When Franklin Graham rolled into Sacramento, Calif., for the 13th stop on his cross-country bus tour this spring, he figured he was in for a little trouble.
Several dozen protestors were already standing on the steps at the Capitol, waving rainbow flags and signs proclaiming they were "born this way," and "perfect as God created me." They were there solely to decry Decision America—the rallies in which Graham encourages Christians across the nation to "pray, vote and engage" in the political arena.
The protesters were far outnumbered, however, by the approximately 7,500 Californians who turned out that day to support Decision America and its Bible-based principles.
The two groups stood just feet apart. Yet Graham, the main speaker at each state rally, was surprised to hear neither screaming nor yelling by the event's end, but supporters and protestors alike singing: "God bless America, land that I love …"
"This is a free country, with a right to protest," Graham tells Citizen. "I don't go to meetings to disrupt them, and in Sacramento the protesters there showed us the same courtesy. They were very nice, respectful and stayed in the background."
Ironically, staying in the background—symbolically, at least—is exactly what Graham and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association are asking American Christians not to do in 2016.
Time to Pray
"I am a father and grandfather," says Graham, 63. "And I've been looking at my grandchildren and thinking they're not going to have the opportunities that I had."
Those opportunities include growing up with the world's most famous evangelist for a father, yes, but that isn't what Billy Graham's oldest son is talking about. Instead, Graham is referencing how "America has turned its back on God" in recent years, and is "going down the road of socialism. We have become a godless nation in many respects."
Many know Graham as the president and CEO of both the BGEA and Samaritan's Purse, the disaster-relief organization that annually sends millions of gift-filled shoeboxes to kids around the world through Operation Christmas Child. Since he became a Christian in a Jerusalem hotel room 41 years ago, Graham has preached to more than 8.1 million people around the world.
It is his home country, however, that's been especially on Graham's heart and mind recently, leading him to envision a nationwide series of prayer rallies and calls to action, one state capital at a time, through the 2016 election season. Decision America and its giant red, white and blue bus hit the road on January 5 in Des Moines, Iowa, and will stop October 13 in Graham's home state of North Carolina.
"We take time to pray—pray for our nation, confess our sins as a nation," Graham explains. "We use Nehemiah Chapter 1 as kind of our blueprint for the way we run our program. We confess the sins of our fathers, and pray that God will give us favor."
To that end, each rally features music, a short message from Graham exhorting the crowd to get involved in politics at every level — "I want Christians to run for school boards and county commissioner and mayor," he says—and the crowd singing "God Bless America." Each event, put on by Decision America staff and local volunteers, typically lasts about 40 minutes—and then it's back on the bus and off to the next stop for Graham.
What attendees will not hear or see at any Decision America rally: Specific political endorsements or candidates speaking from the platform (although Graham says there have been several state legislators in the crowds). That omission is entirely intentional; after a much-publicized split from the Republican Party last December over continued federal funding for Planned Parenthood, Graham no longer endorses anyone. At the time, Graham said on his Facebook page that he has "no hope in any political party anymore."
That stance has remained unchanged. "I'm not going to tell (Christians) who to vote for," he says. "That's God's job."
Still, Graham is concerned about voter apathy, especially among evangelical Christians. "Many people can discourage Christians from coming (to the polls), and spread rumors like, 'Your vote doesn't count,' " he says. "But most elections are not decided by millions of votes. So I would encourage Christians to vote!"
That theme of personal, faith-based responsibility connected to national politics rings true for Sean Kollar, a 33-year-old martial arts program director in Carson City, Nev. Kollar decided to attend the March 30 Decision America rally in his state with his church's prayer team after learning about it on Graham's Facebook page. Though the event was unique for the sparsely populated capital city of 55,000—"we don't see a lot of things like this come through our small town," Kollar tells Citizen—it was well-attended, with more than 2,000 people showing up.
"(Graham) talked about the importance of prayer, but also our impact as individuals," Kollar says, "and instead of just praying for change, being the change ourselves, and being willing to step out and get involved in local matters. I think it is important people attend (these rallies) to show our government and the rest of the country just how many people there are that care about these issues."
At press time, more than 60,000 people in 13 cities had done exactly that, including Patricia Valdez, a 43-year-old disabled veteran living in Cebolla, N.M., northwest of Santa Fe. Valdez particularly appreciated "the awesome way people came together to pray" at the March 16 event in Santa Fe; the Albuquerque Journal pegged the crowd at approximately 2,000 strong.
