Did Billy Graham really back Chick-fil-A?

You may have heard, already, that the Rev. Billy Graham joined millions of other Americans by eating a symbolic Chick-fil-A sandwich on Wednesday.

Here’s the question that appears to be bothering some commentators in the mainstream press, if one reads between the lines: Did the Rev. Franklin Graham feed this Chick-fil-A meal to him, involuntarily?

There are those who are convinced that the patriarch of world evangelicalism has not, in fact, been speaking out in favor of the biblical definition of marriage in recent months. Instead, they believe that his often blunt son has been writing these press releases and putting them out in his name — taking advantage of his father’s advanced Parkinson’s Disease.

In short, some people are are saying that the 93-year-old Billy would not make POLITICAL statements of this kind, as opposed to DOCTRINAL statements on these matters. Billy, in other words, would choose to be silent.

Unless I have missed the hard-news coverage (I am in the North Carolina Mountains, not far from Graham’s home, and have little access to wifi), most of this discussion is taking place in commentaries. This is regrettable, in my opinion. If you have facts on a story this important, they need to be stated and attributed.

Here is neutral, modest example of the discussion, care of a pre-sandwich “She The People” feature by Mary C. Curtis of Charlotte, N.C., published at The Washington Post:

After stepping away from speaking out when politics meets faith, letting his son Franklin take over that often contentious role, the 93-year-old Billy Graham is back in the spotlight, by signing on to a call from former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee for an Aug. 1 Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. His vocal support for the “biblical definition of marriage” and opposition to same-sex marriage have put him there.

Graham is vowing to let his appetite do the talking to support Chick-fil-A’s founder Truett Cathy and his son and company president Dan Cathy, who, after publicly confirming beliefs that echo Graham’s, has been denounced and praised.

And then later:

This follows Graham’s outspokenness on a primary ballot measure that in May added an amendment to the North Carolina’s constitution declaring marriage between one man and one woman the only valid domestic legal union. He strongly supported the measure in full-page newspaper ads across the state.

It’s a shift for the elder Graham, who in recent years preferred to act the quiet statesman, especially since the 2007 death of his wife, Ruth. …

Franklin Graham’s statement on the Chick-fil-A controversy is notably more heated than his father’s: “The restaurant chain has been, and continues to be, under a concerted attack from same-sex marriage advocates,” he said. “In the words of the bold, biblical prophet Daniel who refused to bow to the evil culture of his day: ‘The people who know their God will display strength and take action.’”

But while the tone may differ, father and son have found an issue that unites them in public and private. On same-sex marriage, Billy Graham is once again culture warrior, and he’s leaving no doubt where he stands.

Then there is the polar opposite, care of The Huffington Post. In the references I have seen to the author, Steve Knight is being identified (and validly so) in terms of his past connections to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, where he served as webmaster for a time.

The problem is that Knight is currently working with one of the culture’s most consistently liberal Christian bodies, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In other words, Knight certainly appears to have changed doctrinal sides.

Does this invalidate his commentary? Of course not. It simply means that his point of view needs to be fleshed out a bit. Why? Because what he is saying is strong stuff.

Mr. Graham had never made political statements like this in the 62-year history of the ministry, and BGEA’s evangelistic crusades have never partnered with corporations like Chick-fil-A, although they easily could have. …

When you see an ad such as the pro-Amendment One ad (designed and placed by BGEA representatives), or read a BGEA fundraising letter, or a personal statement issued on official BGEA letterhead, you might question how much Billy Graham has to do with any of these things anymore. I worked for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for six years (2000-2006), and I know something of the inner machinations of this multimillion-dollar ministry.

My concern is that here’s how things like this continue to work: Franklin Graham (or Franklin and his sister Anne Graham Lotz) have an agenda (in all three of these cases, “traditional marriage”), they get a BGEA copywriter to draft the text, then a BGEA graphic designer does the layout (in the case of the ad), Franklin approves the copy and/or design, then Franklin drives out to Little Piney Cove (Billy’s cabin home outside of Asheville, N.C.) and holds the piece of paper in front of Billy and asks, “Daddy, can we publish this?” And Billy nods (or whatever he’s capable of doing at this point in his life), and Franklin goes back and publishes this stuff with his good father’s name all over it.

Knight contrasts his take on this Graham family dynamic with that of scholar William Martin of Rice University, the author of one of the best books ever written on the evangelist, “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story.” I would like to note that Martin, a sociologist who knows the evangelical world inside out, also happens to be — the last time I checked — a mainline Protestant.

