Franklin Graham: The next Falwell?
By Tim Funk
Published in: Faith & Values
As he gives sound bites condemning Islam, promoting top Republicans and raising questions about President Barack Obama's Christianity, North Carolina's Franklin Graham is sounding less these days like the next Billy Graham and more like the new Jerry Falwell.
In the younger Graham's controversial comments - offered recently and over the years on a host of TV news shows - religion scholars, political historians and even some of Graham's fellow evangelical Christians say they hear strident echoes of the combative Falwell.
Throughout the 1980s, as head of the Moral Majority, Falwell lambasted liberals, forged alliances with the GOP and elevated issues such as abortion, homosexuality and public prayer.
The 58-year-old Graham, who came of age in a more religiously pluralistic America than the one that made his father famous, has spoken out against Islam in a way that American Muslims say encourages prejudice - and worse - against them. And though Billy Graham lost some credibility for promoting Richard Nixon during a time of American discord, his son readily mixes theological commentary with doses of political punditry.
Franklin Graham commands no Moral Majority-like political operation, though he told the Observer he wouldn't rule out launching one "if I thought it could save this country" from Washington politicians of both parties "who have wheeled and dealed, spent the money of our grandchildren and put us in a debt hole."
He does lead two large evangelical organizations - Samaritan's Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Together, they reach millions of mostly conservative Christians via TV specials, websites, crusadelike festivals, a magazine, the Billy Graham Library and more.
And as a Graham, he's royalty in evangelical circles - a status that offers him a potentially formidable megaphone. He has easy access to everybody from pastors to politicians, from Christian music stars to TV talk show hosts. At Fox News, nighttime host Greta Van Susteren and her camera crew have followed Graham around the world, doing stories on him from North Korea, Haiti and the Operation Christmas Child warehouse in Charlotte.
Graham, who lives in Boone with his wife, Jane, is widely lauded for his humanitarian efforts as CEO of Samaritan's Purse, a Christian charity. And, so far, he appears to have kept the Gospel message center stage at his festivals.
But as the country prepares to move into another presidential election year, Graham has increasingly veered into politics.
The most obvious example involves possible GOP presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
In 2009, he sent a Samaritan's Purse plane to pick up Palin, then on a book tour, and bring her to Montreat to have dinner with him and Billy Graham. Late last year, Palin flew to Haiti for a highly publicized inspection, with Graham, of relief efforts by Samaritan's Purse. And, this year, after pundits criticized Palin for her gun imagery in the wake of the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Graham put out a news release defending the former Alaska governor.
Type in "Sarah Palin" on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website and up comes a video of "Sarah Palin on Finding Faith" and photos of her cradling babies in Haiti.