BOONE, N.C. (RNS) The Rev. Franklin Graham picks up a toy stuffed animal, tattered by time and a child’s love, from a shelf in his office where his big game hunting trophies loom.
It’s a little black sheep with a music box in its belly, a gift from his mother when he was a tot. When the son of Billy Graham winds a little key it plays, “Jesus loves me.”
Franklin Graham, a hellfire evangelist and a social conservative force, is still a “black sheep” at 63.
He doesn’t travel with the speak-nice herd. His sharp-voiced Facebook posts have 3.4 million followers. He’s a popular to-the-punch guest on Christian broadcasting and its kissing cousin, Fox News. He calls Islam a dead religion. He mocks LGBT rights. Raises funds for “persecuted Christians” in the U.S. like bakers who won’t sell cakes to same-sex couples. Boycotts businesses that use happy gay couples in their advertising. Condemns 21st-century secularism as the godless successor to Cold War communism.
And he plays that music box song this election year with his Decision America rallies set for all 50 U.S. state capitols.
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.
Only prayer can save the nation
“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.”
Neither is he endorsing any person or political party, insists Graham, who quit the GOP last year. The Decision tour, a $10 million road show, is underwritten by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Although he started with several Super Tuesday states and his schedule often takes him into town just ahead of a primary or caucus, Graham tells every audience only prayer can save the nation.
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.
Boldness has its charms. Jane Austin Cunningham Graham, Franklin’s wife, said the first time she flew in a plane he piloted, they crash-landed. She’s been along for the ride for 42 years now.
She travels with him when her health allows, particularly if the destination is near their four children and 10 grandchildren (who call him “Grumps”). On his early February Decision America swing through Columbia, S.C., and Atlanta, she was on board, writing valentines while he did a fine version of the flight attendant safety talk (exits, oxygen, seat belts) for this reporter before easing into the pilot’s seat.
“I’m doing this for my grandchildren,” Graham said, in a post-flight interview. He doesn’t want them to inherit a secular nation where “all people care about is what they can get” from the government.
Think about your children’s future, was one of his pleas to the last four anti-government holdouts at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Graham was on the phone with them daily for more than a week and flew to Oregon to help coax them into surrendering to law enforcement Feb. 11.
“Who we are and why we’re there”
Graham knows something about defiance. He long ago opened the book on his restless, speed-ticketed years before Bob Pierce, the founder of a small medical mission, brought him aboard and later asked him to take it over. After Pierce’s death in 1978, Graham built it into an internationally acclaimed disaster relief and development agency, Samaritan’s Purse, one of the 50 largest charities in the U.S.
And wherever any of his staff and 70,000 volunteers land, they share their faith. Hearing the gospel is “never” a condition” for aid, Graham said emphatically. “But I am not going to work anywhere in the world and keep my mouth shut. I am going to tell people who we are and why we are there and what we believe.”
“Never keeping his mouth shut” about Christ could be the refrain of his last quarter century, amplified now by social media.
Graham arrived loudly on the U.S. political scene at George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration when he prayed “in Jesus’ name,” thereby excluding non-Christians at the national civic event. It was distinctly different than Billy Graham’s prayers to “the Lord” at decades of inaugurations and national memorials, said historian of religion Martin Marty.
Those Billy-pulpit days were slipping away, however. By 2002, Franklin was president as well as CEO and director of the BGEA as well as heading Samaritan’s Purse. After June 2005, his father retreated to his mountain cabin, a senior statesman of American Christianity who claimed he learned his lessons decades ago to stay out of public politics.
William Franklin Graham III may look like his father — Charlton Heston-esque, square-jawed, tall and rangy — but his bravado in the public square “is my mother coming out in me.”
The late Ruth Bell Graham “didn’t run away from anybody,” he said. “She just was never afraid. If she thought something was right, that’s where she stood.”
So, go ahead, call her son the slur for dogmatic believers outside the evangelical mainstream, the F-word of American religion — “fundamentalist.” It carries unfashionable undertones of militancy, judgmentalism, and religious and cultural separatism.
He doesn’t flinch. “That’s fine,” he said, in an interview at Samaritan’s Purse headquarters.
“Islam isn’t going to save anybody”
“I am not ashamed of being a follower of Christ. Fundamentally, I believe in the doctrines of the Scripture,” said Graham. Reared as a Presbyterian, he worships some Sundays at “a little country Baptist Church” and a Christian and Missionary Alliance church he has attended for many years.
Labels mean little to him, however. He prefers to spell things out: Every employee of both nonprofits — 1,403 workers at Samaritan’s Purse and 469 at the BGEA — signs an 11-point statement of faith annotated with 60 scriptural citations.
