Franklin Graham, son of famed American preacher Billy Graham, is taking a stump speech to every state capital ahead of the November presidential election: America needs Jesus, Graham preaches, and the country’s future depends on people voting biblical values.
“There is no hope for America outside the Church of Jesus Christ,” Graham told the 7,000 gathered at his prayer rally in Columbia, S.C. in early February. “Your vote matters. … I’m not telling you who to vote for, just vote.”
Graham’s “Decision America Tour” is a $9 million project of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association designed to push Christians, especially evangelicals, to the ballot box. Graham is going from state to state by bus, “the Decision America Tour party bus,” as he calls it in this interactive 360 video shot on the Ricoh Theta S, to host prayer rallies.
Graham says he will not endorse a presidential candidate—he announced in December that he was leaving the Republican Party and identifies as unaffiliated. Instead, his political strategy is to increase evangelical turnout, an effort that echoes Sen. Ted Cruz’s claim that half of evangelical Christians don’t vote. Graham has timed his prayer rallies to be in key states just prior to their primaries, starting with Iowa in January before their caucuses, followed by New Hampshire, and then South Carolina in early February. Evangelicals came out in force on Saturday for South Carolina’s GOP primary—and they threw their support to real estate mogul Donald Trump.
“I don’t have a favorite in the race,” Graham tells TIME. Trump, he says, “is interesting” and “has always got something to say.” Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who dropped out of the race earlier this month, was his longtime favorite, but he adds, “I think all the good ones running this year are Republicans.”
When pressed about why he favors GOP candidates, Graham adds that he also respects Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose Saturday Night Live appearance Graham found funny. “Bernie Sanders is honest,” Graham says. “He’s a socialist, and he is proud of it. He doesn’t hide it, he doesn’t try to pretend he’s something that he is not. … I disagree with him, but I respect him.”
While his mission is non-partisan, Graham is not shy about weighing in on political fireballs. He recently helped mediate the standoff with the last occupiers of the Oregon wildlife refuge, and on Thursday he defended Donald Trump to Pope Francis, writing on Facebook, “My advice to the Pontiff—reach out and build a bridge to Donald Trump. Who knows where he may be this time next year!”
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His pitch on the prayer tour is less pointed. Graham preaches salvation in Jesus alone, and he asks the evangelical faithful to make two pledges—one to God and one to America. To God, he asks them to honor the God of the Bible with their vote—supporting candidates who oppose abortion and believe marriage is between a man and a woman. To the country, he asks them to prayerfully vote and even consider running for office, whether it is for the local school board or city council or higher office. So far, 53,000 people have signed the pledge, according to the tour’s website.
Graham’s prayer rally attendees often link prayer with their political preferences. At his Atlanta rally earlier this month, a group of women in fur coats set up a table with Trump signs, before police told them to remove their table. At the Columbia rally, a Ben Carson bus rolled by before the event began, and pockets of attendees sported Carson buttons while a man dressed in colonial garb championed Cruz. John and Mary Long, a retired Catholic couple on Medicare from Lake Wylike, S.C., came sporting Carson buttons and signs. “It’s not political, the country is coming together to pray that we get back to our Constitution and respect religious beliefs again,” Mary says. “We are a Christian country,” John adds. “A Judeo-Christian country,” Mary corrects him.
Others, like a group of 26 women from Rock Springs Church and a women’s shelter program, say they came to the Atlanta rally just to pray, not to promote a candidate. “We believe that prayer works and America needs prayer, because Jesus is the answer,” Tammi McKinney says, adding that they regularly pray for spiritual revival, Israel, and America. “We need more prayer in politics.”
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