CHARLOTTE, N.C. – If all goes according to plan, Billy Graham will be eating chicken on Wednesday. “As the son of a dairy farmer who milked many a cow, I plan to ‘Eat Mor Chikin’ and show my support by visiting Chick-fil-A,” he said in a statement from his Montreat, N.C., home.
After stepping away from speaking out when politics meets faith, letting his son Franklin take over that often contentious role, the 93-year-old Billy Graham is back in the spotlight, by signing on to a call from former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee for an Aug. 1 Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. His vocal support for the “biblical definition of marriage” and opposition to same-sex marriage have put him there.
Graham is vowing to let his appetite do the talking to support Chick-fil-A’s founder Truett Cathy and his son and company president Dan Cathy, who, after publicly confirming beliefs that echo Graham’s, has been denounced and praised.
While big-city mayors Rahm Emanuel of Chicago and Thomas Menino of Boston pulled the welcome mat out from under the fast-food chain, Graham stood up for “my good friends” and “for their strong stand for the Christian faith.” He said, “Each generation faces different issues and challenges, but our standard must always be measured by God's word. I appreciate the Cathy family's public support for God's definition of marriage.”
This follows Graham’s outspokenness on a primary ballot measure that in May added an amendment to the North Carolina’s constitution declaring marriage between one man and one woman the only valid domestic legal union. He strongly supported the measure in full-page newspaper ads across the state.
It’s a shift for the elder Graham, who in recent years preferred to act the quiet statesman, especially since the 2007 death of his wife, Ruth. He was soft-spoken and increasingly fragile in his few public appearances. That didn’t stop politicians from wanting to meet with the man known as pastor to presidents, the man who landed at the top of most-admired lists for decades. In April, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, perhaps hoping to shore up his then-dwindling presidential prospects, took a leisurely tour with his wife, Callista, of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, off Billy Graham Parkway.
In 2007, three former presidents -- Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton -- attended the dedication of the library. George W. Bush and his wife, Laura Bush, met with Graham and signed books after walking through its cross-shaped doors. President Obama traveled to Graham’s mountaintop log cabin in Montreat to sit and chat with him.
But after his friendship with President Nixon dragged him into embarrassing territory, Graham distanced himself from politics. He said the Watergate tapes’ profanities sickened him and he apologized for his own caught-on-tape statements that were judged anti-Semitic.
It was Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, who made political headlines in recent years, most often by criticizing Obama. During a 2007 walking tour of the library, he told me he believed Obama was “born a Muslim” and earlier this year had to apologize for questioning the president’s Christian faith. In May, the harsh criticism returned, with Franklin Graham’s words that Obama, in his support for same-sex marriage, had “shaken his fist” at God.
Franklin Graham’s statement on the Chick-fil-A controversy is notably more heated than his father’s: “The restaurant chain has been, and continues to be, under a concerted attack from same-sex marriage advocates,” he said. “In the words of the bold, biblical prophet Daniel who refused to bow to the evil culture of his day: ‘The people who know their God will display strength and take action.’”
But while the tone may differ, father and son have found an issue that unites them in public and private. On same-sex marriage, Billy Graham is once again culture warrior, and he’s leaving no doubt where he stands.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3