The deadly attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando last weekend is a “symptom” of the United States becoming a “godless nation,” the Rev. Franklin Graham said Wednesday in Madison.
Graham’s prayer rally on the Capitol Square — the 28th stop on his “Decision America” tour — drew about 5,600 people, according to event organizers. That number was likely bolstered by those who came to protest the event, including secular activists and LGBT advocates.
Graham opened the rally with a prayer for the victims of the Orlando shooting, which killed 49 and injured 53. The FBI on Wednesday said the attack was a hate crime and an act of terror.
The midday sun beat down on the crowd of thousands, many who held American flags as they prayed with the prominent evangelical and son of the Rev. Billy Graham.
Interspersed with religious signs were LGBT rainbow flags and signs touting secularism from those who came to protest. Some attendees wore “God Bless America Again” hats modeled after presumptive GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” caps.
The protesters’ presence was mostly quiet, with a few shouts and small interactions between the groups.
“I wanted to be part of the silent protest,” said Stephanie Donhauser of Madison, who waved a large, rainbow flag during the rally.
Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, said for Graham to hold a rally in the days after the Orlando attack was the “height of insensitivity” given comments he has made about the LGBT community.
The preacher has warned gay people “that if they want to continue living like this, it’s the flames of hell for you,” and has said gay people cannot belong to the Christian faith.
When it was announced this year that President Barack Obama planned to designate the area near the Stonewall Inn in New York as a national monument recognizing the struggle for gay rights, Graham called it a ” monument to sin.”
Asked Wednesday whether he believes Christians who believe homosexuality is wrong should reconsider that stance in light of the violence in Orlando, Graham said his position is what the Bible teaches — that is, that homosexuality and sex outside of marriage are sins.
“But the bible also teaches us that we’re all sinners, and I’m not here saying that a homosexual is a greater sinner than Franklin Graham. They’re not. We both deserve death, and that’s the penalty for a sinner, is death,” Graham told reporters after the rally.
Graham said he wants gays and lesbians to know God loves them and wants to forgive sin.
“I love the gay community enough to tell the truth, and not tell them a lie,” Graham said. “I’m going to tell them the truth, and if they would repent and believe on the name of the lord Jesus Christ, they’ll have that same hope that I have.
Harold Scott, a Green Bay truck driver who carried a large, wooden cross around the event, cited developments like the legalization of same-sex marriage as a sign that people need to vote candidates with “godly values” into office.
“God loves people that are gay and lesbian, but he does not love their agenda. They think they have a right to get married. Under the Constitution they do but under the laws of God they do not,” Scott said.
Graham delivered a call to action, urging Christians to vote for candidates that “stand for biblical truth” and to encourage fellow Christians to run for office.
Graham said he has “zero” faith in the major political parties; rather, his only faith is in God.
Asked whether any of the presidential candidates left in the race meet his standards for godliness and Christianity, Graham chuckled.
“I think we might have to hold our nose when we go to the poll,” he said, adding that voters should focus even more on local races like mayoral and school board elections.
He declined to say which candidate has earned his vote, and told rally attendees, “God will tell you who to vote for.”
At the same time as Graham’s rally, a group of local religious leaders rejecting his views as “Islamaphobic, xenophobic and homophobic” held a faith discussion at Grace Episcopal Church.
In protesting outdoors, Taylor said her goal was to show that Madison values acceptance and equality.
“We were here as members of the community to stand up for equality, fairness, love and compassion,” Taylor said.