It was 12 degrees in Concord, New Hampshire, one afternoon in late January, an unusually frigid day in what has been a mild winter in the state so far. But that didn’t stop hundreds of people from gathering on a plaza on Main Street to pray with evangelist Franklin Graham. By noon, the crowd was clustered around a statue of Daniel Webster, facing the gold-domed state house in anticipation. Volunteers wearing plastic badges handed out little American flags, and a guitarist on stage sang patriotic songs. When Graham took the stage, the crowd roared, cloudy puffs of breath making their enthusiasm visible.
Franklin Graham is in the early days of a tour that he plans to take to every state capitol in the nation this year. At each stop, the evangelist leads Christians in prayer and encourages them to “cast their ballots for candidates who uphold biblical principles,” as he explained last year. With the slogan “Pray. Vote. Engage,” the Decision America tour kicked off Jan. 5 in Des Moines, Iowa, and it heads this month to South Carolina, Georgia, Colorado, and beyond. Though not all the rallies have been scheduled yet, Graham appears to be keeping one step ahead of primary elections across the country.
Save for its politics, the Decision America tour is the kind of populist, publicity-savvy, and prayer-centered event that might have been headed a few decades ago by Franklin’s father, Billy Graham. The presidential adviser and pre-eminent evangelist of the 20th century is 97 years old now and has been in declining health for several years; he no longer leaves his home in North Carolina to make public appearances.
For years now, it has seemed clear that Franklin Graham wants to be seen as the heir to his father’s legacy. All of his siblings have gone into Christian ministry in some form, and a few members of the next generation of Grahams have, too. But it’s Franklin who tends to speak on behalf of his father in the press and Franklin who is president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. (He also heads a large international humanitarian group called Samaritan’s Purse.) He is the spitting image of his tall, handsome father, and his voice carries the same Southern lilt. “[I]f my father were a younger man,” Franklin told a reporter in 2014, “he would be addressing and speaking out in the exact same way I’m speaking out on them.”
But Franklin’s bombastic extremism is markedly different from his father’s diplomatic spirituality. Billy Graham served as a spiritual adviser to presidents of both parties, including Johnson and Nixon; famously, he has met with every commander in chief since Truman. Between 1947 and 2005, he headlined more than 400 “crusades” around the world, come-as-you-are evangelism events that included preaching, music, and prayer. In 1992, he attracted his largest single crowd in the United States when 250,000 people gathered in Central Park to hear him speak on love, hope, and the gospel. “He has become one of America’s favorite preachers, broadening his scope in recent years as a new ecumenical spirit within Christianity,” the New York Times wrote at the time. “And by convincing ministers of other faiths that he was not seeking their flocks, he has brought down barriers and drawn a wide following.” Critics say Billy could have acted earlier and more forcefully on racial issues, but he insisted on integrated crusades starting in the early 1950s and denounced apartheid while preaching in South Africa in 1973.
Franklin Graham is a caricature of his father, not his successor. Last summer Franklin called for a ban on all Muslim immigration to the U.S., beating Donald Trump to the punch by almost five months (and reiterating his position after Trump made his proposal). In June, he fumed about the rainbow illumination of the White House after the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage (“God is the one who gave the rainbow, and it was associated with His judgment … One day God is going to judge sin—all sin.”) He also removed the Billy Graham ministry’s accounts from Wells Fargo because the bank produced an ad featuring a lesbian couple adopting a child. A few months prior, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, he wrote an open letter to “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else” saying most police shootings could be prevented by respect and obedience. In January, he called on donors to Duke University to withhold their support because of plans to begin a Muslim call to prayer from a chapel on campus. That was all in a single year.
Let’s look back a little further. In 2014, Franklin wrote in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s magazine that Vladimir Putin was better on gay issues than Obama. Why? The Russian leader “has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.” In discussing that column with a journalist, he referred to gay adoption as recruitment. He has been escalating his anti-Muslim rhetoric since Sept. 11, 2001, when he called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.” He has toyed with the “just asking questions” strain of birtherism and said that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the U.S. government. He is extremely active on Facebook, often posting multiple diatribes a day.
Small-time pastors too often make headlines for spouting offensive nonsense, even when few people other than outraged progressives are listening to them. But Graham is no strip-mall lunatic leading a congregation of 15. He has 3.3 million followers on Facebook, and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association says he has preached to 7 million people since 1989. Several of his recent Decision America events have drawn thousands of people. He’s the head of two large evangelical organizations, where he draws a combined salary of $880,000. And his name alone means he is taken seriously as a spokesman for conservative Christians. (About that name: Though Franklin’s mother and sister shared the name Ruth Graham, I am not related to the family.)
As Billy has reclined from public view, the statements he issues have begun to sound more and more like his son. Billy supported a ban on gay marriage in North Carolina in 2012 via full-page newspaper ads, criticized “hope and change” as a dangerous cliché, and spoke up for Chick-fil-A owner Dan Cathy when he came out against gay marriage. Meanwhile, Franklin suggested to right-wing news outlets that his father declined to become an adviser to President Obama because of the president’s position on abortion, a position that somehow didn’t stop Billy from advising President Clinton. It’s fair to question why this 97-year-old man, always careful of his even-handed reputation, has suddenly taken a turn toward partisanship.
Billy Graham wasn’t perfect as a public figure, and he had a streak of fire and brimstone in him. But his instincts consistently bent toward openness, peace, and moderation. Accordingly, he is still a figure of bipartisan admiration in the United States. He has appeared for a record 59 years on Gallup’s list of the 10 men most admired by Americans, most recently in 2015. As historian Randall Balmer wrote last year, in a column comparing Franklin unfavorably with his father, Billy is a “world leader who found common ground with other religious traditions.”
Back at the Concord state house a couple of weeks ago, Franklin Graham joked about the cold, read a passage the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, and declared that his only hope for a troubled America is in God. At times, he sounded just like his father. Later that day, however, he would be featured on a conservative radio program lamenting that some Christians welcome gay children into their homes and churches and claiming that you can’t be gay and call yourself a Christian. “We preach the same Gospel,” Franklin said a few years ago of his father, but “Daddy hates to say no. I can say no.”