“An evangelical,” historian George Marsden once said, is “anyone who likes Billy Graham.”
Ironically, the death of Graham, a towering figure in 20th-century American religion, revealed evangelicals’ deep and bitter divisions — in this case over his legacy.
His passing on Wednesday seemed to highlight a question: How did a group so uniformly inspired by Graham appear to so deeply reject his nonpartisan viewpoint? How did American evangelicals come to be the most partisan of faith groups, and what role did Graham play?
Decades after Graham in 1981 expressed disgust at the possibility of a merger between the religious and political right, the term “evangelical” has for many become synonymous with right-wing politics.
Some experts said Graham, who was virtually absent from public life in the last 10 years because of Parkinson’s disease, was the antithesis of today’s climate. Others said he made it possible.
“I think he would be mortified by what’s happened today,” said Grant Wacker, who wrote a biography of Graham. “I think he would be in shock with how politicized the faith has become. He would look around and say, this is not what the gospel is about.”
Graham, who preached at massive revivals around the world from the 1940s until 2005, was always present near American politics yet tried not to be partisan. He visited the White House under every president from Harry S. Truman through George W. Bush. He was close with Democrats Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton and Republicans Richard M. Nixon and George H.W. Bush.
Yet in 2011, when asked about his regrets, he said, “I also would have steered clear of politics.”
“I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to,” Graham said at the time. “But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.”
The evangelical community that Graham leaves behind has gone in just the opposite direction, casting their lot decisively with the Republican Party. In the 2016 presidential election, 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump.
Just as white evangelicals aligned themselves strongly with Trump, the president has tied himself to them. Instead of the multifaith groups that have advised prior presidents, Trump has only a panel of informally organized evangelical advisers — pastors who regularly defend his policies and his personal character on TV news.
Trump’s inauguration included a prayer by Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son who now leads his ministry.
Graham’s five children have all gone into ministry in some way, as have many of his grandchildren. The family’s theological and political stances range fairly widely; at least two grandchildren have entirely rejected the “evangelical” label their grandfather shaped, precisely because they feel the word is now too associated with Republican politics.
But it is Franklin Graham who leads his father’s ministry, and most often claims his imprimatur.
Franklin Graham had a dire view of Barack Obama and embraced the idea of Trump running for president as early as 2011 in an interview with Christiane Amanpour in which the second-generation evangelist shared Trump’s “birther” views, saying Obama should produce his birth certificate.
Bill Martin, a professor emeritus at Rice University who wrote a biography of Graham, saw a sharp divergence from the elder Graham. “It was always hard for Billy not to like people. Franklin was always willing to draw lines,” Martin said. “His father was willing to erase or blur lines and widen the scope of people he was willing to associate with. I doubt he would’ve expressed plainly that he disliked Trump. He was polarizing for liking Nixon; Nixon was one of his closest associates. Billy always thought the best of people.”
Others saw Billy Graham as one of the authors of the current story, if an unwitting one.
Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, argued that though Graham was openly nonpartisan, he “laid the groundwork for Trump and evangelicals today.” Graham wound himself into political life and advanced the idea that America has a unique Christian purpose. To see Franklin Graham use his stature to bless Trump, Butler said, shows the natural end point of Billy Graham’s politicking.
She pointed out Billy Graham held racially integrated rallies during his hugely popular evangelistic crusades — which were barrier-breaking at the time — but also worked with racist Southern leaders.
“It’s this accommodationist perspective that I’m talking about. Everyone will say he’s a great man, and I don’t discount that, but he is embedded in a particular project about America, from his anti-Communist work to the last president he was photographed with,” she said, noting a 2013 image of Graham’s 95th birthday party with Trump, Sarah Palin and Rupert Murdoch. “His project is about preaching the message of Jesus Christ with a uniquely American spin that promotes America and makes us look like a Christian nation — period.”
Butler, among others, noted Graham’s recent activities may have been steered by his son Franklin. The elder Graham was not available for interviews in recent years, so it was impossible to know.
On Wednesday Ron Kampeas, the Washington bureau chief of the Jewish wire service JTA, tweeted that in 2000, he called the evangelist to learn if Graham would pray at the inauguration of Al Gore or George W. Bush, depending who won the election. Graham’s spokesperson said Graham “would be pleased” to pray at either inaugural.
The next day, Kampeas tweeted, the spokesman “called in a panic,” saying Graham would only pray for Bush. “It was clear to me then Franklin was taking over,” Kampeas said. He thought Billy Graham would have been “happy with either,” but Franklin was turning his father’s ministry in a new direction that Kampeas characterized as “full GOP.”
Conservatives say Franklin Graham’s political prominence is appropriate, and rightly reflects his father’s legacy.
“I think Franklin is certainly carrying the mantle of his dad in a very positive way. I think Franklin had a better idea of what his dad would do than anybody,” said Robert Jeffress, a Texas megachurch pastor who is among Trump’s informal evangelical advisers.
Jeffress quoted Franklin Graham to argue that the elder Graham would likely not have condemned Trump for his crass statements or his personal moral failings, like marital affairs.
“I think Franklin has said it well. Many of us have said it. We support candidates based on their policies, not on their personal piety,” he said. That’s what Billy Graham would have done, Jeffress said. “Just as the Bible says Jesus was a friend of sinners, Billy Graham was a friend of sinners. He was a friend of all presidents. We’re talking about John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, or anyone else in between.”
Others dispute whether Franklin speaks for his father, even within the Graham family. Jerusha Armfield, one of Graham’s grandchildren who has been an outspoken critic of Trump and of evangelicals who support him, said that her uncle Franklin does not share the views of her late grandfather.
“Franklin Graham, at some point my fear was that he would be speaking for my grandfather. People know my grandfather’s message. They don’t think that all of a sudden his message has taken a sharp right turn,” Armfield said.
Richard Mouw, the former president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, said he believed Billy Graham’s caution about partisanship arose from his experience with Nixon. Graham was very close with the president, then harshly criticized for it once the Watergate scandal unfolded, and again later when tapes from Nixon’s White House revealed Graham participating in an anti-Semitic conversation with the president.
“I think Billy Graham would warn evangelicals against getting too cozy with any political candidate out of his own experience of having been taken in by Nixon. Billy Graham would be concerned by how evangelicals have cast their lot with Donald Trump,” Mouw said. “He had a clear sense of where the dangers were in political ties. … I think he’d be very disturbed right now by what’s happening in evangelicalism.”
Evangelicalism was a poorly understood movement when Graham entered ministry in the 1940s. He helped define the core tenets of evangelical Christianity, and he preached them again and again — personal salvation through Jesus Christ, the inerrancy of the Bible, the importance of sharing the good news far and wide. In his simple, straightforward, captivating sermons, he brought evangelicalism to the masses.
“He was a unifying symbol. He was able to transcend so many different theological tribes and personal squabbles. People who could not get along with one another at all both loved Billy Graham,” said Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
“Billy Graham brought unity to evangelicalism through his own influence and integrity,” Moore said. In many ways, he said, the elusive unity that seems to have been lost today, was lost with Billy Graham.