A wing of the evangelical movement — whose members are more moderate politically, many of them black, Latino, Asian, or city dwellers, or young — have grown increasingly discomfited by preachers close association with the Republican Party, and now, with Trump.
The Rev. Billy Graham admitted in his later years that he had learned a hard lesson after the Watergate scandal exposed his cozy complicity with President Richard M. Nixon: Pastors should not become too enmeshed with politicians and partisan politics.
“Looking back, I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now,” he said to the magazine Christianity Today in 2011.
Now, the movement that he helped spawn is divided over the very danger that Graham — who died Feb. 21 at 99 — had warned about. Evangelicals have become locked in a tight embrace with President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, and some of them are now asking whether they have compromised the gospel message.
Among Trump’s most vocal evangelical supporters, few are as high-profile as Billy Graham’s eldest son and the heir to his ministry, the Rev. Franklin Graham, who is 65. Though admired among evangelicals for his aid work in hardship zones with the charity he leads, Samaritan’s Purse, he has drawn criticism for his unstinting support of the president.
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Franklin Graham has defended the president on television and social media through the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; the crackdowns on immigrants and refugees; the Stormy Daniels scandal; and the slur against Haiti and Africa.
“People say that the president says mean things. I can’t think of anything mean he’s said. I think he speaks what he feels,” Graham said this past week. “I think he’s trying to speak the truth.”
In his lifetime, Billy Graham shepherded evangelical Christianity from the margins of American life to its center. His massive revivals, magnetic presence and media stardom earned him entree to President Harry S. Truman and every president since, both Republican and Democrat.
His funeral is expected to draw politicians from both political parties, showcasing Graham’s success at bipartisanship. The eulogy is to be delivered by his son, Franklin, who has honed a reputation as a polarizing partisan.
When Barack Obama was president, Franklin Graham fanned the “birther” conspiracy that claimed the president was not a U.S. citizen. He falsely suggested that Obama was not a Christian and might secretly be a Muslim.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Franklin Graham held rallies in 50 states to pump up evangelical turnout on what he called a “Decision America Tour.” Once Trump landed the Republican nomination, Graham avoided explicit endorsements at those rallies, but left no doubt about his preference.
After the election, Franklin Graham said that Trump’s victory was evidence that “God’s hand was at work.” He was one of the six clergy members chosen to offer prayers at the inauguration, and is among the evangelical pastors who serve as informal advisers to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
In doing so, Franklin Graham has become a prominent leader of the evangelical faction that is white; older; conservative on immigration, LGBT issues and guns; and loyal to the Republican Party and Trump. Some 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, according to the Pew Research Center.
But there is another wing of the evangelical movement whose members are more moderate politically, many of them black, Latino, Asian, or city dwellers, or young. Some of these evangelicals have grown increasingly discomfited by the close association with the Republican Party, and now, with Trump.
For years, there had been muted criticism of Franklin Graham by some evangelicals. It began after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Graham branded Islam a “very wicked and evil religion,” and escalated during Graham’s stoking of the “birther” slander. But given his status as evangelical royalty and respect for his charitable work, the misgivings mostly remained private.
Billy Graham chose not to pass judgment on his son, at least in public. When asked in an interview at his home in 2005 whether he agreed with his son’s words about Islam, he would only respond, “Let’s say, I didn’t say it.”
Now with some evangelical leaders concerned about the direction of their movement, the concerns about Franklin Graham have begun to emerge.
“I think that Franklin Graham has failed as a Christian leader, both for what he endorses and for what he has failed to criticize. I speak for a lot of people on that one,” said Richard J. Mouw, president emeritus and professor of faith and public life at the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, the nation’s largest full-time seminary.
“A lot of us were deeply grateful to Billy Graham for acknowledging that he aligned himself in unhelpful and actually non-Christian ways with a person in power,” Mouw said this past week. “We’re grateful that he said, ‘I was wrong, that was a dangerous thing to have done.’ And now, here we see the same patterns repeated, even by his own son.”
Jerushah Armfield, one of Billy Graham’s granddaughters, has chastised her uncle Franklin and other evangelical leaders for their willingness to overlook behavior by Trump that is widely seen as immoral and un-Christian.
“It’s sending the wrong message to the world about what Christianity is, and what evangelicals are, or I guess, have become,” she recently said on CNN. (After her grandfather died, she declined a request for an interview).
Franklin Graham said his critics may be complaining to the news media, “but they haven’t talked to me.”
He said he was well aware of his father’s advice about keeping a distance from politicians, and said, “I think it’s good advice.”
But he said he had no reservations about his alliance with Trump, whom he was drawn to in 2011, while Trump was carrying on the “birther” campaign against Obama.
He said that Trump has delivered for evangelicals on every issue — from abortion to religious freedom to vowing to abolish the Johnson Amendment that inhibits churches from endorsing politicians.
“In my lifetime, he has supported the Christian faith more than any president that I know,” Franklin Graham said. “That doesn’t mean he is the greatest example of the Christian faith, and neither am I, but he defends the faith. There’s a difference between defending the faith and living the faith.”
He said the media has lied about Trump, but when asked whether Trump has told any lies, he said, “I don’t know of any.”
Graham was dismissive of questions surrounding Trump and Russian government interference in the 2016 race. “I’ll be honest with you. This whole thing on Russia? I don’t believe it. I don’t believe he has collusion with the Russians,” Graham said. “And I think if somebody in his campaign was involved, the president would have fired him.”
William C. Martin, a senior fellow in religion at Rice University’s Baker Institute, interviewed father and son for his biography, “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story.” He said that Franklin was more like his mother — outspoken and not hesitant to offend. Billy was “always auditioning, wanting to be accepted,” said Martin, paraphrasing a friend of the elder Graham.
Billy Graham had three daughters and two sons, all of whom have carried on the work of Christian evangelism, whether through preaching, writing or running ministries. So have many of his grandchildren, but each has interpreted the calling differently. And like the evangelical movement, they are not all on the same page when it comes to politics.
Boz Tchividjian, whose mother, Gigi, is Billy Graham’s eldest daughter, is a former prosecutor who founded the organization GRACE — Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment — to investigate and prevent child abuse in evangelical ministries. He said his grandfather inspired him to work “with those who are hurting and have been marginalized by society, and quite frankly, the church.”
It was his sister, Armfield, who criticized their uncle Franklin on CNN. Armfield, who is married to a Baptist pastor, is not the only one in the family who feels that way, Tchividjian said.
“It’s a large family, and it’s a large family that doesn’t agree on everything,” said Tchividjian, who is also a professor at Liberty University School of Law, in Virginia.
When Billy Graham handed Franklin the reins of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 2001, many people in the organization did not think he was ready for the role, Martin said.
“Franklin turned out to be better in some ways than they thought he would be” at running an organization and preaching, Martin said.
“People are worried now that Billy Graham’s legacy will be diminished by some of the actions and positions that Franklin has espoused,” he said. “But I don’t know that that bothers Franklin. Or his supporters.”