Billy Graham: 'God's Ambassador'
For decades, Charlotte native Billy Graham was perhaps America’s most famous religious figure, someone who could draw hundreds of thousands to evangelistic “crusades,” someone picked by president after president to pray at inaugurations. If America had a pastor, Graham was it.
Yet as he aged - he’s now 98 and ailing - members of this evangelical royal family began to form their own views. Now as Graham’s son, Franklin, prepares to participate in the inauguration of Donald Trump, the views among Billy Graham’s descendants reflect tensions that have flared anew with the election over the proper role of Christianity in public life.
Franklin Graham, 64, never formally endorsed Trump but used his “Decision America Tours” to mobilize voters. Graham will read a Bible passage at Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, though he says he doesn’t know which one yet.
Graham joined Trump in Alabama during the president-elect’s “Thank You” tour on Dec. 17. “Having Franklin Graham, who was so instrumental, we won so big, with evangelical Christians,” Trump said.
After the election there was lot of discussion about how Trump won, Graham told the crowd. “I believe it was God,” Graham said, adding that God had answered the prayers of hundreds of thousands of people.
Billy and Ruth Graham had five children, and many of their descendants work in ministry, including Billy Graham’s daughter Anne Graham and Franklin Graham’s son Will Graham, who are popular evangelists. Their grandson Boz Tchividjian works to combat child sex abuse in churches as head of a ministry called GRACE. The family is tight knit and doesn’t often speak publicly about internal family strife.
But Jerushah Armfield, Billy Graham’s granddaughter and Franklin Graham’s niece, said the Graham family is not the single unit that many on the outside see. She said that while family members respect one another and most voted for Trump, they do not all fall on the same side of social issues or hold the same views about the role of faith in politics.
Armfield, a writer and a pastor’s wife in South Carolina, said her uncle’s suggestion that Trump’s win meant God answered the country’s prayer was bad theology. “To suggest the president-elect is an ambassador to further the kingdom in the world diminishes not only my Jesus but all he stood for and came to earth to fight against,” she said.
She said Trump “encouraged racism, sexism and intolerance, exactly what Jesus taught against.” She said that her grandfather “understood the love of Jesus that fought for the outliers while the president-elect ostracized them.”
“The evangelical leaders that endorsed Trump put power and influence over principles and character,” she said.
Franklin Graham said he doesn’t talk about politics with family members because he doesn’t want to divide the family. As with many evangelical families, Graham said he knows some family members may have voted differently from him in the presidential election.
“I’ve tried to remind people in the evangelical community this election wasn’t about crude language, it wasn’t about lost emails,” he said. It was about electing someone, who would appoint anti-abortion-rights Supreme Court justices, he believes.
During his years as an evangelist, Billy Graham was considered close to Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and personally knew all presidents from Harry Truman to Obama, participating in eight inaugurations. Time journalist Nancy Gibbs wrote that no other person in any field enjoyed such access to the pinnacle of American power: “He came with the office like the draperies.”
In his early career, Billy Graham loved the sport of partisan politics, according to “America’s Pastor,” a book by religious studies professor Grant Wacker at Duke Divinity School. Graham was a lifelong registered Democrat; as someone who grew up long before the Civil Rights era turned Southerners Republican, he said once that being a Democrat was practically synonymous with being a Southerner. But aside from Johnson and Bill Clinton, Graham likely voted for Republican candidates even if he did not explicitly endorse them, Wacker said.
He maintained friendships with those on the left, especially President Johnson - he even went skinny dipping with Johnson and others in the White House pool, according to Wacker. In 2011, however, Graham said that if he could go back in time, he would have stayed out of politics.
As Graham’s health faded, so did his public presence. In 2001, Franklin Graham took the place his father usually held by praying at President George W. Bush’s first inauguration. There he set off a controversy by praying in Jesus’ name, a gesture some saw as less inclusive than his father would have been.
Obama visited Billy Graham in his home in 2010, the first sitting president to do so. But Franklin Graham said the family did not have much of a relationship with Obama, although he said he worked with Obama during the Ebola outbreak in Africa.
But under Trump, the Grahams will once again be connected to the White House.
Franklin Graham’s relationship with Trump goes back to 2011, when in an interview with journalist Christiane Amanpour, Graham gave fuel to “birther” claims by suggesting that Obama should produce his birth certificate. He also floated the idea of Trump as president, saying he thought the businessman had some good ideas for the country.
