Prominent evangelical figure Franklin Graham made headlines this week afterpenning a column in Decision magazine commending Russian president Vladimir Putin for his brutal stancetowards that country’s LGBTQ community. In it, he declares “Putin is right … he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda,” suggesting that Russia’s moral standard has eclipsed that of the United States. Even more disturbingly, Graham praises Putin’s support of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, warning that efforts to overthrow him will result in “wholesale slaughter of Christians” there. For those familiar with Graham’s father, legendary evangelist Billy Graham, this overtly partisan political language is stunning. Where is the vitriol coming from?
Across much of the South, Billy Graham was, in his heyday, revered by many as the leader of the evangelical right—a deep-fried papacy, if you will. His rallies and revivals, known as “crusades,” were a fixture on radio dials and televisions, often attracting tens of thousands to outdoor venues across the globe. While his message has always been conservative, it was, until recently, delivered in a moderate tone. In the 1950s, Graham spoke against segregation, once telling an all-white audience “we have been proud and thought we were better than any other race, any other people. Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to stumble into hell because of our pride.” In 1960, the elder Graham posted bail for an imprisoned Martin Luther King, Jr.
To be clear, Billy Graham undoubtedly believes that homosexuality is a sin. But his message overwhelmingly focused on love and forgiveness rather than condemnation. He insisted that belief remain an individual choice, and that judgment was reserved for God. At a 1997 “crusade”, he even asked of followers focusing on homosexuality: “Why do we jump on that sin as though it’s the greatest sin?” While far from a ringing endorsement of gay believers, Graham chose not to focus on condemnation.
Billy Graham’s legacy rests in his efforts to reach across aisles and to treat others with respect and dignity. In 1979, Graham refused to join Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, explaining “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.” Though these efforts, Graham became a trusted spiritual advisor to US Presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush. His bipartisan legacy established, Graham’s last major public appearance took place in 2006.
Then, in 2012, despite being in very frail health, unable to speak publicly, and retired from ministry for several years, Billy Graham shocked many followers when his website featured a note endorsing Republican candidate Mitt Romney. That same year his organization also bought ads in local newspapers espousing North Carolina’s marriage equality ban. It would appear that Graham’s commitment to bipartisanship is no more.
Of course, there have long been signs that the Graham brand was moving in this direction, the majority of them emanating from the new generation. In the early 2000s, Franklin began to appear where his father used to, delivering prayers from the Pentagon to the White House. In 2003, he was an ardent supporter of the US invasion of Iraq—primarily as a vehicle for proselytization. (It would appear that he took his father’s use of “crusade” a bit too far.) In addition to promoting armed conflict, he preached a particularly hateful rhetoric towards Muslims: as recently as 2010, he suggested that Islam leads its believers to kill their own children. In other words, Franklin Graham’s support of Putin and his vicious anti-gay ideology is just the latest in a string of increasingly divisive, highly political statements from the Graham camp.
Clearly, as his elderly father fades from the spotlight, the younger Graham wants to appeal to an increasingly conservative base rather than attempting to expand his flock. But his partisan crusades against marginalized communities may forever tarnish his father’s original mission. As the elder Graham quietly approaches the end of his life, the fundamental message of his namesake ministry has changed dramatically, and not for the better.
Update, March 20, 4:58 p.m.: This post has been revised for clarity.