I can't help wondering why Franklin Graham isn't preaching an Easter Sunday revival instead of showing up on Christiane Amanpour's show to make political statements, or to be more accurate, pronouncements. Some pronouncements, however, should not be allowed to stand unchallenged, and the following is one of them.
AMANPOUR: We in this country and around the world are living in very dire times right now. Dire financial times, economic crisis, the gap between rich and poor is growing, not only here, but all over the world.
What can the church do to fill that gap and to step into that gap?
GRAHAM: Christiane, a hundred years ago, the safety net, the social safety net in the country was provided by the church.
If you didn't have a job, you'd go to your local church and ask the pastor if he know somebody that could hire him. If you were hungry, you went to the local church and told them, "I can't feed my family." And the church would help you. And that's not being done.
But the government took that. And took it away from the church. And they had more money to give and more programs to give, and pretty soon, the churches just backed off.
And as a result, now you have generation after generation of pastors in churches that have not done that. And you would have to teach them again how to do it.
Well, Reverend Graham, that is somewhat true but mostly not, because of course, churches rely upon the gifts of their congregation. Churches, like everyone else, suffered the effects. Many had debt obligations on their church buildings and were forced into default as offerings fell away, causing them to have to close the doors entirely.
The depression had a devastating effect on the Churches as well as on the nation. In the optimistic flush of the ‘20’s many congregations had built new edifices far too large and expensive. When the depression hit, they found themselves unable to pay. Most carried their huge debts; a few rejected their obligation, thus bringing shame on the Christian Church. Colleges and publishing houses, missionary enterprises, and the social work of the Churches were all hard hit by the depression. Many an institution of the Church lost its endowment in the financial crash and had to close or had to drastically cut back its activities.
In 2008, everything old is new again.
The 20th annual study by Empty Tomb Inc. reaffirmed a “long-term turning inward of congregations” exhibited by a dwindling share of church donations spent on benevolence and evangelism. It also found a dip in money given to churches during the 2008 recession, even while donations to religious organizations overall increased.
But of course, there were reasons why those offering plates were a little emptier, and not just because of massive unemployment.
While there was some resurgence of piety among the lower classes (which manifested itself in an increase in the strength of religious fundamentalism during this decade) most middle and upper class individuals, remained unmoved even though they too may have suffered from the Depression. This cover plainly represents how the upper classes during the 1930's continued to pay little attention to religion during this decade. The tip of a hat by the dead rich gentleman being rushed up to heaven shows the only tacit attention which such individuals, often caught up in the business world, paid to matters of religion.
It's no different today. Giving is carefully structured and often targeted. Giving by wealthy conservatives to religious organizations tends to be oriented toward overseas missions, even in desperate financial times here. For those who do focus giving toward religious organizations, it tends to be of an amount that isn't even close to what's needed to help people on the streets.
Graham rewrites history in this segment to leave viewers with the impression that churches were handling everything just fine until FDR's government came and snatched that responsibility away. They weren't.
In Colleen McDannell's book Picturing Faith: photography and the Great Depression, two paragraphs in chapter 5 give a look inside the evangelical churches serving the poor:
"I've had two dark rainy days on which it was impossible to work outside so, I did a pretty complete story on the City Mission, community chest financed and operated by a Baptist minister who is quite a little stinker." John Vachon was photographing in Iowa, and in April 1940 he was in Dubuque. "It really breaks my heart to hear this little Baptist say, 'all right men, upstairs to bed' after the hymns had been sung," he wrote to Stryker. "They go up, fumigate their clothes, take showers, and go to bed about 8:30." The only Catholic to work for the Historical Section, and probably the only photographer who went ot church every Sunday as a child, Vachon did not take the evangelical tone of the charity very seriously. "The first night I sat through the services and raised my hand on the third call that yes I wanted to be saved. I never realized before what a lousy situation it is to have 'charity' operate this way." The "lousy situation," however, was interesting enough to prompt Vachon to return one more day. "I am going back once more to get shots of children coming to get pails of the stew that's left over," he explained to his boss. A few days later, Stryker dashed off a letter in support of his young clerk. "The City Mission story sounds good. I hope your pictures portray the real character of the Baptist minister. I know the type. Will save my comments about them until you get back."
This is the church of Franklin Graham. The authoritarian, evangelical church that calls for conditions upon the charity he extols as being stolen from the church.
My point here is not to say that all churches are failures. Not at all. Many are working toward social justice and a more fair, just, compassionate America. But Franklin Graham's vision is one where we are pushed back to the days of horses, buggies, tent revivals and a government who does not exist to serve the people governed.