The Religion News Service takes a skeptical but fair-minded look at Franklin Graham -- his beliefs, his politics, his differences from his famed father, Billy Graham -- in a satisfyingly long profile rolled out for Super Tuesday week.
And no, that’s not a chance coincidence, as Godbeat veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman crafts the story:
While Donald Trump campaigns to "Make America great again," Franklin Graham, facing a nation where conservative believers are losing cultural clout, wants to make it Christian again. Week after week, he stands on winter-wind-swept statehouse steps and exhorts crowds like a biblical Nehemiah, warning people to repent to rebuild Jerusalem — with a gospel twist. He urges them to pray first and then vote for Bible-believing evangelical candidates.
But you can’t vote for him.
"No, no!" he is "absolutely not" running for office, said Graham, who tends to rat-a-tat-tat his points.
Instead, he exhorts his listeners to run themselves, starting with local city and county offices. Imagine, he says at every tour stop, the impact on society if "the majority of the school boards were controlled by evangelical Christians."
This sweeping, 2,200-word article is impressive, though not without a couple of issues. It tells of Franklin's rise in building the Samaritan's Purse charity, from a small medical mission into one of the largest disaster relief and development agencies in the U.S. And it adroitly parallels the presidential primary campaigns with Franklin's $10 million "Decision America" barnstorming tour, which often "takes him into town just ahead of a primary or caucus."
The profile reviews his outspoken opposition to LGBT nondiscrimination laws. It says he "condemns 21st-century secularism as the godless successor to Cold War communism." And it notes that he called for investigating immigrants, especially Muslims, before Trump did.
RNS also writes up Franklin's defiance toward those who slap onto him "the F-word of American religion — 'fundamentalist':"
He doesn’t flinch. "That’s fine," he said, in an interview at Samaritan’s Purse headquarters.
"I am not ashamed of being a follower of Christ. Fundamentally, I believe in the doctrines of the Scripture," said Graham.
Where did he get such belligerence? The profile suggests two places. One is his father; Duke historian Grant Wacker tells RNS that Billy muted some of his views because "he knew they would offend or divide people." Another, as Franklin himself says, is his mother, the late Ruth Bell Graham: "She just was never afraid. If she thought something was right, that’s where she stood."
The article compares Trump and Graham …
So, he’s not bothered that Donald Trump — a Presbyterian who collects Bibles and may read them — has reached front-runner status in the GOP nominating contest.
Or that Trump drew a sizable chunk of evangelical voters just days after Graham’s rallies in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Indeed, Graham often quotes the ambitious, uncompromising billionaire. It’s one outspoken man like the other, minus mention of Trump’s crude language and multiple marriages.
… but it's less clear about differences. One would be Trump's boasting, bullying attitude. Graham may get blunt, even argumentative. But he doesn't begin to match Trump's bombast.
Another difference is that Trump seems to talk the faith only if it might get votes. Remember when he showed off his mother's Bible in a campaign ad, just before the Iowa caucus? I would have been interested in Franklin's reaction to that.
I also see an issue with sourcing. The profile notes that at George W. Bush's inauguration in 2001, Graham prayed "in Jesus' name." It then cites church historian Martin Marty saying that Billy Graham used to pray in the more generic name of "the Lord." That indirect quote is borrowed from Grossman's own 2001 indepth on inaugural invocations. But if you follow the link, you'll read:
Baptist evangelist Franklin Graham, filling in for his ailing father, Billy Graham, ended his invocation as his father did at the inaugural ceremony in 1989 for Bush's father. Back then Billy Graham said: "All this we pray in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." And his benediction ended with a blessing drawn from Psalms and familiar in many faiths.
Franklin added: "the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ."
"The final prayer rather ruled out a lot of people," Marty then says. Eh? Does anyone really miss who is meant by "God the Son"? Even if Jesus isn’t named, Jews and Muslims wouldn't likely add an "amen" to Billy's trinitarian reference. So the prayers of father and son don’t really sound that different.
Then there's the use of a specialist on one religious leader to comment on another:
"He doesn’t have to run for office to be ‘political,’" said Susan Harding, an anthropologist of religion at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She’s the author of a book on the late Jerry Falwell Sr., who ran a 50-state-capitals tour in the 1970s.
"Franklin is vying for leader of the hard-right evangelicals," succeeding Falwell (whose son endorsed Trump). They long for "an old-fashioned triumphalist Christian world where Christianity is Truth with a capital T," she said.
So Harding wrote a book about Jerry Falwell, and that makes her an expert on Franklin Graham? I don’t see that -- especially when Franklin, unlike Falwell Jr., won't endorse Trump. And Franklin may be fine with the "F" word, but does that make him a leader of "hard-right evangelicals"? He should have had a chance to answer such a judgmental view.
That section is surprising, because RNS does let him answer some critics:
Where Graham sees himself standing by biblical truth, others see his words turned into ammunition for discrimination, particularly toward Muslims and toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Where’s the line between Christian truth-telling and hate speech?
"If you disagree with them, it’s hate speech. That’s the line. OK. That’s the line," said Graham. By the standard he upholds, the gospel, Graham does not think he has crossed it.
Thumbs up, though, on the way the profile brings up some of the many good things Franklin has done. It acknowledges that Samaritan's Purse is often first in and last out whenever disaster victims need help. It says how Franklin personally worked for the release of Pastor Saeed Abedini from a prison in Iran. And how he called and visited anti-government rebels in Oregon to help end the standoff there.
"If those moments are overlooked when he’s calling forth the Christian civic soldiers to battle at the ballot box, it’s irrelevant to Graham’s goal: To make America Christian again as he understands it," RNS says.
Fair enough. Franklin Graham is not Donald Trump, or even Billy Graham. And neither is he a Jerry Falwell. Yes, similarities help us understand people. So do differences.
Photos courtesy of Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.