A few days after that interview, Trump called him, Graham said, the first time the two had talked.
“I never told him he should run,” Graham said. He said he does not want to reveal things said in private. “I haven’t tried to give him advice. I don’t feel that’s my role.”
Billy Graham has met Trump once, at his 95th birthday party in 2013. At 98, Graham now lives in his mountaintop home near Asheville; Franklin said his father can’t hear, can’t see and doesn’t talk very much.
Billy Graham passed the reins of the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to Franklin Graham in 2000, but historians note stark contrasts between the styles of father and son, especially in politics.
After his close relationship with Nixon, who would resign in scandal, Billy Graham tried to avoid explicit partisanship. He declined to sign or endorse political statements, and he distanced himself from the Christian right.
Graham’s political priorities also shifted later in his life, according to Wacker. His early years of fierce opposition to communism were a stark contrast to his later pleas for military disarmament and attention to AIDS, poverty and environmental threats.
Franklin Graham also shifted his views, though observers say he became more conservative (he is not registered with a political party). He was a rebellious child who took up drinking, smoking and partying as a young adult, a lifestyle he describes in his 1995 autobiography, “Rebel With a Cause.”
After his conversion experience, Graham became involved with Samaritan’s Purse, a relief organization that distributes supplies to people in need, and he became its president and chairman in 1979. He now feels he could be of help to Trump in countries where Samaritan’s Purse has made a footprint.
Though Billy Graham passed on his ministry to his son, he was not afraid to publicly disagree with him. In 2005, Larry King asked Billy what he thought about Franklin calling Islam “evil and wicked.” Billy responded, “Well, he has [his] views and I have mine. And they are different sometimes.”
Anne Blue Wills, who is working on a biography of Ruth Graham, Billy Graham’s wife, believes that Franklin Graham was significantly influenced by his mother, who died in 2007. Wills said they shared a stubborn streak, a love of practical jokes and a desire to win any argument. He was also influenced by his maternal grandfather, according to Wills. L. Nelson Bell, who was instrumental in mobilizing evangelicals to support Nixon over the Catholic John F. Kennedy, would have been considered a culture warrior, unlike Billy Graham, she said. “Franklin would be proud to be called a culture warrior,” she said.
Graham says he believes that the president-elect has chosen a strong team, “maybe one of the strongest our country has seen in recent years.”
He said he does not believe Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon is a white supremacist, despite Bannon’s strong connection to the alt-right movement. He also does not believe that white supremacy is on the rise in this country.
“I’m more concerned about ‘fake news.’ We live in this age where people can create news and create issues when they’re not issues,” he said.
Graham endorses the idea Trump promoted through his campaign that Muslims should be vetted before coming to the United States.
He has questioned Obama’s openly Christian faith, saying that Obama’s frame of reference is Islam since his father was Muslim.
And Trump’s faith? “The times I’ve been around him, he has expressed his faith, no question,” Graham said. “I have to take the man at his word.”
Few observers of the evangelical movement anticipated that Franklin Graham’s older generation of followers would be able to wield influence like they did in the 2016 election, said Darren Dochuk, a historian at the University of Notre Dame.
“I think people had assumed evangelicals had moved into a new dispensation, that younger evangelicals were shifting the balance in evangelicalism, becoming slightly more progressive on issues,” Dochuk said.
People often ask who the next Billy Graham will be, said William Martin, a sociologist at Rice University and biographer of Graham. Franklin Graham may have 5 million fans on Facebook, but no one can replace his father, Martin said, since so many people have access to technology to reach a large crowd. People are less tied to denominations now. “Just as denominationalism doesn’t matter as much, evangelicalism doesn’t mean as much as it once did,” he said.
Like many evangelicals, Franklin Graham doesn’t identify with a specific denomination, though he alternately attends a Southern Baptist church and a Christian and Missionary Alliance church. He was raised in a Presbyterian home, something he notes he has in common with Trump, though he grew up in a Southern denomination.
Since Billy Graham’s leadership, evangelicals have largely defined themselves by stressing four key areas of faith: a conversion experience, faith-driven activism, a regard for the Bible as the ultimate authority and a stress on Jesus’s death and resurrection.
Does Graham even self-identify as an evangelical, a part of the movement his father helped shape?
“I’m just a follower of Jesus Christ,” Graham said. “It’s hard to know what the word evangelical means anymore.”