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How Franklin Graham Transformed a Debate about Duke Chapel into a Culture War

 Photo via RNS

Evangelist Franklin Graham with his father, Billy Graham, at the elder Graham’s final crusade in New York in 2005. Photo via RNS

Franklin Graham’s Facebook fulminations last week about plans to issue the Muslim call to prayer from the bell tower of Duke Chapel transformed what could have been a nuanced campus debate about religious establishment, sacred space, and pluralism into a countrywide fracas that calls to mind 1980s culture wars.

He helped generate enough publicity to ultimately lead a school better known for porn stars than piety to reclaim its chapel for Christianity.

Why did Franklin Graham’s Facebook post carry this much power? Two reasons. One, some people simply love his narrative about Islam. Recent polling shows that a significant number of Americans believe that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence, and voice substantial support for police profiling of Muslims. Graham’s narrative builds off these suspicions that go far beyond his conservative evangelical constituency.

But more important, he’s a Graham. He carries the power of his father’s name and his legendary evangelistic ministry, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, or BGEA. According to Grant Wacker’s new biography, Billy Graham is the closest thing America has had to a pope, beloved by many for his ability to channel the ideals of middle America as much as a convicting gospel. The fact that, despite his retirement in 2005, the BGEA continues to use his likeness in promotional materials and that political candidates left and right still clamor for photo ops with Billy Graham are testaments to his enduring status as “America’s Pastor.”

Duke Reverses Decision to Allow Muslim Call to Prayer

Photo via Erini Barker / Flickr / RNS

Duke Chapel sits at the heart of the Gothic-style campus in Durham, N.C. Photo via Erini Barker / Flickr / RNS

Officials at Duke University abruptly dropped plans to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer from the iconic bell tower of Duke Chapel after online protests led by evangelist Franklin Graham and unspecified security threats.

The decision on Jan. 15 came one day before the “adhan,” or traditional call to prayer, was to be broadcast from the heart of campus in Durham, N.C.

Michael Schoenfeld, a Duke vice president for public affairs and government relations, said in a statement the school remains committed to “fostering an inclusive, tolerant, and welcoming campus” for all students but “it was clear that what was conceived as an effort to unify was not having the intended effect.”

Schoenfeld said campus officials were aware of several security threats but declined to elaborate.

Graham, who leads his father’s Billy Graham Evangelistic Association from the other end of the state, in Charlotte, said the call to prayer includes the words “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great,” which was shouted by Islamist militants during last week’s deadly attacks across Paris.

“As Christianity is being excluded from the public square and followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law, Duke is promoting this in the name of religious pluralism,” he said on his Facebook page.

Study: Interfaith Civic Groups Bridge Diversity with Participatory Prayers

Ruth Braunstein is a co-author of the study. RNS photo courtesy Ruth Braunstein.

Just because interfaith, interracial, and varied ethnic groups share a common cause doesn’t mean a diverse coalition can hang together.

It often takes prayer. And not just a “Bless this group, Amen,” invocation.

A new study by three sociologists finds that three out of four interfaith civic coalitions turn to what the sociologists have dubbed “bridging prayer” — interactive, participatory, and often innovative prayers and rituals that highlight their shared identity as people of faith.

“Shared issues alone don’t necessarily ensure cooperation,” said Ruth Braunstein, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. “But groups that cannot build a shared culture could find it very difficult to succeed.”

Immigration Reform for Texas: Seeking a Winning Cocktail

One little known fact about Houston is that it was the only major city in the South to integrate nonviolently. A meeting was held in a downtown hotel with key African-American leaders -- preachers, business owners, barbers, undertakers -- and the business and political power players from Houston's white establishment. The meeting determined that Houston would integrate silently and sit-ins would end -- no newspaper articles, no television cameras. They were simply going to change the rules of the game; and they did without any violence. It was a meeting that represented how Houston politics happen: provide a room, bring together community leaders, business interests and politicians, and get a deal done. Such meetings certainly make for strange gatherings, but at critical junctures in our city's history this mixture has proven to be a winning cocktail.