When I was a teenager, the name Billy Graham was a household word and a respected name. My family would watch the Billy Graham Crusades on television whenever they were broadcast. It was hard not to watch and to listen to Billy Graham. He was a mesmerizing figure: he had movie star looks; a strong, compelling voice; a charmingly soft Southern accent; and a charismatic stage presence. His message was as simple as it was powerful: Our lives on earth are short. Soon enough each of us will die. Do you want to go to heaven? Then you must give your life to Christ. You must accept him as your Lord and Savior and enter into a personal relationship with him. He is even now lovingly extending his hand to you. Will you not take it? And then, quoting Scripture (2 Corinthians 6:2), he would say, “Now is the accepted time; today is the day of salvation. This is the hour of decision.” Then would come the altar call led by Graham’s superb musical team of George Beverly Shea, dubbed “America’s beloved Gospel singer;” Cliff Barrows, music and program director; Tedd Smith, pianist, and Don Hustad and John Innes, organists, as they played and sang the moving old hymn Just As I Am Without One Plea. Graham would invite – encourage – plead with those attending his “crusades” or listening to his “Hour of Decision” program to stand up and give their lives to Christ. Watching Graham from my living room, even I felt the impulse to get out of my chair. But that was oh so long ago and so far away from where I am today. So let’s fast-forward to today. . .
Today, the name “Graham” is still in the news, but it is not Billy who is making the headlines. The elder Graham is now 96, has had Parkinson’s disease since 1992, and reportedly is largely confined to his bed. The Graham who is making the headlines now is Billy Graham’s eldest son, William Franklin Graham III, known simply as Franklin Graham. And those headlines are often controversial. Billy Graham was a powerful preacher of the gospel. Franklin Graham is a political hack.
The apple fell pretty far from the tree with Franklin Graham. He is very different from his celebrated father. Franklin Graham has been accused of being a rhetorical and theological bully, saying such things as Islam is “wicked and evil” and “This is Islam. It has not been hijacked by radicals. This is the faith; this is the religion. It is what it is. It speaks for itself. It is the same. It is a religion of war.” And concerning gays, Graham has said, “Have you ever asked yourself – how can we fight the tide of moral decay that is being crammed down our throats by big business, the media, and the gay and lesbian community?” That sentence is almost interesting until you realize that Graham casually associates gay people with the moral decline of America!
Graham agrees with the assessment that he is less gentle than his father. “We preach the same Gospel,” Graham says, “but Daddy hates to say no. I can say no.” Graham adds that he is much more engaged in the day-to-day management of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, of which he is president and CEO, than his father ever was. Through the efforts of his humanitarian organization, Samaritan’s Purse, he has much more experience on the front lines of global conflicts, such as those in Rwanda and the Middle East. This perspective, Graham argues, justifies his harder, more abrasive edge. “I’ve been doing a different kind of ministry,” he says. “That has shaped my views on a lot of things.”
Franklin Graham also takes political sides in a way that his father never did. Billy Graham was by no means uninterested in politics. By the middle 1960s, Billy Graham had become the “Great Legitimator” – his presence conferred sanctity on events, authority on presidents, acceptability on wars, desirability on decency, and shame on indecency. Billy Graham formed friendships with many politicians, including Presidents Richard Nixon, a Republican and Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat. By the middle 1970s, many dubbed Billy Graham the “pastor to presidents.” He prayed with Democratic and Republican chief executives alike – every one of them from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. His rabid anti-communism mellowed with age, and he never forgot that preaching was his real calling.
But Franklin Graham is a very different man. By contrast, Franklin Graham’s political friendships lean hard to the right. He most recently expressed support for the improbable presidential candidacy of business magnate, investor, and television personality, Donald Trump, even parroting the same sort of “birther” nonsense that Trump has pedaled, saying that President Obama had “some issues to deal with” in terms of proving he was born in Hawaii. “I was born in a hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, and I know that my records are there. You can probably even go and find out what room my mother was in when I was born. I don’t know why he [Obama] can’t produce that,” Graham has said.
Graham says the rules of political engagement have changed since his father was a public figure. “It’s sad to see how polarized our nation has become. If a political party doesn’t like you, then they start attacking you,” he says. “I like the president [Obama]. He’s a nice man. I just disagree – strongly – with the spending that both Republicans and Democrats alike are responsible for. It’s not right.” But it is not only the spending that Graham does not like.
Graham says that President Obama is sympathetic to Islam and is giving Muslim groups access to influence United States foreign policy, which eventually will lead to persecution of Christians and Jews in America. In a 2012 interview on CBN’s 700 Club Interactive program, Graham told host Gordon Robertson that the president’s upbringing is the reason that he favors Islam. “We’re going to see persecution in this country because our president is very sympathetic to Islam and the reason I say that, Gordon, is because his father was a Muslim, gave him a Muslim name, Barack Hussein Obama. His mother married another Muslim man; they moved to Indonesia, he went to Indonesian schools. So, growing up, his frame of reference and his influence as a young man was Islam. It wasn’t Christianity; it was Islam. I’m not saying the president is Muslim, never said he’s a Muslim. He says he’s a Christian. I take him at his word.” But Graham then added that under sharia [Islamic] law, Obama is still considered a Muslim because his father was a Muslim. “That’s why [Muammar al-Gaddafi] calls him ‘my son,’” he noted. “To the Muslim world that’s under sharia law, which we’re not, they see him [Obama] as a lost son. They see him as a wayward child. It goes by birth in the Islamic world. You’re considered a Muslim if your father is a Muslim.”