At the time of the Amendment One statement, the Associated Press reported:

William Martin … couldn’t recall another effort by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association like the one the ministry plans in support of Amendment One. The elderly evangelist preached often on the need for sexual purity, but rarely spoke about same-sex marriage, Martin said.

“I am somewhat surprised that he would take that strong a stand,” said Martin, professor emeritus of religion and public policy at Rice University. “In the past, I have heard him say with respect to homosexuality, there are greater sins. Franklin has been more outspoken about it, but it sounds as if this is Mr. Graham expressing his own will.”

So am I saying that Martin is right and Knight is wrong? Am I saying that the commentary by Curtis is valid and Knight’s is not? No and no (although Martin’s standing as an authority on Graham speaks for itself). What I am saying is that journalists need to approach this hot-button topic as news and, when doing so, clearly attribute their information and do everything that they can to describe, for readers, the backgrounds of the sources.

In other words, try to produce on-the-record information, not statements of personal opinion. Try, just try, to report some news instead of settling for mere commentary.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I’m spiking comments that are not about the journalism issues in this post.

  • Martha

    It might be entirely possible that the Reverend Graham is not saying or doing anything about same-sex marriage, but is supporting a business run on Christian principles and its president who donates to support traditional marriage?

    Has any news story investigated that angle, or did they just stick with “sinister machinations behind the scene using sick old man as figurehead”?

  • dalea

    Why can’t a reporter actually talk to Billy Graham and find out what is going on? All this speculation is not a good way to do journalism. Plus, AIR, Parkinsons is an erratic disease with good days and bad days, so it is entirely possible that BG is giving endorsements. Or not. Someone needs to speak with the man himself to put this kerfluffal to rest.

  • Jim

    Reporters that do not understand faith, often confuse a statement of faith with a political statement. In Augustian terms, a statement made in and about the City of God is totally misconstrued and misinterpreted by the City of Man. Not all speech is political speech.

  • MJBubba

    The elderly evangelist preached often on the need for sexual purity, but rarely spoke about same-sex marriage, Martin said.

    Perhaps that is because times change, and the SSM cause has made rapid advances that would have been unthinkable as recently as the Clinton administration.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Actually, I covered the first Billy Graham sermon on AIDS, which was in the mid-1980s at a crusade in Denver.

    He preached an entire sermon on AIDS and never mentioned homosexuality. But he was RELENTLESS in saying that our whole culture was facing judgment — the WHOLE culture — because it had forgot the meaning of marriage and had forsaken traditional biblical teachings on sex. He was thinking premarital sex, divorce, the whole sexual revolution.

    So would he opposed the redefinition of marriage? Yes.

    Has he done so in this case? We do not know. That’s what journalists need to try to address — with reporting, not mere opinion.

  • http://empirethebook.com Russell

    Billy Graham has indeed chosen to be quiet about our cultural decline in the last two decades. But maybe this final flushing of the Gensis 1 institution of marriage is just too much for him.

  • sari

    It’s possible we’ll never know. My Dad was dxed in his late sixties and deteriorated pretty rapidly. He has been non-verbal for years, is completely reliant upon my mother and their attendant for all of his needs, and suffers from the dementia common to those with Parkinson’s. What’s needed here is an interview with Graham’s doctors to understand how Parkinson’s has progressed in his particular case. Without it, the quotes provided by experts amount to speculation.

  • https://twitter.com/BenBrandenburg Benjamin

    Two thoughts:

    First, TMatt is right to point out that William Martin is a mainline Protestant,but one could find a number of more evangelical minded historians who would also suggest that Graham’s late life return to the political conversation is surprising and in contradiction to his post-Watergate move out of politics.

    Second, Christianity Today International has the capacity to clear up this speculation about Billy Graham’s late life return into the political conversation. It would be tricky, but they are positioned to carefully unpack this very evangelical story of fathers and sons and the politics of ministry empires.

  • http://www.missionalshift.com Steve Knight

    Terry, somehow I missed this when you posted it originally. I think William Martin’s latest statements to Christianity Today (following the latest BGEA-led political campaign) further support the claims I made in my Huffington Post article. I hope you’ll post an update on this story!

    What do you think about Franklin’s absolute refusal to allow any journalists to speak directly with Mr. Graham? I find it highly suspicious. Franklin is teling us Billy is perfectly well and in his right mind and is making these difficult decisions to foray back into politics (after saying as recently as January 2011 that he would never do that again!), but … BUT … Billy is not well enough to speak directly to reporters about any of that. I’m sorry, Franklin, you can’t have it both ways.