Randall Balmer: Like Father, Unlike Son — Billy and Franklin Graham

Sunday, August 16, 2015
As a student of religion in America, I can attest that there are few people in American religious history I admire more than Billy Graham. The evangelist, who will turn 97 in November, has for the most part conducted himself with decorum throughout his storied career. His son Franklin, however, is another story.

Although Billy Graham’s judgment of political figures, notably Richard Nixon, was often suspect — Graham once told me that Nixon was “one of the great men” he’d known — Graham managed to avoid scandal, despite being a very public figure from the middle of the 20th century until early in the 21st. No one has ever credibly accused him of sexual or financial impropriety, not an inconsiderable accomplishment given the televangelist scandals of the 1980s. His most grievous lapse was agreeing with Nixon during one of the president’s anti-Semitic rants, which was picked up by the White House taping system. When that conversation came to light many years later, Graham was mortified and apologized profusely. Nixon had an uncanny way of drawing associates into his maw, and Graham was no exception — but that, as the evangelist acknowledged, was no excuse.

Graham, who grew up on a dairy farm in North Carolina, was reared as a fundamentalist, but he made a conscious decision early in his career to abandon the narrow, sectarian fundamentalism of his childhood in favor of the more capacious, irenic evangelicalism that was emerging in the middle of the 20th century. Graham, in fact, became the most visible face of what became known as neo-evangelicalism.

His son Franklin did precisely the opposite, reverting to fundamentalism from evangelicalism.

The elder Graham ran afoul of the fundamentalists when he cooperated with the New York City Ministerial Alliance during his storied Madison Square Garden revival campaign in 1957. Because that alliance included clergy that the fundamentalists deemed liberal, they were livid. To this day, fundamentalists revile Billy Graham himself as a flaming liberal.

Not so with Franklin. Father and son dynamics tend to be dicey — and even more so with a famous father. But whereas Billy Graham evolved into a world leader who found common ground with other religious traditions, Franklin continues to hew a fundamentalist line. When asked to pray at George W. Bush’s inaugural in 2001, for instance, Franklin Graham insisted in offering what many viewed as a sectarian prayer on an occasion that traditionally has called for decorum and inclusiveness. He has characterized Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion,” and in January, Graham called on Duke University donors to withhold their contributions because the university approved a Muslim call to prayer on campus. It was soon rescinded. He recently declared that all Muslims should be barred from immigrating to the United States, and he applauded Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on LGBT people in Russia. Earlier this year, the younger Graham moved the bank accounts of his father’s organization, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, away from Wells Fargo because the bank, in his view, was a “public advocate” for a “lifestyle we, as a Christian organization, believe to be biblically wrong.”

On the other side of the ledger, Franklin Graham appears to be very fond of Hobby Lobby, Tim Tebow, Benjamin Netanyahu, Sarah Palin and various Fox commentators, especially Greta Van Susteren. In April, Graham welcomed his “good friend and fellow preacher” Mike Huckabee to the Billy Graham Library to promote Huckabee’s new book, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy.

No one appears more frequently in Franklin Graham’s crosshairs, however, than Barack Obama. Graham sang alongside Donald Trump in the “birther” chorus during the president’s first term, and despite Obama’s frequent and eloquent references to his Christian faith, Graham persists in characterizing the president as a Muslim and alleges that his administration has been “infiltrated” by Muslims. (When asked to identify the infiltrators, however, Graham was unable to provide a single name.)

Whereas Billy Graham brilliantly exploited emerging media technologies in the 20th century — radio, television, magazines, motion pictures — Franklin Graham’s metier is social media. He appears to produce a screed a day against such targets as abortion, Islam, the Boy Scouts, same-sex marriage and, of course, Barack Obama. Sometimes the juxtapositions are so jarring that they would be comical if they weren’t so reprehensible. On July 27, for example, Graham wrote an open letter to the presidential candidates deploring the absence of “civility and honesty” in American politics and urging them not to attack one another. “Ripping into each other, mocking each other, telling lies about each other and to the American people isn’t a display of leadership,” Graham wrote. “Take the high road.” The day before, Graham had accused President Obama of “exporting the acceptance of immorality.”

So much for the high road.

Franklin Graham’s comportment is even more regrettable because the humanitarian organization he has headed since 1979, Samaritan’s Purse, has done a lot of good around the world by providing disaster relief, feeding the hungry, supplying medical care and fighting human trafficking. Although the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability suspended the organization in 1992 because of concerns about the ministry’s finances, the organization appears to have put its affairs in order.

Franklin Graham might have gone down in history as a humanitarian. Instead, very much unlike his father, he has elected to be a culture warrior.

My friend, the premier historian of fundamentalism George Marsden, once remarked that an evangelical is anyone who likes Billy Graham. If you want an example of a fundamentalist, on the other hand, look no further than his son.

Randall Balmer, chair of the religion department at Dartmouth College, has produced and hosted several PBS documentaries, including Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham.

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