Franklin Graham can be quite frustrating at times. Over the past few years, however, I’ve been feeling more and more compassion for him.
There’s a great line from the movie Amistad. Two jaded White House staffers are making fun of John Quincy Adams. “What must that be like,” one of them asks, “knowing all your life, whatever your accomplishments, you’ll only be remembered as the son of a great father?”
I think of that line of dialogue every time I read about the latest publicity stunt by the attention starved Franklin Graham. There must be a mountain of pain wrapped up in the relationship between that father and that son; a mountain of pain in being remembered as the son of a great father.
What must it be like to be Billy Graham’s son? Who could be measured against that standard for a lifetime and not be driven mad? That perspective helps me to have compassion for Franklin Graham. As misguided as he seems to be, one can tell that Franklin is trying so hard… maybe a little bit too hard.
“Franklin Graham is in the early days of a tour that he plans to take to every state capitol in the nation this year. At each stop, the evangelist leads Christians in prayer and encourages them to “cast their ballots for candidates who uphold biblical principles,” as he explained last year. With the slogan “Pray. Vote. Engage,” the Decision America tour kicked off Jan. 5 in Des Moines, Iowa, and it heads this month to South Carolina, Georgia, Colorado, and beyond. Though not all the rallies have been scheduled yet, Graham appears to be keeping one step ahead of primary elections across the country. Save for its politics, the Decision America tour is the kind of populist, publicity-savvy, and prayer-centered event that might have been headed a few decades ago by Franklin’s father, Billy Graham…
Franklin Graham is a caricature of his father, not his successor. Last summer Franklin called for a ban on all Muslim immigration to the U.S., beating Donald Trump to the punch by almost five months (and reiterating his position after Trump made his proposal). In June, he fumed about the rainbow illumination of the White House after the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage (“God is the one who gave the rainbow, and it was associated with His judgment … One day God is going to judge sin—all sin.”) He also removed the Billy Graham ministry’s accounts from Wells Fargo because the bank produced an ad featuring a lesbian couple adopting a child. A few months prior, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, he wrote an open letter to “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else” saying most police shootings could be prevented by respect and obedience. In January, he called on donors to Duke University to withhold their support because of plans to begin a Muslim call to prayer from a chapel on campus. That was all in a single year.
Let’s look back a little further. In 2014, Franklin wrote in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s magazine that Vladimir Putin was better on gay issues than Obama. Why? The Russian leader “has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.” In discussing that column with a journalist, he referred to gay adoption as recruitment. He has been escalating his anti-Muslim rhetoric since Sept. 11, 2001, when he called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.” He has toyed with the “just asking questions” strain of birtherism and said that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the U.S. government. He is extremely active on Facebook, often posting multiple diatribes a day.”
The bus tour is a political rally disguised as a prayer event. Franklin is attempting to consolidate his influence among evangelicals into political clout. He seems to want to be a player at the national level in the realm of politics. Franklin has claimed that if his father were a younger man, he’d be doing the same thing. The problem with this claim is that his father has explicitly said just the opposite.
Billy Graham was asked in one of his last major interviews with Christianity Today if he would change anything about his life and ministry. Graham listed two things: First, he would spend less time on the road and more time with his family (I think that could have done a lot for young Franklin’s heart and character). The other regret was getting too involved in politics. This what he said:
“I also would have steered clear of politics. I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.” – Billy Graham, CT, January 21, 2011.
I wish Franklin would stop trying to be a big deal; stop trying to change the world. I wish he would find a small church to pastor, and learn to do a small thing faithfully. Only then will he ever learn how to steward the family name, and his father’s legacy faithfully. I would tell him what may be obvious to everyone but himself… that he is driven by deep forces underneath the surface of his life that are clouding his judgment. If I could, I would remind him of what Rich Mullins used to say. If your ambition is to leave a legacy, then what you’ll leave as a legacy is ambition.
My guess is that Franklin’s reign over the BGEA is going to get much worse before it gets better, if it gets better at all.