|Billy Graham represented a dying breed of principled evangelical leaders|
That isn't to say that his legacy is without its complications, and it would be wrong to remember Graham without also recognising the less attractive aspects of his life and ministry. On the one hand, this was a man whose passion and charisma brought many to faith for the first time, an individual who brought the Bible to life and filled arenas and stadiums with curious people from all backgrounds. Nevertheless, his message was that of conservative evangelical Protestantism, with all its social, cultural and theological baggage, and whilst there were always many who were more hardline than Graham, he was hardly a progressive or a reformer. He was slow to endorse the civil rights movement. He flirted with anti-Semitism and privately voiced concerns about Jewish influence on the government as late as 1972. He consistently upheld the view that homosexuality is sinful ('we traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare'). This is all part of his legacy, and we do ourselves no favours by seeking to airbrush out the aspects of Billy Graham's ministry that we personally find distasteful.
However, just as we cannot ignore these things, we must also be careful not to blow them out of all proportion. Graham's questionable stance on race and sexuality must not be the only lens through which we examine his legacy, as this would cause us to ignore the incredibly positive contributions he made in the lives of millions of individuals, and in the life of the American evangelical movement. It is also important to remember that Graham was a product of his early-20th Century upbringing in rural North Carolina. When put into context, and certainly when compared with his evangelical contemporaries, what stands out isn't Graham's conservatism but his lack of judgementalism.
Unlike many other evangelical leaders, Graham tempered his fundamentalist theology with a generous open-mindedness and a desire to work with other Christians from all denominations. He co-operated with mainline and liberal Protestants, and even with Roman Catholics, preferring a 'big tent' approach rather than an evangelical exclusivity, and after his early hesitance on the issue of civil rights he later became a good friend of the cause, inviting Martin Luther King to pray at one of his rallies. He even came to accept the ordination of women as ministers and preachers after hearing his daughter Anne preach. Whilst he never accepted a more progressive stance on LGBT issues during his lifetime, he also never indulged in the obsessive homophobia that continues to consume much of the evangelical world. His reluctance to pass judgement on others distinguished him from contemporaries such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell; it also distinguished him from his own son and successor.
The tale of Billy and Franklin Graham is a microcosm of the broader shifts that are currently at work within American evangelicalism. The ministry of Graham the father was rooted in his interpretation of the Gospel and his desire to spread this message to as many people as possible, whereas Graham the son has a far more hard-edged and overtly political agenda. Franklin Graham may never influence Presidents in the way that his father did, yet he is far more immersed in the world of partisan politics, taking on the mantle of de facto leader of the Christian Right. The movement that Billy Graham spearheaded was always focused on outreach, crossing political and doctrinal lines in order to build broad and sometimes unexpected alliances, and the late Reverend's closest friends included Pope John Paul II, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. In contrast, Franklin Graham and his peers are more interested in consolidation around a narrow form of political and theological conservatism.
Franklin Graham has far more in common with bigots such as Falwell and Robertson than his father, and his rise is evidence that the American evangelical movement is straying far from the high-minded principles espoused by Billy Graham. As Stephen Prothero puts it in Politico, Franklin is 'rapidly rebranding evangelicalism as a belief system marked not by faith, hope and love, but by fear of Muslims and homophobia.' Unlike so many prominent preachers, Billy Graham was never a demagogue, a partisan or a strident culture warrior; his son, on the other hand, is all three. Whereas Billy refused to condemn Islam in the wake of 9/11, Franklin has described Islam as 'wicked and evil' and become a standard-bearer for Christian Islamophobia. Franklin has also questioned Barack Obama's Christianity, fiercely denounced homosexuality with far more vitriol and frequency than his father, and enthusiastically endorsed Donald Trump. The elder Graham may have advised a dozen Presidents, but he never publicly backed the political agendas of any of them. Indeed, in 2011 he warned against pastors becoming too closely associated with politicians.
It would be unfair to blame Billy Graham for his son's stridency, yet the future ministry of Franklin Graham will undeniably shape the way that the older man is remembered. Billy Graham built a mighty religious movement, but he could not prevent the keys being passed to a son who embodies none of his father's grace, generosity and inclusiveness, with dire consequences for American evangelicalism. Just a few decades ago, Billy Graham was the evangelical Pope, but today he has been replaced on that cherished plinth by none other than Donald Trump, as the movement he once led morphs into the Republican Party at prayer. To quote Stephen Prothero, American evangelicalism is now primarily a 'political rather than a spiritual enterprise.' If it is ever to regain its moral authority, it could do a lot worse than to revive the true legacy of Billy Graham.