Billy Graham Legacy News

Franklin Graham wants your heart, not your vote

Franklin Graham at his office at Samaritan's Purse in Boone, N.C., on Feb. 8, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Paul Sherar

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.

Rev. Franklin Graham, on the steps of the Columbia, S.C. Statehouse for part of his 50-States Decision America tour, calls on an audience of 7,100 to pray and vote for evangelical Christian candidates and run for office themselves. Religion News Service photo by Cathy Grossman

The Rev. Franklin Graham, on the steps of the Columbia, S.C., Statehouse for part of his 50-state Decision America tour, calls on an audience of 7,100 to pray and vote for evangelical Christian candidates and run for office themselves. Religion News Service photo by Cathy Grossman

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.

Franklin Graham at his office at Samaritan's Purse in Boone, N.C., on Feb. 8, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Paul Sherar

The Rev. Franklin Graham at his office at Samaritan’s Purse in Boone, N.C., on Feb. 8, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Paul Sherar


RELATED STORY: Franklin Graham quits the GOP over Planned Parenthood funding


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.

Rev. Franklin Graham, who often pilots his own trips for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the relief agency Samaritan’s Purse, takes off from his North Carolina home base to a rally in Columbia, S.C on Feb. 9, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Cathy Grossman

The Rev. Franklin Graham, who often pilots his own trips for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the relief agency Samaritan’s Purse, takes off from his North Carolina home base to a rally in Columbia, S.C., on Feb. 9, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Cathy Grossman

“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.

A view inside Samaritan's Purse in Boone, N.C., during a tour on Feb. 8, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Paul Sherar

A view inside Samaritan’s Purse in Boone, N.C., during a tour on Feb. 8, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Paul Sherar


RELATED STORY: Why Franklin Graham’s salary raises eyebrows among Christian nonprofits


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.”

When Samaritan’s Purse sends staff and some of its 70,000 volunteers to a natural disaster, they bring Bibles as well. CEO Franklin Graham says faith is not a condition for aid but they will always talk to people about the Gospel. Religion News Service photo by Cathy Grossman

When Samaritan’s Purse sends staff and some of its 70,000 volunteers to a natural disaster, they take Bibles as well. CEO Franklin Graham says faith is not a condition for aid but the volunteers will always talk to people about the gospel. Religion News Service photo by Cathy Grossman

“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.”

Ruth Graham, wife of evangelist Billy Graham. Religion News Service file photo

Ruth Graham, wife of evangelist Billy Graham. Religion News Service file photo

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.”

Salem, Ore. -- Billy Graham addresses some 1,200 inmates of the state penitentiary during a religious revival campaign. Religion News Service file photo (1950)

Billy Graham addresses some 1,200 inmates of the state penitentiary in Salem, Ore., in 1950 during a religious revival campaign. Religion News Service file photo

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.


RELATED STORY: Billy Graham warns of fire and brimstone in ‘final’ book


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.

A Baptist church in Summerville S.C., brought 20 people to hear the Rev. Franklin Graham on Feb. 9, 2016, including, from left to right, Evelyn Ives, Phyllis Bolton, and Bobbie Lominac. Religion News Service photo by Cathy Grossman

A Baptist church in Summerville, S.C., brought 20 people to hear the Rev. Franklin Graham on Feb. 9, 2016, including, from left to right, Evelyn Ives, Phyllis Bolton and Bobbie Lominac. Religion News Service photo by Cathy Grossman

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.

About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues

30 Comments

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  • How about getting an extended middle finger instead?

    Franklin Graham has proven over and over again how pernicious the Christian theocratic agenda is. The man extols attacks on religious liberties, promotes bigotry and can’t even run a charity without acting badly.

    He has relied entirely on his father’s reputation and drove it into the ground.

  • I wonder if Franklin would say the same thing about Jews: that Judaism does not save anyone, that it cannot save you from the gates of hell, and won’t open the doors to paradise?
    By the way, who has sued Franklin for exercising his faith in the public arena?

  • Franklin Graham is setting the stage for his presidential campaign in 2020. You can bet on it.
    Why else the multi-state “political’ rallies featuring no-one but Graham? And its totally clear that he is deeply interested in politics (remember all the endorsements in the name of Billy in the 2012 election). But this year he’s seen that the endorsement game will just tarnish his reputation. With this game, he’ll be the post-partisan savior. For precedent see Robertson, Pat…..but Graham is playing the long game.

  • The fact that he quoted anything approvingly from Trump suggests he is putting politics ahead of the Gospel.

    And to praise Trump for being outspoken is to praise him for nothing, because being outspoken alone means nothing. I’m sure that Nero and Caligula, as well as Adolf and Josef, were quite outspoken individuals.

    As for the fire and brimstone, some of what he said was theologically unsound. You don’t go to hell for any one sin; were that the case, every human being who ever lived would be there. You go to hell by refusing to admit you are a sinner….in other words, by denying the most obvious of all human truths — that no matter how low we lower the bar of ethical or moral standards, all of us fair miserably, even the best of us humans. We fail to meet even our own measly standards as people.

    In other words, there’s really only one thing separating heaven from hell — those in heaven ate humble pie, while those in hell refused.

  • Well then, that behavior would make him an ideal political candidate. Just look at Trump et al in the present slate for “inspiration” there.

  • I like his father better for a number of reasons, but I don’t know what a Christian “agenda” means, because Christians, like everyone else, are split politically into many factions.

