As Russian troops patrol the Crimean peninsula and mass along the eastern border of Ukraine, Franklin Graham has been catching some flak for invidiously comparing Vladimir Putin’s protection of Russian children from gay “propaganda” to America’s embrace of same-sex marriage. He was, Graham assured Charlotte Observer reporter Tim Funk, behaving no differently than his father, “who he said took unpopular but moral stands in his prime against racial segregation and communism.”
My father never worried about polls. I don’t care about them, either. And with the issues we are facing today – if my father were a younger man, he would be addressing and speaking out in the exact same way I’m speaking out on them.
I don’t think so. For better or worse, Billy Graham in his prime was a consummate political calculator who never let changing circumstances get in the way of his evangelistic enterprise.
Of course, to suggest that the young revivalist was doing anything unpopular by attacking Communism at the height of the Cold War is beyond silly. But the issue of Graham and racial segregation is more complicated.
Although he began integrating his crusades in 1953, he only forbade segregated seating after the Supreme Court banned separate-but-equal public schools in 1954. As late as 1958, he permitted himself to be publicly introduced by the segregationist governor of Texas. In the words of Grant Wacker, author of the forthcoming (in September) America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation, “On civil rights, Billy was rarely in the vanguard but almost always well ahead of his constituency.”
Among the most interesting episodes in Billy Graham’s career was his close encounter with electoral politics in 1960. Faced with the possibility of the nation’s first Roman Catholic president, Graham at first helped Norman Vincent Peale mobilize Protestant leaders for Richard Nixon, but insisted on staying behind the scenes. Then, 10 days before the Kennedy inauguration, he accepted an invitation to play golf with the president-elect in Palm Springs, telling a group of reporters, “I don’t think Mr. Kennedy’s being a Catholic should be held against him by any Protestant.”
Franklin Graham, by contrast, has questioned President Obama’s Christian faith and now says that some members of his administration are so “hostile to Christians” that they “are anti-Christ in what they say and in what they do.” I don’t know Billy Graham and Billy Graham’s not a friend of mine. But Franklin, you’re no Billy Graham.