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The crumbling wall between U.S. church and state

Since Donald Trump's ascension to the White House, any examination of the power and influence wielded by the coterie of advisers around him has rightly focused on Steve Bannon, the often dishevelled-looking ultra-right nationalist believed to hold powerful sway over the U.S. President's thinking.

Far less attention has been paid to the person he has turned to for spiritual support: Rev. Franklin Graham. The controversial Christian evangelist was chosen by the President to preside over his inauguration. Mr. Trump also credited his friend with delivering the votes of thousands of members of his vast flock, one built largely by Franklin's famous father, Billy Graham.

Not everyone, however, is a fan of the son.

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Mr. Graham's roving worldwide crusade makes a stop in Vancouver this weekend, and many are not happy about it, including a vast swath of the Christian church. Mayor Gregor Robertson does not want him here either. While Mr. Graham's three-day celebration is called Festival of Hope, many believe it would be more appropriately dubbed Carnival of Shame. There are genuine concerns it could incite violence.

Those worries stem from harsh views to which Mr. Graham clings and that others have denounced as dangerous and bigoted. Yes, we should all fret over the impact Mr. Trump's insidious nativist notions are having on the United States. But people like Mr. Graham are, in many ways, more frightening and a more immediate threat to the U.S. cultural fabric. He is considered a highly respected and influential force in the large, U.S. world of conservative Christian evangelicalism.

Long before Donald Trump, it was Mr. Graham urging that Muslims be banned from immigrating to the United States. As for those already there, he suggested treating them like Japanese- and German-American residents during the Second World War: with deep suspicion. He has theorized that Muslims want to build as many mosques and cultural centres in the United States as possible so they can convert Americans to Islam, a religion he has called "evil and wicked."

When Barack Obama was president, Mr. Graham aligned himself with Mr. Trump on the so-called "birther" issue – and called on Mr. Obama to produce his birth certificate. The southern preacher was a steadfast enemy of the former president, stating at one time, with no proof, that Muslims had infiltrated the highest levels of the White House during Mr. Obama's presidency.

The minister has demonstrated nothing but contempt, as well, for members of the LBGTQ community. For instance, he expressed support for the hostile measures Russian president Vladimir Putin introduced to demonize and isolate anyone identifying as anything but heterosexual. "He has taken a stand to protect his nation's children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda," Mr. Graham said of Mr. Putin's hateful law. He believes LBGTQ persons should be prevented from entering churches or the homes of Christians.

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We could go on.

Mr. Graham, it should be said, was not always like this. For decades, he was known for his humanitarian work around the world. It is believed the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States were a profound moment of change in his thinking, especially as it pertains to Islam. He became almost radicalized himself in the belief that Christianity was under attack by Islam, on one side, and the godless purveyors of U.S. liberalism on the other. He attributed Mr. Trump's shocking victory to an intervention by the Almighty, who wanted to stop the "atheistic progressive agenda from taking control of our country."

Recently, a group of Christian leaders in Metro Vancouver issued a public letter expressing strong reservations about Mr. Graham's stop in town. Their concern is that the "confrontational" political and social rhetoric the U.S. evangelist has used could "incite hostility in our highly charged social climate." Mr. Graham ignored the pleas to cancel his event.

Religion and politics have always been a toxic and often lethal mix, and yet the wall between church and state in the United States has not been this vulnerable in some time. The dubious ending this phenomenon often portends was once summed up by the U.S. science-fiction writer Frank Herbert.

"When religion and politics travel in the same cart," he wrote, "the riders believe nothing can stand in their way. Their movements become headlong – faster, faster, faster. They put aside all thoughts of obstacles and forget the precipice does not show itself to the man in a blind rush until it's too late."

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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