call out the fact that the behaviors and habits and attitudes of this past Wednesday were not of God, but were of a white supremacy and privilege that are not healthy for anybody,” Daniels, who is Black, said during the sermon. “We cannot be afraid. We have to have courage … We have to call out demons.”
Some conservative religious leaders have also called for the nation to move forward behind Biden.
In an article in the online portal The Gospel Coalition, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, condemned the attacks on the Capitol and called on Christians to reject the falsehoods surrounding the elections and embrace the truth.
“Enough is enough—and indeed was enough a long time ago,” Moore wrote. “It will take decades to rebuild from the wreckage in this country. But, as Christians, we can start now—just by not being afraid to say what is objectively the truth. Joe Biden has been elected president.”
He added: “If Christians are people of truth, we ought to be the first to acknowledge reality.”
For other evangelicals, however, Trump’s role in the Capitol attack will be minimized because many see him not just as an elected official but one anointed by God, Posner said.
“They feel he should remain president because God wanted him to be president,” she said.
Contributing: Deborah Berry, USA TODAY.
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.