    As for “theocratic” agenda, nice try, but I prefer to define words precisely, not broadly so as to use as a club against one’s political foes. To me, a Christian theocrat (or theonomist or dominionist) is someone who wants literally to replace the US Constitution with the Law of Moses. That is theocracy and every Christian denomination in America condemns it as heretical. But a growing number of smart alecks think it’s a pretty cool idea, when no one’s looking, to quietly expand the definition of theocracy to mean any Christian advocacy of positions that, while dear to Christian conservatives, are not uniquely biblical nor even uniquely religious and hence in no conceivable way theocratic.

  • Even though Franklin Graham doesn’t want anybody’s vote, he’s really the only leader qualified to be President within a 10,000-mile radius.

    So a Christian gotta do what a Christian gotta do — I’m going to vote for Franklin Graham ANYWAY !!!!!!!!!!

  • There are so many problems with Franklin Graham that I don’t even know where to begin. I will just say that what he has done to his father’s legacy is nothing short of elder abuse. He puts words in Billy’s mouth that do not reflect the Billy Graham we saw and heard for 50 years. He is as much of a bully as Trump, maybe more so because Trump does not do his bullying in the name of God. There is only one thing I can think of that we should emulate from this man. Those of us who are Christian, and do not accept the Jesus he has created, should learn to speak out just as forcefully. Duke U backed down from allowing faithful, non-violent Muslim Duke students to pray in Duke Chapel because of Franklin’s rants. Isn’t he the one who says the nation will be saved only by prayer? This is using God’s name in vain, and he does it often with his tirades. I would like to know, who died and made Franklin Graham God?

  • Despite the fact that I disagree with Franklin Graham on a number of pretty big things, I would vote for him in a millisecond over Donald Trump….because Franklin Graham would constitute no threat at all to our basic system of government. Trump is a wannabe dictator; Franklin Graham, whatever his faults, is not even close.

    And while I believe Franklin needs to rethink on many things, I believe he is a good man, unlike Trump, who is a terrible human being.

  • Franklin Graham has some of the usual flaws of Christians who don’t understand people who are not like them, but I don’t see him as a direct threat to the Republic like Trump. I would not fear Franklin going absolutely crazy if someone disagreed with him, the way Trump does. I would not fear Franklin trying to dismantle the First Amendment and make himself dictator, as Trump shows every sign of wanting to do. I would not fear Franklin using the IRS, FBI, and other federal agencies to go after dissenters, as Trump would want to do.

  • In other words, Franklin is more a narrow-minded fundamentalist in many ways, whereas Trump is a fascist bully-boy thug — a lawless wannabe Mussolini totalitarian. Trump is the far, far greater threat. Franklin is no bargain, but he’s a million times better than Trump.

  • Theocratic is a rather apt description of Christian conservatives these days. There are certainly plenty of sects who advocate replacing constitutional freedom with sectarian discriminatory laws. Especially those pretending religious freedom means a privilege to attack others in the name of their faith.

    They are easy to spot, they are the ones attacking separation of church and state and seem to believe free exercise only applies to Christians.

  • Here’s the test, Jack.

    Are they interested in the purely theological concerns of their particular interpretations of the bible being made into secular law, or are they merely expressing a more general opinion.

  • Laurence, Christians in the following 1,970 or so years since Paul have also said that Islam and other non-Christian religions are non-salvific. They didn’t feel the need to defer to him. Yet, Franklin has chosen this particular time in US history to hammer Islam. Why? If it’s just about saving people, he should be saying the exact same things about Judaism. So why isn’t he?

  • You forgot one thing he wants: money! This wastrel son of a famous man is a notorious charlatan who does not care who he hurts in his desire for wealth and fame.

  • God is love and if we are in Him, He is in us and we are in Him. Many of these responses sounds Very judgmental and ungodly. Let God judge. At least lets thank him for all the good works he is doing. Are you doing that much good? Examine yourself.

  • That’s silly. I’m sure he’s set for life in the money category. He is what he is. There really isn’t much to explain. The article says it.

  • Several reasons, Garson.

    First, he sees radical Islamism as the major threat to the world and, seeing it as the purest form of Islam, hence comes against Islam. I disagree, but I’m summarizing his position.

    Second, he has emerged from waves of Christian Zionism which have swept this country over the past half century and have led to a philo-Semitism that comes thisclose to believing in practice that somehow, Jews will be okay without accepting Christ.

    Third, the increasing on-the-ground friendships between pro-Israel Jews and Christian Zionists are making it very hard for those on the Christian Zionist side to tell their Jewish friends that they need Jesus.

    Put simply, evangelicals are human beings with human emotions like everyone else….and while Jews don’t always reciprocate, they have a genuine, gut-level liking for Jews, especially friends who are Jews.

    The way I see it, the Gospel is true but I leave it to God to judge hearts and motives.

  • Why is there always so much scornful stuff coming from famous religious conservatives?

    You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing anymore, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men…….Matthew 5:13

    That’s really what happens to them simply because of their constant mean spirited public discourse and actions. It is constantly defining what kind of people they are.

  • Oh my gosh – such vindictiveness! And I can’t quite figure out if some of you are not Christian and judging Graham because he is – and says Jesus is the only way, or if you are Christian and you are judging him because he isn’t up to your standards. Paul took that kind of abuse too – and was glad to take it for Jesus.

  • I’m not judging Franklin Graham because he’s a Christian, I’m judging him because he’s a hypocrite.

  • So let me get this straight. God loves you but if you’re a Muslim, or gay, you’ll spend eternity tortured in the flames. Still, Franklin Graham cares so deeply for you he’s willing to accept an extraordinarily high salary package from the charitable groups he directs. (Higher than the ceo of Save the Children or World Vision) http://religionnews.com/2015/08/18/franklin-grahams-salary-raises-eyebrows-among-christian-nonprofits/ and https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2015/09/01/franklin-grahams-public-pronouncements-and-nonprofit-salary/ Seems like an angry, phony, bully.

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