The Evangelical Fight to Win Back California

Franklin Graham wants Christians to run for city council seats, mayor and every level of government to help effect change in California.

PASADENA, Calif. — Franklin Graham stood in a packed locker room at the Rose Bowl, surrounded by fellow evangelists, pastors, and his top Los Angeles donors. It was two weeks before the California primary, and Mr. Graham was urging them to take a stand against their state’s “blue wall.”

The blue wall of California, Mr. Graham told the gathering, represents secular values that have taken root on the country’s west coast.

“Progressive?” he went on, “That’s just another word for godless.” Now is the time for churches to “suck it up” and vote.

“We’re tired of being stepped on,” Felix Martin del Campo, a board member of Samaritan’s Purse, Mr. Graham’s international humanitarian organization, said in an interview as the meeting ended and worship music played. “Only as we change the heart of the people of California can California go red again.”

Mr. Graham, the son of the late Billy Graham and one of the leading figures in evangelical Christianity, is going straight for that heart.

Credit...Rozette Rago for The New York Times

Mr. Graham is leading a three-bus caravan up the middle of the state, one of the biggest political battlegrounds this year, to urge evangelicals to vote and to win California for Jesus. The two week tour ends on the day of the primary, June 5.

Along the way — at a park in Escondido, outside the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, on the beaches of Oxnard, at the fairgrounds of Fresno and Modesto — Mr. Graham is hosting 10 campaign-style rallies, complete with highly-produced videos, top Christian singers and laser light shows, to urge evangelicals to join his mission.

That mission, Mr. Graham says, is about faith and Jesus, but the parallel political message is just as resounding: Support candidates who will advance the socially conservative causes dear to many evangelicals — especially opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage — and get to the polls and vote for them. Three of his stops are in or bordering critical House districts in the Central Valley, and others hug the line between red and blue up the state.

Don’t be afraid to preach about it, Mr. Graham told the pastors. “Lose your tax exempt status; the progressives want to take it away anyway,” he said.

Saving California, religiously or politically, might seem an audacious goal. Mr. Graham wants nothing less than to reform what he sees as an increasingly heathen state. But Mr. Graham and his supporters see something in California that others often miss.

Though the state has one of the highest percentages of religiously unaffiliated adults, the fast growing religious group in the country, that largely blue sea is dotted with evangelical islands that are largely red. One in five adults in the state are evangelical Christians, according to the Pew Research Center, and there are more megachurches in California than in any other state.

And while 26 percent of national voters in 2016 were white born-again Christians, according to exit polls, just 13 percent of California voters were, creating an opportunity for Mr. Graham and other conservative leaders to add to their electoral base and possibly someday swing one of the most liberal states in the country more toward purple.

Finances play a role, too. After Mr. Graham’s home state of North Carolina, California is the second largest donor base for Samaritan’s Purse and his other organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Many of Mr. Graham’s supporters in California are frustrated with their state legislature’s Democratic supermajority. Last Sunday, the day Mr. Graham began his bus trip, a large Los Angeles church on the border of an open House seat ended its services early and directed its 3,000 congregants to write letters protesting a state assembly bill that would prohibit conversion therapy, intended to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, as a form of consumer fraud. In 2012, California passed a law restricting the practice on minors.

Even Republican political strategists and party officials doubt that Republicans could win top statewide offices like governor or senator in California this fall. The party is vulnerable in as many as seven House districts currently held by Republicans but which Hillary Clinton won in 2016. As the Republican base in California shrinks, religious conservatives become an even more important part of the party’s coalition, said Dan Schnur, a longtime Republican consultant in California who is now an independent.

[Read more: Democrats are spending big to avoid disaster in critical House races in California.]

“It is going to be impossible for them to save those House seats without significant religious conservative turnout,” he said. “Along with his other goals, Graham is smart enough to understand that turning out his strongest supporters on election day could be the difference between Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.”

Mr. Graham’s supporters see the connection between evangelism and political activism, even if Mr. Graham walks the line. On the lawn outside the Rose Bowl, as churches dropped off busloads of people for his second rally, attendees spoke freely of a recent memory. In 2016, Mr. Graham held rallies in all 50 state capitals to urge Christians to vote. Donald J. Trump won the White House that year, defying all predictions, in large part thanks to a groundswell of white evangelical turnout.

Maybe, they hoped, the 2018 midterms in California could produce a similar surprise.

“That’s what we are praying for,” said Peggy Brown, who runs a Christian drug rehabilitation program and who traveled to nine of Mr. Graham’s rallies in 2016. She teared up. “We saw a move of God with Christians. It gives me chills just to talk about it.”

After Mr. Graham finished preaching at his first rally in Escondido, he slipped away unnoticed from the still-worshiping masses in a white SUV to have dinner at Panda Express. The fast-food Chinese spot had became his post-rally tradition in 2016, when he started these Christian voter turnout crusades, even though his go-to meal, he says, is often a McDonald’s burger.

As a youth, Mr. Graham, now 65, was the prodigal of the Graham family, a college dropout fond of alcohol. After he got ordained, he joined the family business, and as his father retreated to the mountains of North Carolina later in life, Franklin became the heir of his religious empire. Unlike Billy Graham, who was known for bridging political divides, Franklin has sought them out, especially when it comes the current president.

But as he ordered the beef and broccoli with fried rice, he expressed surprise that the California primary falls on the last day of the tour. “People think I follow politics,” he said. “I don’t.”

Instead, he describes himself as a modern day Paul Revere. “The church just has to be wakened,” he said. “People say, what goes in California is the way the rest of the nation is going to go. So, if we want to see changes, it is going to have to be done here.”