"I like that (Graham) made it about God and not about being a Democrat or Republican," Valdez tells Citizen. Indeed, according to the Journal, Graham told rally attendees about his "zero hope in the Republican Party. And before you Democrats start high-fiving each other, I have zero hope in the Democratic Party. My hope is in the Almighty God."
With a contentious election looming, a message of joining together through a common faith in Christ has hit home for many Decision America supporters, including Kollar.
"What sticks out to me was the unity our community had in prayer," he recalls. "I was blown away by how many people were there to support each other and pray together. Franklin prayed with us multiple times, having us pray out loud together, having us pray to ourselves, and praying with us. The event was a dedicated time of prayer."
With an official motto of "Pray. Vote. Engage," Decision America's goal is to increase that time of national prayer and confession.
"We've not had a small turnout anywhere," Graham says. "I've been overwhelmed in every city by the amount of people who turn out—even when the weather has been bad, in the snow and cold. People have stood there for hours to pray."
Similarly, the Decision America Web site urges viewers to "pray for our nation just as Nehemiah cried out to God to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and restore hope to His people."
Kollar sees the purpose in such communal prayer, and encourages those in states with upcoming Decision America rallies to attend. "The value (is in) the country seeing just how many Christians there are who care about where this country is headed," he says. "Many Christians never speak up or stand out because they are afraid. But with events like this, there's an opportunity to be united and support one another in standing up for our religious liberties."
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A Pledge to God and Country
With same-sex marriage now legal, gender-neutral bathrooms increasingly forced on business owners and a government health care mandate that's all tied up with abortion funding, the issue of religious liberty lies heavy on many hearts, including Graham's.
"Secularism has permeated our government—in Washington, at the state level, in city governments," he says. "Secularism and communism are one and the same in that they are both godless."
To counter that trend, Graham says, the United States needs Christian voices at every level of politics. Even if one is unable to run for public office, Decision America encourages those who believe in Christ to use whatever platform is available, including registering to vote, joining a prayer team, volunteering for Decision America and/or attending its events and signing a pledge to "live out your faith with boldness."
The pledge features sections devoted to both God and country. The first promises to honor God at home, in public and with one's vote—"supporting, where possible, candidates who will uphold biblical principles, including the sanctity of life and the sacredness of marriage." The second section pledges to "pray fervently and faithfully for America … to be registered and to vote in every election—local, state and federal—supporting, where possible, candidates who uphold biblical principles … to engage in my community with God's truth and prayerfully consider running for office."
At press time, nearly 66,000 people had signed the pledge, while 13,443 had formed Decision America- related prayer groups. Graham has more than 3.5 million Facebook fans and half a million Twitter followers, and they're all getting that message as well.
"I hope the politicians working in all of these capitol buildings will look out their windows on the day of the rally and be overwhelmed by the number of people who came out to pray and to stand up for God's truth and righteousness," he wrote in a social media post in April.
Graham is fully aware that "standing up for truth and righteousness" often causes controversy, even among Christians. Besides leaving the Republican Party, Graham has garnered criticism in recent years from both sides of the political spectrum for his comments on immigration ("My opinions come from 50 years of traveling in this world," he tells Citizen), Islam ("I see the dangers of Islam; I see what they do to Christians in the Middle East") and homosexuality. He often takes strong stances on hot topics, such as Bruce Springsteen canceling a North Carolina concert this April to protest a new state law requiring people to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their biological genders.
"It's fine to have disagreements," he says. "We can all have a difference of opinion." The most important thing, he stresses, is to "to do what God's Word says and repent of our sins and our disobedience," as he advised in an April social media post. Occasionally, Graham is asked about his political intentions. Is he running for office? Is he preparing for a foray into politics?
Definitely not, he says, and Decision America ultimately is about God, not anyone whose last name is Graham.
"America is at a crossroads," Graham writes on Decision America's Web site, "and I believe we should take every opportunity to stand up for the things of God and His Word."
That's a message Sean Kollar won't forget after the Nevada rally.
"I firmly believe there is a movement to silence Christians in this country, and we need to do whatever we can, peacefully, to stand up for God," he says. "I believe we the people are the only ones who can bring real change."
One decision and one state capital at a time.
For More Information:
To learn more about Decision America, its upcoming rallies or how to sign its pledge, visit decisionamericatour.com. Franklin Graham's Facebook page can be found at facebook.com/franklingraham. For more information on Franklin Graham and the BGEA, see billygraham.org. Learn about Samaritan's Purse at samaritanspurse.org.