Controversial evangelist Franklin Graham attempted to connect the murder of Christians abroad to the “persecution” of conservative religious Americans on Friday, lumping together the plight of those slaughtered for their faith to those who wish to refuse service to same-sex couples.
Graham made the controversial observation this morning during an appearance on Fox News, where he was asked to respond to a recent declaration by Vice President Mike Pence that “No people of faith face greater hostility or hatred than followers of Christ.”
“Last year…close to 90,000 Christians documented that were killed for their faith,” Graham said, without citing a source for his claim. “In the last 10 years close to a million. This is genocide that is taking place.”
Graham then took things a step further, appearing to connect the murder of Christians abroad to the domestic debate over whether religious businesses should be allowed to deny service to LGBTQ people.
“A lot of this right now of course is the Middle East, but we see Christians being persecuted in Asia, Indonesia, much of this by Muslims,” he said. “But it is happening around the world and we even have some persecution in this country where Christian businesses have been targeted by gay and lesbian groups that want to put them out of business because they know that these businesses will not support the gay lifestyle. So they go after them and get them fines, get them put out of business. This is happening worldwide.”
Christians do, in fact, face persecution in many parts of the world, and militant groups such as ISIS have oppressed and murdered followers of Christ during terrorist attacks and in territories they occupy. But as the Religion News Service pointed out, it is unclear where Graham gets his staggering claim that 100,000 a year are killed because of their faith in Christ. By contrast, the Christian organization Open Doors — which tracks violence against Christians — reports a much smaller number: around 4,000.
Regardless, this kind of persecution does not appear to be comparable to the American context, where the majority of citizens still identify as Christian according to Pew Research. To be sure, white evangelical Christians such as Graham have often claimed in polls that they face “discrimination,” sometimes by citing the debate over whether conservative Christians should be allowed to deny service to LGBTQ people. Yet most religious Americans don’t support “religious refusals”: according to a 2016 survey from PRRI, majorities of almost every major faith group in the country — including Mormons, Catholics, and white mainline Protestants — oppose allowing a small business to refuse LGBTQ people service by citing their faith. Only one group — white evangelical Protestants — expressed 50 percent support for the idea.
Analysts have noted the tendency of white evangelicals to indulge in what is sometimes described as the “evangelical persecution complex,” or the belief that their religious group is somehow constantly under siege. Films such as God’s Not Dead and God’s Not Dead 2 expound on this idea, lifting up narratives where evangelicals are ridiculed or put on trial for their beliefs.
The compulsion, however, does not appear to be based on traditional definitions of persecution. The U.S Congress is currently more than 90 percent Christian, and while president Donald Trump claims to be a mainline Christian Presbyterian, Vice President Pence hails from a decidedly right-wing “evangelical Catholic” faith tradition. What’s more, Trump’s recent executive order on “religious liberty” was hailed by some conservative faith leaders for making it easier to preach politics in the pulpit, but the idea doesn’t enjoy majority support among any major faith group — including white evangelicals.
Meanwhile, Graham has been a vocal supporter of Trump’s Muslim ban, saying it’s “not a Bible issue.” Both versions of the ban have halted by federal judges, with opponents arguing that it violates the religious freedom of American Muslims.