BERKELEY (AP) — The Rev. Franklin Graham says he is coming to Berkeley in peace and in a longshot attempt to sway voters to support evangelical Christian candidates.
The outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump is in the middle of a 10-stop campaign-style tour of California that is designed to get out the evangelical Christian vote in the June 5 primary election and defeat progressive politicians and insert more religion into government.
Berkeley, though, as one of the most liberal cities in the country, seems an unlikely stop.
Graham insists he means no mischief when he gives his message Friday night, though he concedes he may be the first evangelical preacher in recent memory to take on the Berkeley electorate. He said he’s confident he will be received well in a city that experienced violent and chaotic political protests over other politically conservative events in recent months.
“I’m not going there to judge Berkeley or fuss at it,” Graham said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I want them to know that God loves them.”
The 65-year-old preacher is the son of the Rev. Billy Graham, the famed spiritual adviser to 16 presidents who died in March. Unlike his father, the son is taking on a more political role that aims generally to get more evangelical Christian candidates elected to office.
He said he doesn’t endorse individual candidates and said he couldn’t name any California officeholders when asked if any state politician fit his mold.
“I want to see people come to faith in God and his son Jesus Christ and the church to get involved in the political world,” Graham said. “I want them to vote and I want Christians to run for political office at every level.”
Graham has already held rallies in some of the state’s biggest conservative strongholds in California’s Central Valley, urging evangelical Christians to vote.
But the Rev. David Vasquez-Levy, president of Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion, said Graham “missed an opportunity” to grow his movement by failing to target Latinos during his Central Valley rallies. Vasquez-Levy said the rallies appeared to be attended overwhelmingly by white crowds in a region with a large Latino population.
“His perspective is to reclaim the evangelic America of the 1950s,” said Vasquez-Levy, noting that it ironic Graham held his rally Friday in Berkeley’s Cesar Chavez Park.
Graham finishes his tour in the politically conservative far north of the state next week, holding a rally in Redding on election day.
In Berkeley, a small protest was planned in the city on Friday evening, organized on Facebook by a group called Refuse Fascism. During a rally to protest San Francisco Police shootings of minority suspects last week, the Rev. Amos Brown, an influential San Francisco preacher, called for demonstrators to turn up in Berkeley on Friday night.
“Graham is one of the leading evangelical preachers who has supported Trump and who is rallying his flock around politics that is extremely dangerous,” Refuse Fascism spokesman Barry Thornton said. “We are not trying to stop him. We are voicing our political opinion.”
Erin Steffen, a spokeswoman for the city of Berkeley, said police and other officials expected Graham’s event to remain uneventful, though more officers were on duty Friday night. Unlike several other rallies that devolved into riots, Graham’s event has received a city permit and his organization is working with police on security and traffic issues, she said.
On Friday, he will deliver his sermon and hold his rally in downtown Berkeley. He concedes with a chuckle that he can’t name the last evangelical Christian preacher to appear in Berkeley. But he insists he will be well received in the birthplace of the free speech movement.
“This isn’t a political event other than to encourage people to vote,” Graham said.