THE Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) has been accused of spending as much as $50 million in “dark money” over the past decade promoting its brand of conservative Evangelicalism in Europe.
Records examined by the campaigning news website OpenDemocracy show that the BGEA spent at least $23 million (about £18 million) funding its activities in Europe in the seven years leading up to 2014.
That year, the BGEA altered its legal status in the United States and no longer has to publish financial records, but, if the group has continued spending at the same rate, by 2020 it could have funnelled as much as $50 million towards its evangelism, lobbying, aid work, and other activities in Europe.
The investigation by OpenDemocracy accuses the BGEA, which is today led by the late evangelist Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, of being opaque about who its donors are and how its money is spent.
A spokesman for the BGEA declined to offer a breakdown of its spending in the UK, saying only that all its funds were directed towards fulfilling its mission, which he summarised as “telling as many people as possible that God loves them and wants to have a relationship with them, and that this is made possible through the death, burial and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ”.
He did, however, confirm that the BGEA was currently pursuing legal action against a number of stadiums, conference halls, and theatres that had abruptly cancelled longstanding bookings that Mr Graham had made before a planned UK preaching tour this year.
All eight venues across Britain which had been set to host Mr Graham scrapped the bookings after a campaign by activists angered by past remarks made by the American pastor.
In February, the BGEA confirmed that it had begun legal action against venues in Sheffield, Glasgow, and Newport, as well as the Welsh Government, Glasgow City Council, and Sheffield City Council.
Now, an investigation of public court records by OpenDemocracy has found that the BGEA is also suing for breach of contract related to its planned appearances in Manchester and Birmingham. The BGEA spokesman did not comment on the specific venues, but confirmed that “in some cases we are being forced to pursue legal remedies”.
In an interview with the Church Times in February, after the cancellations, Mr Graham insisted that the tour would go ahead regardless, and that he would not moderate his language, despite the growing backlash, which included reprimands from several Church of England bishops (News, 14 February).
Most of the venues that cancelled Mr Graham’s booking did so after a campaign led by LGBT organisations, on the grounds that he and the BGEA promoted hatred of gay people.
Mr Graham insists that he is simply giving traditional Christian teaching on sex. He has previously described homosexuality as an “abomination”, and suggested that Satan was behind campaigns for same-sex marriage.
The BGEA is one of 28 conservative Christian groups which have spent about $90 million in Europe, since 2007, in outreach, activism, ministry, legal action, and other activities, according to files collated by OpenDemocracy.
OpenDemocracy has accused the BGEA and other conservative Evangelical US groups of pouring millions of dollars of “dark money” into shadowy campaigns around Europe, including in Britain, to foster American-style culture wars over sexuality, abortion, and transgender issues.
The LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell told the outlet that American Evangelicals were “exporting homophobia” funded by “secret donors. . . This Christian imperialism is menacing the well-being and human rights of millions of LGBT+ people.”
According to its website, however, the BGEA in the UK is focused on conducting evangelism online, deploying chaplains to the sites of disasters and emergencies and holding events such as the (now cancelled) Franklin Graham tour.
It has warned of restrictions to free speech and religious freedoms across Europe, and is closely linked to the Alliance Defending Freedom, another US Evangelical group, which has spent $15 million in Europe since 2008, intervening in court cases to defend Christians such as the Northern Irish bakers who were sued for refusing to make a cake displaying support for gay marriage (News, 10 October 2018).
Mr Graham and his organisation also argue that the right to free expression of religious faith is under attack in Europe, particularly for conservative-minded Christians. The BGEA spokesman said that its legal action against venues was to defend religious liberty.
“Those cancellations were the result of pressure on the venues by groups with a bias against Christians who hold traditional, historical biblical views,” he said.
Not to sue “would suggest that Christians who hold traditional biblical beliefs do not enjoy the same protections against discrimination, or the same rights of free expression and religious free exercise, as those with other views”.