Throughout history there may not have been a more respected Christian leader than the Rev. Billy Graham. He ministered for a lifetime without serious controversy or compromise, focusing on preaching the message of Jesus Christ and keeping himself clean of all political factions.
In the 1970s when Jerry Falwell changed the face of American Christianity by marrying it with conservative politics, Rev. Graham refused to be a part of it. Although a Southern Baptist and a registered Democrat, he never let either of those distinctions rule his life. Graham willingly pastored all presidents regardless of political party, from Truman to Obama.
He refused in 1979 to join Falwell’s Moral majority, saying, “I’m for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left.“
In 1981 he told Parade magazine, “I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”
In 2005, struggling with Parkinson’s disease and then 86 years old, Rev. Graham handed the reins of his Billy Graham Association powerhouse to his son Franklin, whose ministries include the popular Samaritan’s Purse shoebox ministry which delivers Christmas gifts to needy children around the world.
Franklin, however, is unquestionably a proponent of the Christian right that his father so avoided and denounced, and now, with the aging minister approaching his 94th birthday and struggling more and more with his failing health, including substantial vision and hearing loss, his Association, led by Franklin, is using his name and face to press a political agenda the respected minister would never have advocated.
Most recently there have been photos circulated on-line of Gov. Mitt Romney’s visit with Franklin and his father, implying an endorsement by the elder Graham of Romney for president. Yet, the only quote they could get from him was “I’ll do all I can to help you.” Had there been anything more substantial from his lips than that, we surely would be seeing it in videos all over the internet.
Following this visit and the deceptive implications of an endorsement, the Association’s website deleted its description of Mormonism as a cult. Does this mean the organization has decided to embrace Mormons into its Christian box? No, Franklin does not call Gov. Romney a Christian. It’s all just politics.
Earlier this year when NC was voting on an amendment to define marriage, Billy Graham’s name and face were used in ads in favor of the amendment. No voice. No meaningful quotes. No video. But there was his face, implying that he initiated the ads.
It was Franklin, also, who won the fight to make the Billy Graham Library the burial site of his parents where it will be a tourist attraction, despite his mother’s plea to be buried near Asheville where they had lived for many years, and despite his brother Ned’s strong support of his mother’s wishes.
Franklin is devoted to the political religious climate of his time, but we should be very wary of accepting anything we see or hear that appears to be coming from his father, especially during this volatile election season. Franklin now has control of the Billy Graham Association, but Franklin’s Christianity is not his father’s. More newspaper ads are coming. Look at them, but be sure to notice the details that are missing and the voice that is not really speaking. If we can hear the words as those of Franklin, not his father, we can protect the respected name of a dear man who deserves to live his last days as he so carefully lived the rest, according to his own spiritual wisdom and conscience.
NOTE: This blog was originally posted Oct. 20 on another site. Since then other bloggers have made similar claims to this one, and Franklin Graham has published a rebuttal, denying that he is putting words into his father’s mouth. Also since the original posting, the Billy Graham Association has run full-page ads in various major newspapers, with a page-size photo of a younger Billy Graham and a quote attributed to him with his signature. The quote, while stopping short of an actual presidential endorsement, does call for a vote that could only apply to one possible candidate. As author of this blog, I acknowledge that all this has happened since my original posting. Yet, I also note that the rebuttal again was by the son not the father, and I stand by my original assessment that the elder Graham is being used without his full understanding. If the published quote had actually come from the father’s own lips, we would surely be seeing videos of it everywhere. Instead we are being asked to believe that after meticulously building a legacy of 93 years, managing to survive unscathed through a lifetime of public scrutiny, he is now dramatically changing his mind.
Kathy Vestal is a college educator in Salisbury, NC. She has a Master’s of Divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master’s of Education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. An avid writer, gifted teacher, and occasional public speaker/preacher, her passions include civil rights, social justice, church reform, and education. She has traveled to Mexico, Honduras, Argentina, Ecuador, and The Gambia, Africa, and enjoys reading, nature, and history.
Photo Credit: AP/ Evan Vucci