The Rev. William J. Barber II is president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
In 2016, Franklin Graham, the heir to Billy Graham’s evangelistic preaching ministry, invested $10 million in a “Decision America” tour that framed support for Hillary Clinton and other Democrats as anti-Christian. Since then, Graham has stood by President Trump through revelations of serial adultery and deceit, capitulating on basic principles of integrity to support a president whose policies he likes. And yet, last week, Graham wagged his finger at Pete Buttigieg for being a gay Christian, saying that the mayor of South Bend, Ind., and presidential candidate should see his sexual orientation and marriage as “something to be repentant of, not something to be flaunted, praised or politicized.”
But hypocrisy in the Bible is never simply about the failings of an individual in public life. Jesus and the prophets make clear that hypocrisy is a moral issue because it provides cover for people in public life to advance policies that do great harm to the poor and vulnerable.
“Woe unto you hypocrites,” Jesus said to the religious leaders of his own day. Yes, he was pointing out that false teachers said one thing and did another. But Jesus was not simply angered by their inconsistency. He was outraged by the ways they used religion as a cover for corruption that hurt poor people. “You have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).
As disruptive as it may have seemed for Jesus to call the sons of his society’s respected religious teachers a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34), it was in keeping with the prophetic tradition they shared. “Woe unto you who legislate evil,” Isaiah the prophet had declared long before Jesus was born. On the connection between religious hypocrisy and policy violence, the prophet Ezekiel had been clear: “Her officials within her are like wolves tearing their prey, shedding blood, and destroying lives for dishonest gain. Her prophets whitewash these deeds by false visions and lying divinations” (Ezekiel 22:27-28). When preachers lie to cover up for politicians, it’s not just bad for the preachers and their faith communities. It’s bad for the people who become policymakers’ prey.
It is commonplace — especially in progressive circles — to point out the hypocrisy of religious liberty’s champions. But we must be as clear-eyed as Jesus and the prophets. Their hypocrisy isn’t just about them. It is inextricable from what that hypocrisy enables.
Graham and other religious nationalists have provided essential cover for Trump. Though Graham and his peers talk endlessly about religious freedom, they only stand with others who agree with them. In 2015, Graham backed Trump’s proposal for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, saying that other politicians seemed “to be totally disconnected withreality.” He has covered for Trump’s lies, saying only that the president regularly misspeaks and excusing him of any intention to be dishonest.
The result of the Trump presidency that Graham has defended as a bulwark for Christianity has been acts such as the family separations that echo the cries of enslaved and interned people in American history. In communities across the United States, thousands of families have been ripped apart by workplace raids and the execution of deportation orders that have not been a priority for decades. I have personally walked with the family of José Chicas, a father who took sanctuary at the School for Conversion in Durham, N.C., nearly two years ago because, after 32 years in the United States, the Trump administration told him he had to leave his home, family and community here.
In capitulating to Trump, Graham has not only enabled this presidency. He has squandered the moral authority he might have used to push the administration to live up to the standards God has set for it. Graham’s public expression of concern about the family separation policy carried no special moral weight. We have implored Graham and other religious advisers to the president to speak out on behalf of families like the one in Durham, but have only heard silence.
Faith does have a role to play in the public square. Our First Amendment guarantees have created space for prophetic movements throughout U.S. history to push us toward a more perfect union, including abolition; women’s suffrage; and labor, civil and human rights. But hypocrites who abuse their religious freedom in the public square to cover for political corruption and violence cannot be allowed to speak in God’s name without a challenge from those of us who’ve promised to preach and teach the Bible.
Scripture makes plain that hypocrisy provides cover for political violence. And the true work of God’s messengers is always to point us toward justice and mercy for all of God’s children.