On Easter Sunday, the Rev. Franklin Graham went on national television and told ABC's Christiane Amanpour that he might support Donald Trump for president, and then questioned both President Obama's Christianity and birthplace. Graham thus completed his journey to the far-right wing of American politics.
It's been a public trip that began after the 9/11 attacks. That's when Graham — who is head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), headquartered in Charlotte, and CEO of Samaritan's Purse, a large Christian relief group based in Boone, N.C. — declared that America was "attacked by Islam," which he described as "a very evil and wicked religion." At the time, many noted that his father, the legendary evangelist Billy Graham, avoided condemning Islam itself, while President Bush had gone out of his way to refer to mainstream Islam as a religion of peace. Franklin Graham, on the other hand, has reconfirmed his view of Islam as "evil" on various occasions, including as recently as last year. The Pentagon was so dismayed by Graham's anti-Islam statements that the preacher was "dis-invited" to be the main speaker at the Pentagon's National Day of Prayer service last year.
"This Army honors all faiths," said a Pentagon spokesman, "... and [Graham's] past comments just were not appropriate for this venue." It wasn't the first, nor the last time Graham would stake out a position different from his father's.
Graham's lurch to the right and into the political spotlight has been dramatic. He has accused the Obama administration of allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to "infiltrate every level of our government," and told CNN that Obama's "problem is that he was born a Muslim" through "the seed of [his] father" (even though Obama says his supposedly Muslim father was an atheist). Graham's headlong dash to the far right has taken both supporters and critics by surprise, and led them to wonder, in so many words, what has happened to Billy Graham's son?
During the early days of Billy Graham's career, his religious message was often entwined with the 1950s' anti-communist frenzy. Later, although he met and prayed with every president since Truman, he became identified in the public mind as a counselor to President Nixon. But where Billy Graham's politics mellowed with age — he now says he regrets ever becoming involved in politics at all — and his doctrinal rigor relaxed enough to anger his more fundamentalist followers, Franklin has become, if anything, more conservative and unbending during the past decade.
One expert on contemporary religion and politics thinks Graham's rightward move could be his way of increasing his visibility, with his sights possibly set on becoming a principal leader of the evangelical movement. Dr. Laura R. Olson, professor of political science at Clemson University and author of several books on religion and politics, said, "The religious right doesn't have a lightning rod like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson anymore ... I obviously can't read Franklin Graham's mind, but Falwell died, Robertson is pretty marginal at this point, James Dobson (of Focus on the Family) has retired — maybe Franklin Graham has his eye on being an evangelical leader."
In explanation of the idea, Olson continued, "Graham is getting on board the hyper-polarization of American politics today. Contrast that with back in his dad's day, when the tone of public discourse wasn't so harsh. Billy Graham was successful in bringing evangelical Christians out from the shadows and making them respectable and more accepted. Evangelical voices have been heard in politics for some time, and they've become rather lockstep, in line with socio-moral conservatism. So Franklin Graham, in a way, is doing and saying things that a lot of people in the circles he travels in are doing and saying. He's saying things that are sort of inflammatory because that's the way things are right now, and he's decided, for whatever reason, that he wants to be part of the ongoing discourse. He can get away with it because he's not the only one doing it, and it helps him strategically, too, because it differentiates him from his dad."
Olson wonders how long Graham's increasingly political public posture will last. "Remember, Billy Graham counseled presidents, including Nixon," Olson said, "and he was burned by Nixon when all the Watergate stuff came out. Franklin is still, in a sense, testing how far he can go toward political involvement — because he hasn't been chastened the way his dad was by Watergate. We'll have to see what happens."
A spokeswoman for Franklin Graham said the preacher's political statements are not part of any strategy for increasing his clout among evangelicals, and that Graham usually only talks about politics when he is asked about it during news shows concerning other topics.
Graham was traveling a lot last week, apparently to every television news program that contacted him, and thus was way too busy to explain his positions to a weekly paper in the BGEA's hometown. Graham did, however, attempt to backtrack somewhat in an interview last week with MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell. On that show, Graham told the host that "only God knows" whether Obama, or anyone else, is a Christian, and that "I'm not going to judge whether he's a Christian or not a Christian" — despite having done exactly that just two days earlier. The day after talking to O'Donnell, however, Graham told FoxNews' Sean Hannity that he is "troubled" by the preacher whose services Obama attended on Easter Sunday, and that "I wish the president could come under some good, sound biblical teaching. That's what he needs." Graham also told Hannity that his comments about Trump only meant that he thinks Trump has "some good ideas," and that he wasn't lending support to the amazingly coiffed one's "birther" statements. Graham told Hannity he thinks Obama should invite Trump to the White House "to come and give them some advice."