Peter J. Boyer of The New Yorker has become an indispensable reporter on the Godbeat, and his recent story on Billy and Franklin Graham is another solid achievement. (The article, from the Aug. 22 issue, is not available online, but the magazine atones for that by offering an engaging slideshow of black-and-white photos by Mary Ellen Mark, along with an audio track by Boyer.)
Boyer focuses strongly on the differences between father and son, and those differences defy stereotypes. So often the script for a World War II-era father and his Baby Boomer son would be that the elderly father is a crusty ideologue and the son is more experimental and laissez-faire. Not so here:
Although Franklin’s preaching style is cooler and more conversational than his father’s he is much less willing to smooth the edges of the faith. If Billy’s theme, especially in his later years, was the saving grace of God’s love, Franklin’s is more elemental. “My message is very focussed,” he says. “My message is to call on people to repent their sins.” Franklin believes in a sulfurous Hell, and has no doubt about who is going to be there. “The Bible says every knee under the earth, every knee that’s in Hell, one day is going to bow,” he says. “And every tongue is going to confess Him as Lord one day. Now, either you’re going to do it voluntarily and submit your heart to the Lord Jesus Christ, or you’re going to be forced. And when you’re forced it’s going to be too late then.”
Boyer’s 13-page article is a thorough survey of the highlights in Billy Graham’s long vocation as an itinerant evangelist, and of his role in giving evangelicalism a public face. Boyer is especially strong in explaining Graham’s decisive break from fundamentalism. (This article is a rare case of using that word accurately and without a sneer.)
The article glosses over some of Billy Graham’s harder edges as a younger preacher. Some of Graham’s critics in the 1950s were just as troubled by his remarks on communism as today’s critics would be by Franklin Graham’s remarks on Islam.
Still, the article also mentions that Franklin already has attracted the respect of Richard Holbrooke’s, President Clinton’s former Ambassador to the United Nations:
Holbrooke says that Graham has been “enormously important” in the fight against AIDS abroad. “Samaritan’s Purse created one of the most important new developments in American foreign policy in the last generation — the entry of Christian conservatives into American foreign policy as pro-foreign-aid people.”