Well, not so fast, Franklin Graham. While it is true that in Muslim cultures, the children of Muslims are generally assumed to be Muslim themselves, most of the sources I read stated that whether one truly is a Muslim or not really depends on belief in Muslim teaching and following its practices, not whether one is born into the faith. For instance, Blain Auer, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at Western Michigan University, states that the most prominent requirement for being a Muslim is for believers to recite the shahadah, a statement of faith that affirms: “I bear witness that there is no god except Allah. And I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” Auer concludes by saying, “Franklin Graham’s statement is incorrect. Islam is an act of faith, not a genetic disposition.”
Earlier this year, Franklin Graham continued to beat the drum that suggests President Obama and his administration are somehow under the sway of a cabal of Islamic Svengalis. He worries that “our foreign policy has a lot of influence now from Muslims.” His proof? The Obama administration’s less than enthusiastic reception of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before congress. This tepid response, says Graham, is proof that Islam is exerting perilous influence on American foreign policy. Graham sees this development as a reckless tolerance of Islam and that such an attitude is both telling and ominous: “They [Muslims] hate Israel and they hate Christians, and so the storm is coming.”
But I am more than a little confused about what is being said here. While a candidate, Barack Obama was accused of being a radical Christian – a follower of United Church of Christ Pastor Jeremiah Wright. (Remember him?) After the election, the President was accused of being a Muslim extremist. Now, according to Graham, he is accused of being under the influence of Svengali, a fictional Jewish character in George du Maurier’s 1895 novel Trilby. So what does that make President Obama? A militant Christian, terrorist Muslim of Jewish origin? Please explain this to me, Franklin Graham.
Inasmuch as President Obama has been more than clear about his Christian commitments, continuing to question his faith is just a more socially acceptable way of calling him a liar.
But that does not seem to daunt Franklin Graham. He may be his father’s son, but he is not a “chip off the old block.” His viperous outbursts and questioning of President Obama’s faith is nothing less than despicable.
But even if Franklin Graham were correct, what exactly would be the problem with Muslims having greater access to the White House? After all, Graham’s father, a Christian evangelist, had great access to the White House and no one batted an eye.
Unless someone has hijacked the Constitution or has altered the Golden Rule when no one was paying attention, it is neither illegal nor immoral to be a practitioner of Islam. Not in this country. Not the last time I looked. So, why is the furor over which Franklin Graham exercises himself so feverishly such a big deal for him? Is the illusion of Muslims running amok at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue a vexing fantasy for him?
The only thing I can think of that even remotely justifies Graham’s narrow-minded view of the Muslim community is the mistaken belief that we live in something called a “Christian nation.” But take it from at least one Christian – namely, me – the United States of America is not a Christian nation. There may be a Christian plurality in the United States, but this nation was not founded as a Christian nation. It never was, and God help us if it ever should be. We are not a theocracy. We are not a theonomy. We are a secular democracy and the separation of church and state is very real for us as a nation. This overheated fantasy of a Christian nation troubles me on a couple of different levels.
First, what I find most troubling is that many of the Christians who insist that Jesus never sanctioned government assistance when it comes to poverty or healthcare or any of the social safety net services that government provides for its citizenry are simultaneously the same people who are convinced that government would not be so bad as long as Christians were running the show. Ask any of the Christian Dominionists about this. For instance, ask Michele Bachmann, or Rick Perry, or Sarah Palin, or Pat Robertson – or any of the others who have flirted with the idea of Christian Dominionism. They will tell you. In case you are not aware, Christian Dominionism is the idea that Christians should work toward either a nation governed by Christians or one governed by a conservative Christian understanding of biblical law. Such thinking was expressed by Katherine Harris, the former Secretary of State of Florida, who also ran for the United States Senate, when she wrote in the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper: “God is the one who chooses our rulers. If you are not electing Christians, tried and true, under public scrutiny and pressure, if you’re not electing Christians, then in essence you are going to legislate sin. They can legislate sin. They can say that abortion is alright. They can vote to sustain gay marriage. Then we’re going to have a nation of secular laws. That’s not what our founding fathers intended and that certainly isn’t what God intended.” Really? And this statement from an elected official? I believe Ms. Harris needs to take a refresher course both on the Constitution of the United States and on the Bible.
President Ronald Reagan famously intoned: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government IS the problem.” Those words sounded good and many popular conservative versions of Christianity enthusiastically applauded his rhetoric. But those same Christian enthusiasts seemed to want to qualify Reagan’s denunciation of government by tacking onto the end of his statement the words, “unless Christians are in charge of it.” Government, in other words, is inherently bad – except when it is not – except when Christians are in charge. Good grief!
But you cannot have it both ways. You cannot say that government is inherently flawed, is the cause of all the world’s problems when someone else is in charge and then turn around and insist that Christians have some kind of divine/historical claim to being in charge. To take that stance not only is illogical, but also it means that apparently government is an obvious gift to the world, healing everything from the nation’s supposed morally ravaged soul to its alleged tortured relationship with Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber or the Kardashians!
And then secondly, I am troubled by the assertion that greater access by Muslims to the halls of power is a bad thing. Just what is the problem for Graham with Muslims? Unfortunately, he does not qualify his paranoia with unwieldy nuance. But Franklin Graham has a penchant for spewing hatred and as far as I am concerned, that proclivity is a more devastating argument about his commitment to the teachings of Christ whom he professes to serve than anything else. I will refrain from judging Franklin Graham’s status as a Christian and just say that I do not think much of his brand of Christianity. To his skewed way of thinking, a Muslim is a Muslim is a Muslim is a Muslim ad infinitum – ad nauseam. He seems to labor under the paranoidial delusion that all Muslims are dangerously subversive suicide-bombers-in-waiting. And that, I submit, is a terribly unfair brush with which to paint all Muslims.
And as if that were not bad enough, suppose that Muslims were to think that all Christians are as mean-spirited and as narrow-minded as Franklin Graham. I suspect that they may already harbor such thoughts