Franklin Graham is no different from many sons who insist that dad’s style is not for them. While the evangelist has followed the same calling as his famous father, the Rev. Billy Graham, he has tried to do it his way. Reviews are mixed, at best.
Over the weekend, Franklin Graham visited tornado-ravaged Alabama representing Samaritan’s Purse, his Christian organization “committed to spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ through emergency relief and evangelism,” as the group describes its mission. In Tuscaloosa, he offered prayer and more tangible relief to grateful residents who had lost everything. He expressed his concern and urged others to contribute their own resources and time.
The image could not be further from Graham the younger’s news-making and controversial television interview on ABC the previous weekend – Easter Sunday — when he offered positive words about the Republican presidential candidacy of Donald Trump and expressed doubts about President Barack Obama’s birthplace and faith. Though the comments were not surprising, given his past statements (including his belief that Obama was “born a Muslim” during a 2007 walking tour with me through the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C.), his timing could not have been worse.
How was Franklin Graham to know that circumstances can change so drastically in a week, that Trump, his preferred candidate, would have a very bad night at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and that the sitting president both men disparaged would be praised (eventually, even by the two of them) for his relentless pursuit of Osama bin Laden?
Maybe by listening to dad.
Billy Graham – who celebrated his 92nd birthday in November — has moved from the spotlight and seems particularly private since the death of his wife, Ruth, in 2007. He has Parkinson’s and uses a wheelchair, though Franklin told me last year that his father has “amazing energy” and his “mind is sharper today even than it was five years ago.”
During an honored and acclaimed life devoted to the spiritual, Graham counseled the politically prominent, including a string of presidents, evident when Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton attended the 2007 library dedication. In December, he made the trip to Charlotte from his western North Carolina home for a library visit and book signing featuring former president George W. Bush and his wife, Laura Bush.
Graham never had to seek out politicians; they came to him. President Obama made the trek to Montreat, N.C., for words of wisdom. Graham early on recognized the power of the media and was as comfortable sparring with Phil Donahue as he was speaking to thousands of the faithful.
But while the man who has been called “America’s pastor” walked the line separating church and state, he has also said that crossing over it has been his greatest regret. Graham has said that listening to close friend’s Richard Nixon’s taped Watergate profanities made him sick, and he has apologized for his own taped statements that were judged anti-Semitic.
Recognizing his own missteps served Graham well. He also steered clear of the foibles of the flesh that sank several of his fellow ministers. His awards – from a Presidential Medal of Freedom from 1983 to an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II – are on display in the library. Visitors to the barn-like structure with an entrance in the shape of a cross profess how he changed their lives.
In a way, you have to sympathize with Franklin Graham, even when his suspicions of Obama do not extend to a fool like Trump. The charismatic Rev. Billy Graham is a hard act to follow, and the era when a religious figure can wield such influence or engender a world’s trust is over. You only have to look at the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II. Though more than a million poured into Rome to honor him, voices of dissent questioned his handling of the child-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.
Religious leaders are scrutinized as much as politicians or bankers, maybe even more since God is their silent partner. Diving into a political controversy will guarantee headlines that a humanitarian trip to Haiti or Alabama might not. But perhaps the last week has given him reason to believe, like many a rebellious son before him, that father knows best.