With the Rev. Billy Graham dead and –- as I write this –- on his way to lying in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, lots of eyes have turned toward his eldest son, the Rev. Franklin Graham. The New York Times on Monday came out with a piece that lauded Billy for his non-involvement with politics (at least later in life), then trashed Franklin for embracing President Donald Trump.
I get peeved when certain media purport to have great concern for the future of evangelical Christianity when at the same time criticizing the movement when some of its members embrace conservative politics. The same folks who find Franklin Graham to be an unworthy son wouldn’t think of going after the (more liberal) daughters of George W. Bush for not carrying on his legacy.
Graham is a major annoyance to many in the media for his unabashed Trumpism. I don’t claim to be a big fan of Franklin’s, but I have to laugh at his elephant skin. Haven't reporters figured out that Graham the younger doesn't give a rip about their opinions?
After the piece begins with a quote from the late evangelist about the dangers of political involvement, it then pillories the younger Graham.
Among Mr. Trump’s most vocal evangelical supporters, few are as high-profile as Billy Graham’s eldest son and the heir to his ministry, the Rev. Franklin Graham, who is 65. Though admired among evangelicals for his aid work in hardship zones with the charity he leads, Samaritan’s Purse, he has drawn criticism for his unstinting support of the president.
Franklin Graham has defended the president on television and social media through the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., the crackdowns on immigrants and refugees, the Stormy Daniels scandal, and the slur against Haiti and Africa.
“People say that the president says mean things. I can’t think of anything mean he’s said. I think he speaks what he feels,” Mr. Graham said in a wide-ranging telephone interview last week. “I think he’s trying to speak the truth.”
Well, Trump has actually said plenty of mean things and on that, Franklin Graham and I would disagree. But why has his conservative politics become this major harbinger of where evangelicalism -- as a whole -- stands right now? Most evangelicals couldn't care less about how many times Franklin visits the White House. Many do care about how Samaritan’s Purse is out there helping Syrian refugees.
His funeral is expected to draw politicians from both political parties, showcasing Billy Graham’s success at bipartisanship. The eulogy is to be delivered by his son, Franklin, who has honed a reputation as a polarizing partisan.
Then begins a catalogue of Franklin Graham’s sins:
When Barack Obama was president, Franklin Graham fanned the “birther” conspiracy that claimed the president was not an American citizen. He falsely suggested that Mr. Obama was not a Christian and might secretly be a Muslim.
The copy editor in me thinks it's overkill to insert “falsely” in there.
Veteran religion-beat pro Frank Lockwood of Arkansas put it this way in a post on Facebook:
Today's New York Times news section says Franklin Graham "falsely suggested that Mr. Obama was not a Christian ..."
I've got friends and family who believe Barack Obama is a true Christian; others think he's a fraud who embraced religion solely to advance his political career.
I've got friends and family who believe Donald Trump is a true Christian; others think he's a fraud who embraced religion solely to advance his political career.
Is it a newspaper's job to act as a final arbiter on the genuineness of Mr. Obama's or Mr. Trump's Christian faith?
Now, back to the Times article:
After the election, Mr. Graham said that Mr. Trump’s victory was evidence that “God’s hand was at work.” He was one of the six clergy members chosen to offer prayers at the inauguration, and is among the evangelical pastors who serve as informal advisers to Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
In doing so, Franklin Graham has become a prominent leader of the evangelical faction that is white, older, conservative on immigration, L.G.B.T. issues and guns, and loyal to the Republican Party and Mr. Trump. Some 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump, according to the Pew Research Center.
But there is another wing of the evangelical movement whose members are more moderate politically, many of them black, Latino, Asian, or city dwellers, or young. Some of these evangelicals have grown increasingly discomfited by the close association with the Republican Party, and now, with Mr. Trump.
So yes, Graham has taken positions that don’t agree with that of the New York Times editorial page.
Tell me, why is this news that one’s progeny disagrees with the parents? Look at other children of baby boomer evangelicals. I’ve written about Bart Campolo, neo-atheist son of evangelical activist Tony Campolo; plus there’s Frank Schaeffer, the evangelical-hating son of evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer.
Not all have left the faith. Take Cameron Strang, the 40-something son of Charisma publisher Stephen Strang. The younger Strang founded Relevant, a much edgier publication than his dad’s magazine.
So, as tmatt noted in his "Crossroads" podcast post on Saturday, the elder Graham was non-confrontational and infinitely more pastoral than his son, who possibly sees himself as in the prophetic mode. And the younger Graham is not more theologically conservative than his father. The problem lies in their approaches to politics.
Now with some evangelical leaders concerned about the direction of their movement, the concerns about Franklin Graham have begun to emerge.
“I think that Franklin Graham has failed as a Christian leader, both for what he endorses and for what he has failed to criticize. I speak for a lot of people on that one,” said Richard J. Mouw, president emeritus and professor of faith and public life at the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, the nation’s largest full-time seminary.
“A lot of us were deeply grateful to Billy Graham for acknowledging that he aligned himself in unhelpful and actually non-Christian ways with a person in power,” Dr. Mouw said in an interview last week. “We’re grateful that he said, ‘I was wrong, that was a dangerous thing to have done.’ And now, here we see the same patterns repeated, even by his own son.”
That’s a good quote, as is one by Franklin Graham’s niece Jerushah Armfield criticizing her uncle plus a third quote from one of Graham’s cousins, Boz Tchividjian. But is it news that one’s own extended family disagrees with you? I hate to think, were I famous, what some of my relatives might say about me and most of you would say the same.
Jon Ward, the political correspondent for Yahoo, explains why the Billy Graham phenomenon cannot be repeated, by noting that the post-World War II world that made Graham possible no longer exists. In this splintered, digital age there are many more niche options, ranging from Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes to Paula White and Nadia Bolz-Weber.
It is beyond annoying when evangelicals are demonized for (rightly or wrongly) voting for Trump when “white-bread Protestants” weren’t trashed at all for helping to elect Obama.
My advice to certain reporters who are writing the latest obituaries about the evangelical movement: Stop acting like you care about what happens to evangelical Protestants. Because you don't. And stop acting so amazed that younger evangelicals are trending left, right now. A lot of us lived through the Jesus movement where 20-something evangelicals were hippies, doing street demonstrations, living in community and overseeing far more radical stuff in the 1960s and 1970s than today's millennials ever considered doing.
Then most of them went conservative in the 1980s. So whether Franklin Graham has the power to steer evangelicals in the wrong direction is not the story. What is the story are more subtle divisions and trends among evangelicals that most reporters aren't seeing at all. Go find them. Listen to a wider range of voices.
Inset photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association