One should expect that parents would lose their minds long before their children. But in the case of the famed evangelist Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, it may be the other way around.
In a post on his Facebook page this past Friday, the younger Graham proclaimed that all Muslims should be barred from immigrating to America and treated like the Japanese and Germans during World War II. Muslims who come to America have the “potential to be radicalized” and participate in “killing to honor their religion and Muhammad,” he said in response to the murders of four Marines in Chattanooga on Thursday.
This is only the latest disturbing comment from Franklin Graham, a man whose rhetoric seems to be growing more extreme and whose behavior seems to be growing more erratic. The son of America’s most prominent evangelist was once known as a leading humanitarian, but he has now traded that legacy for a pot of partisan porridge.
In 1979, Graham became president of Samaritan’s Purse, a global humanitarian organization whose mission since 1970 was “to meet emergency needs in crisis areas.” Under Franklin’s leadership, the organization swelled in size and began developing its own relief programs. It provided much needed medical care in the wake of military conflicts in places such as Somalia, Sudan, and Kosovo. It worked to repair infrastructure after the El Salvador earthquake. And it built large-scale feeding programs in places like Darfur. By the end of the 20th century, Graham had established a reputation independent of his famous father—one that was centered on confronting the needs of people ravaged by war, disease, hunger, and famine.
But that changed after the election of George W. Bush. President Bush credited Franklin’s father with converting him to Christianity, and after he was elected, made Franklin one of his closest spiritual advisors. Graham helped make the case to politicians and religious Americans for invading Iraq; Samaritan’s Purse received a government contract to provide aid following the war. The humanitarian leader began to grow more politically opinionated after 9/11, even calling for a “crusade” against terrorism.
After the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Franklin adopted a more combative posture. He said some White House officials were “anti-Christ,” and began regularly taking up with almost anyone who opposed President Obama.
Graham, for example, voiced support for Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on the rights of LGBT people. There has been increased discrimination and violence against LGBT persons in Russia—including beatings, abductions, and public humiliation. “Putin is right on these issues,” Graham said. “He has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.”
In the wake of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of white police officers, he told “Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else” to “listen up” and stop resisting police officers. He claimed recent events could have been avoided if the victims had simply learned to “obey.” The comments came across as insensitive and paternalistic to many, including African American Christian leaders.
Many of his comments evince a belief that dark spiritual forces and hatred are at the core of political liberalism in America. He says that secular businesses that wish people “Happy Holidays” are waging a “war on Christ and His followers,” rooted in a “hatred of our culture” for Jesus. He added that, “the devil animates it all.” He claims that the “entertainment industry, especially in certain segments of the news media” is persecuting Christians while stating that Fox News Channel is “the greatest news in the world” that God is using for divine purposes.
One of the more troubling components of this trend is that sometimes his comments even contradict one another. He has spoken out against the tax-heavy economic positions of Democrats, for example, while also advocating for new taxes against things he doesn’t like—like violent video games and films. When asked point blank if he believed that Barack Obama was a Christian as he professes to be, Graham said that “nobody knows” if anyone else is truly a Christian. But later, he said there was “no question” that Republican Rick Santorum was a bona fide believer. He removed his ministries’ money from Wells Fargo after it launched a pro-gay advertising campaign and called on others to join him. But he announced the move on Facebook—a site run by a corporation outspoken in defense of gay rights—and then deposited his money into an account at BB&T, another bank with inclusive policies.
Yet two things seem to rankle Franklin like nothing else: Barack Obama and Muslims, two things he doesn’t see as entirely different. He has claimed that “the president’s problem was that he was born a Muslim” because his father was and “the seed of Islam is passed through the father.” These comments were made despite the widely reported fact that Obama’s father was already an atheist by the time of his birth. During the President’s first term, Graham aligned himself with Donald Trump and other so-called “birthers” who were calling on Obama to produce his birth certificate and prove that he was actually an American citizen.
He has called Islam a “very wicked and evil religion” that leads people to beat their wives and murder adulterous children. These comments prompted the Pentagon to rescind an invitation for Graham to speak at its National Day of Prayer event, a move which caused Graham’s colleague, Bryan Fischer, to declare that America’s military had been taken over by “fundamentalist Muslims and homosexual activists.”
Franklin Graham’s comments of late sound less like political activism than political paranoia. For example, he told Bill O’Reilly “our government, especially in Washington, has been infiltrated by Muslims who are advising the White House.” When O’Reilly asked him to name the Muslim advisors he feared, Graham was unable to provide a single example. On his Facebook page, however, he doubled down and said that these unnamed Muslim infiltrators were anti-Semitic.
Unlike Franklin, his father Billy has seemed to ripen and wisen with age. The older Graham apologized for the times when he became overly political throughout his own career. Billy once cozied up to President Nixon, but after Watergate, moved swiftly away from partisanship. Franklin’s trajectory, however, has been nearly the opposite. When a letter signed by Billy Graham (when he was in frail health and couldn’t speak publicly) appeared in a full-page advertisement supporting a North Carolina amendment prohibiting gay marriage, some speculated that Franklin had orchestrated it.
So Franklin Graham’s latest comment that all Muslims should be barred from immigrating to America is not surprising. But it is saddening given the pattern of which it is a part. Instead of being remembered for decades of humanitarian work through Samaritan’s Purse, he seems more likely to be remembered as a soldier in the 21st-century culture war.