In a lengthy article for the New Yorker, journalist Eliza Griswold profiles Franklin Graham, son of the late preacher Billy Graham, and his “uneasy” (to put it mildly) relationship with Donald Trump.
Let’s just say that Graham is no stranger to the criticism leveled against him. He knows he bears little in common with his father, who had much to say about the danger of faith mixing with politics. The son just doesn’t care:
Billy Graham, a lifelong Democrat who supported both Democratic and Republican Presidents, promoted a message of religious and political unity. As far back as the nineteen-fifties, he attempted to desegregate his crusades, inviting Martin Luther King, Jr., to stand onstage alongside him. “Billy Graham’s style was openhanded invitation,” Robert P. Jones, of the Public Religion Research Institute, said. “He didn’t shy away from talking about sin, but it didn’t feel like an assault.”
Billy Graham wasn’t perfect, of course. He was reluctant to fully embrace Dr. King’s messages of unity and even went so far as to suggest that racial harmony wasn’t possible on this side of Heaven. But the elder Graham was pretty damn woke when you compare him to his son, who fell so far from the tree, their family name may be the only thing they still have in common.
Franklin Graham, by contrast, possesses little of his father’s charisma. Personally and politically, he is far more divisive. After September 11th, he famously called Islam “a very evil and very wicked religion,” a position that put him on a public trajectory toward the hard-right wing of the Republican Party. “This was the key political turning point that set the stage for his prominence with Fox News and with Donald Trump,” Thomas Kidd, a professor at Baylor University, told me. Since 2012, the Trump Foundation has donated at least a hundred thousand dollars to Graham’s organizations, contributing to hurricane-relief efforts and to his 2015 campaign in support of “Biblical candidates.” That year, Graham supported Trump’s bid for a total ban on Muslim immigration to the United States. Graham is planning a trip to Blackpool, England, which, like Trump’s recent trip to the U.K., has faced public opposition from critics who argue that his preaching constitutes hate speech.
It is hate speech. That’s not because he’s preaching Christianity, but because he’s actually preaching hate towards groups that don’t align with his personal beliefs. Blaming an entire religion on the actions of a few is something Christians hate when it happens to them, but Graham uses the trauma of 9/11 to justify persecuting Muslims. He also believes that LGBTQ rights will somehow destroy the fabric of America. The list goes on (and my blood pressure gets higher).
And that’s before we get to the strange bedfellows.
Graham has also been criticized for his relationship with Vladimir Putin, which began before Trump took office. Putin’s anti-gay legislation aligns with Graham’s views, and, in 2014, Graham wrote, “In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues. Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.” In 2015, Graham spent forty-five minutes with Putin in Moscow, discussing the persecution of Christians and what evangelical Christianity actually entails, Graham told me. He asked for Putin’s help in securing the freedom of Saeed Abedini, a pastor imprisoned in Iran. Abedini was released in 2016. Since then, Graham has often defended Trump for his approach on Russia, tweeting before their July 16, 2018, meeting, “Let’s pray for @POTUS @realDonaldTrump in these key meetings.” When Trump came under fire afterward for denying Russian interference in the U.S. election, Graham defended him for “pursuing peace above politics.”
That is quite a contrast from his father. The elder Graham was once caught making anti-Semitic remarks with then-President Richard Nixon, but at least he expressed regret later (after the incriminating tapes came out). Again, Graham Senior was far from perfect, yet he felt regret and humility over his own positions even if that was the result of public pressure. Franklin Graham, on the other hand, says awful things out loud, on purpose, with no indication that he cares at all about who he’s hurting in the process.
“Humility” isn’t in Franklin’s vocabulary. Rather than admit any mistakes, he doubles down and justifies them harder, all while being hailed by an ever-decreasing number of conservative Christians.