Rejecting recent statements by the Rev. Franklin Graham, a group of Madison religious leaders say they will hold an interfaith gathering at the same time the prominent Christian evangelist is scheduled to rally people at the state Capitol on Wednesday.
The alternative service, called “Neighbors in Faith,” will celebrate religious diversity and the common good, according to organizers, who criticized Graham for comments he’s made about Islam, Muslim immigrants, atheists, gay people and others.
“We’re really trying to bear witness to a different vision for America,” said the Rev. Jonathan Grieser of Grace Episcopal Church, who called some of Graham’s views “deeply problematic.”
Graham, 63, the son of the Rev. Billy Graham, is on a 50-state tour of capitols called “Decision America.” Madison will be the 28th stop.
The rally was planned before a man pledging allegiance to the Islamic State group carried out the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history early Sunday at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The attack led Franklin Graham to again call for a tightening of the country’s borders, an issue he addresses frequently.
His outdoor prayer rally is to begin at noon on Wednesday on the King Street side of the Capitol. The alternative gathering, also set for noon, is to be held indoors at Grace Episcopal Church, which is on the Capitol Square at 116 W. Washington Ave.
Additionally, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, has announced plans for a protest during the Graham rally, as have members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Franklin Graham leads both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian relief and evangelism organization. His father, now 97, rose to worldwide fame as a host of huge crusades, as a confidant of presidents, and as a writer of religious books.
The premise of the 50-city tour is “to recognize and not ignore that this country is in a lot of trouble,” said Steve Rhoads, a vice president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. “We’re going to every single state to call together Christians to pray for our country and to pray that God brings an awakening.”
The threats to the country include a fundamental disregard for basic morality, he said.
“It manifests itself in a disregard for life and a lack of emphasis on the traditional family,” Rhoads said. “And I don’t mean only same-sex marriage. It’s also the brokenness in homes and the number of children being raised in less-than-ideal situations.”
Franklin Graham does not shy from these issues, voicing opinions that have made him controversial. At the prayer rally in Pierre, South Dakota, last month, he encouraged his followers to run for public office, saying they are needed to combat gays and lesbians who “want to take their wicked agenda and force it down our throats.”
Following the Paris terror attacks last fall, he said, “We cannot allow Muslim immigrants to come across our borders unchecked while we are fighting this war on terror.” On his Facebook page in March, he wrote, “Why does Islam hate so much? It’s because the Quran teaches its followers to hate.”
He does not support transgender issues, and recently said atheists “will face an eternity in hell if they have not trusted Christ as their savior.”
The Rev. Paula Harris, pastor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Madison and the moderator for the “Neighbors in Faith” event, called Graham’s views “Islamaphobic, xenophobic and homophobic.”
“That’s not the spirit of the faith I practice,” she said. “I think America is better than that.”
Harris said people from dozens of congregations are planning to participate in the alternative event, representing Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Alhagie Jallow, imam of Madinah Community Center, a Madison mosque, is among the scheduled speakers, as is Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Temple Beth El in Madison.
“I think the people of Madison understand the need for a diverse religious life, rather than an exclusive life celebrating one faith,” Biatch said.
According to figures provided by Graham’s organization, attendance at the first 26 prayer rallies averaged 4,700 and ranged from 1,400 people in Salt Lake City to 8,600 in Nashville. Rhoads said he expects people from churches across Wisconsin to attend the Madison rally.
Rhoads said the alternative event planned in Madison is a first for the tour. He expressed surprise.
“All we’re doing is gathering people together to pray,” he said. “How anyone who is a Christian can oppose that is a little confusing.”