If one of these people echoed a controversial Wheaton College professor who said Muslims and Christians worship “the same God,” he’d tell that employee, “It’s been nice having you.” (Professor Larycia Hawkins, whose comment was condemned by Graham, has since left Wheaton.)
RELATED STORY: Whither Wheaton? An evangelical college ponders its future
Charge him with taking an offensive tone in his hard-line condemnations of liberal society?
“Tone?” Graham said, with a chuckle. “What was it Donald Trump said in his first debate? ‘We don’t have time for tone!’”
Graham doesn’t say much about Trump’s politics — beyond noting that the candidate’s much-touted call for investigating all, particularly Muslims, who seek to enter the United States, is “copying me.”
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.
“I have been very careful to say that I love Muslim people and I care for them,” he said. Then, Graham segued to his standard message: “Islam isn’t going to save anybody. It can’t keep you from the doors of hell. It won’t open the doors to paradise. I want people to know the truth.”
At camps in northern Iraq and welcome stations for refugees on the move across Europe, run by Samaritan’s Purse, “many are on the run because of Islam,” said Graham. They have seen indescribable death and destruction in the name of that religion and “they need to know someone loves them. That God loves them and he hasn’t forgotten them,” said Graham.
Accepting the gospel is never a condition of aid, he said emphatically. But I’m going to tell them (the gospel) whether they want to hear it or not.”
“Sick, sick, sick, sick”
The same is true for LGBT people.
“I don’t wish (them) ill,” he said. But he will tell them their “lifestyle” is sin and “if they don’t repent, God will one day judge them and they will spend eternity in hell.
“Is that hate speech because you love somebody enough to warn them that they are getting ready to fall off a cliff?” he asked.
It’s a rhetorical question.
Graham opposes the social normalization of same-sex marriage and efforts to pass nondiscrimination laws to protect the rights of “the gays and lesbians” in housing and employment and public accommodations.
“If you try to exercise your faith in a public setting (LGBT activists) come after you to sue you,” he said, citing the bakery owners who were fined $135,000 in 2015 for refusing to produce a wedding cake for a gay couple. Samaritan Purse’s “fund for persecuted Christians” is still sending the owners support money.
Graham has no kind words for transgender people who say their gender identity doesn’t match their biology. They are defying biblical concepts of manhood and womanhood in his understanding. Allowing them to use a bathroom suitable to their self-definition would be “putting our children in danger and opening doors to sexual predators,” he said.
Graham is not even sure there are enough transgender people to merit attention so why, he demanded, “would we change all of our bathrooms so that some weirdo can say, ‘I feel like a woman today. And I’m going to go into a girls’ locker room.’
“That’s sick. It’s just sick. Sick, sick, sick, sick. I think I said that four times. So make sure you got all four times.”
That’s no Billy Graham quote.
The renowned evangelist turned away from fundamentalism in the 1950s and “went to great lengths to make the gospel as appealing to as many people as possible. He avoided deal breakers,” said Duke University professor of Christian history Grant Wacker, author of “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.”
However, Wacker also observes, “Billy Graham believed a lot of things he didn’t emphasize because he knew they would offend or divide people.”
Franklin knows these things. He’s stepping out as the Billy Graham we didn’t see: Forthright and damn (literally) all critics.
“My father has not changed his views. He’s 97. You can go back and read his first book and it says the same thing: No one comes to the Father except through Jesus,” said Franklin.
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He also insists he did not write his father’s 2015 book, “Where I Am,” which is full of hellfire warnings. If it seems different than many earlier Graham texts, Franklin has an explanation: “There are some books he wrote where he wished he’d been more clear.”
Make America Christian again
Clarity is not Franklin Graham’s weakness. He has one mission — to save lives, spiritually and materially. He is in the headlines for humanitarian acts almost as often as for his controversial comments.
He flew missionary physician Dr. Kent Brantly back from Liberia when he was near death with Ebola. He worked for the release of Pastor Saeed Abedini, imprisoned in Iran for three years, and brought him to recover at The Cove, the mountain retreat run by the BGEA. Samaritan’s Purse planes and truck convoys are often first on the scene of earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters, and the last to leave.
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.
“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.
The believers who clustered at the foot of the Columbia, S.C., statehouse steps Feb. 9 — including a roving pastor dressed as Patrick Henry and church busloads from miles around — were uninterested in labels.
Evelyn Ives, huddled with her church friends under blankets, said she came “to hear a good Christian talk and to pray for the right person to win in November.” Franklin Graham warmed her heart.
And so far, he’s pulled in around 50,000 Decision America pledges to “take a stand.”
Rile people up? “That’s my mother in me,” says the man with the little black sheep on his shelf.
(Cathy Lynn Grossman is senior national correspondent for Religion News Service)