“All of California is like a university town now,” he went on. Referring to the state’s leader, Jerry Brown, he said: “But you are beginning to see a groundswell of revolt out here. Orange County, San Diego County, are beginning to take on Governor Brown. It’s good for Christians to capitalize on that. So yah, we could help turn the tide.”

For a preacher who has earned a reputation for his unapologetic condemnation of everything he sees as sin and for his outspoken defense of President Trump, Mr. Graham’s voice is surprisingly soft in person, almost sweet. His words are not. “The gays and lesbians have their people run for politics and win,” he said. “Christians, we are just being stupid.”

Though Mr. Graham insists his hope lies only in Jesus, and not in Republicans or Democrats, his vision often dovetails more closely to Republican policy priorities. In California, one clear goal is to change the makeup of school boards. “Can you imagine if your school boards were controlled by evangelical Christians?” he asked the pastors in Pasadena, a not so subtle reference to conservative religious protests of California’s new sex education curriculum, which includes lessons on LGBTQ sexuality.

And school boards are just the start. He wants Christians to run for city council, for mayor, and every level of government. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which reclassified its tax-exempt status in 2015 from a religious nonprofit to an association of churches, has devoted some three-quarters of a million dollars for each California rally. Later this summer, Mr. Graham will host rallies in two more blue states, Oregon and Washington. And as part of a strategic plan that will run through 2020, he has planned a similar tour next year up the country’s other prominent blue wall, the northeast.

Mr. Graham recalled how on election night in 2016, then-Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana called him as the polls closed.

“He thought they had lost the election,” Mr. Graham said, a gleam in his eye. “I said, ‘Listen buddy. If you guys win tonight, you make sure Donald understands that it’s the Lord.’”

When it was clear the tide had turned, Mr. Graham sent the soon to be vice-president a post-midnight text. “I said, ‘Mike, look what God did tonight.’ He said, ‘Isn’t it awesome.’”

He opened his fortune cookie. “Your most memorable dream will come true,” it read. Maybe so, but faith, not fortune, would make it happen. “Give it to the trash can,” he said, getting up to leave.

In the mosaic of California’s evangelical churches, Mr. Graham’s message came across in different ways. At Maranatha Chapel, just south of Escondido, his appearance was advertised last Sunday morning simply as an evangelistic event, with no references to voting.

Not far up the road, Bethel Baptist Church had been literally counting down the minutes until Mr. Graham’s arrival, via a ticker on its website. Todd Hitchcock, Bethel’s pastor, wept on stage at the possibility of desperately-needed new converts. His small and aging congregation now includes Russian, Vietnamese, and Filipino churches on its property.

But other evangelicals are not comfortable with the political direction Mr. Graham is taking their faith. When a Graham organizer asked Daniel Balcombe, the pastor of Living Way Church near Escondido, to promote Mr. Graham’s rally, he said no. “He’s too politically toxic,” Mr. Balcombe, a registered Republican, said in an interview. “I told the organizer this, and he made excuses and insisted that he would not be political in his crusade. Still, I told him no thanks.”

Mr. Balcombe cited the example of a Muslim refugee from Iran who became a Christian at his church last year, around the same time Mr. Trump banned travel from seven Muslim-majority countries — a decision Mr. Graham defended.

“I have a whole bunch of Trumpers in my church, who are supportive of the travel ban, and I’ve got this guy in my office, and we are praying and weeping, how can we get this guy’s family here,” he recalled. “I feel isolated, not by the political world but even within my own evangelical world.”

It is a reminder that evangelicalism, and the culture that goes with it, is changing. Sergio De La Mora, pastor of a large Latino-led church with five main campuses, called Cornerstone Church of San Diego, says the future of California Christianity is neither red nor blue, especially because of the growing Hispanic church whose political priorities do not fit an expected mold.

While Mr. De La Mora voted for Mr. Trump, citing his family work ethic, he says he is most passionate about issues like green energy, women’s rights and immigration. “Don’t look at us as this lost, liberal state,” he said. “Look at us as this emerging new America that says, we can coexist.”

This division only reinforces what Mr. Graham sees as the urgency of his message. On his bus route from San Diego to Los Angeles, Christian radio stations sometimes faded in and out with Spanish ones. The caravan passed evangelical powerhouses like Saddleback Church, where the pastor, Rick Warren, who hosted a presidential election forum between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, largely avoids today’s public political conversation, especially if it involves Mr. Trump.

When Mr. Graham reached his third stop, the State Beach Park in Oxnard, nearly 4,000 people showed up, big for a Wednesday night in a working-class city, but less than half of what his appearance drew in Escondido. Before he went on stage, a group called Bikers for Christ, an evangelistic motorcyclist ministry of which Mr. Graham is an honorary member, huddled around him to pray.

Mr. Graham looked out at the crowd, mostly white and Hispanic families, waiting for him in their beach chairs. “People like this out here, that’s what makes America great,” he said quietly, and walked out to the podium to begin his stump speech.

He asked everyone to pray out loud together, specifically for Governor Brown and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, both Democrats, and both Catholics. People began to boo. Mr. Graham caught the energy. “Let’s pray that they get saved, all right? How’s that?” The crowd cheered.

Then, for the next 40 minutes, as the sun set behind him, beyond the sand dunes and into the Pacific, Mr. Graham preached. More than 250 new converts accepted Christ into their hearts that night.

“God bless you,” Mr. Graham told the crowd. “I’ll see you in heaven.”

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