The Fundamental Difference Between Billy Graham and His Preacher-Son Franklin
I wasn’t prepared to come away with inflated respect and a genuine appreciation for Billy Graham, the famous fundamentalist gospel preacher who dominated such a big part of America’s religious and political landscape for more than half a century.
But after watching the riveting 2-hour documentary on his 99-year life and celebrated career as told by the PBS television series American Experience I came away with more knowledge about Graham and a deeper understanding of religious life in America circa 1950-2018 than when I initially hit the play button on the remote.
To be quite clear — there’s nothing in Billy Graham’s evangelistic sermons nor conservative political views I agreed with. Not then. Not now. I view evangelists as charlatans — no better than, and in some cases far worse than comparable con-artists and fortune-tellers. At least con men don’t pretend to be righteous. Graham was a fire and brimstone Southern preacher who often used fear to shackle unwavering devotion and conjure up mass reverence from subservient followers that enabled him to fabricate an all-too powerful voice in politics that masqueraded as non-partisan. He disproportionally influenced America’s domestic and foreign policy. He had a direct line to more than a dozen U.S. presidents and was a close advisor to more than a few.
Graham could have been much worse a man and public figure than he actually was given his poisoned racist roots and jaded upbringing. Rural North Carolina during the 1920s was a toxic cauldron of bigotry, ignorance, susceptibility, and Confederate victimhood. It was the fertile hate-field that produced Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and so many horrible “leaders.” Methodists and Catholics were derided as liberals. Jews might as well have been Communists.
Nonetheless, let’s credit Graham for one thing. He was a true believer. By today’s standards, he never enriched himself, though he was certainly gluttonous in the currency of fame. He basked in the national spotlight and played to the cameras. By his own calculation, self-absorption and egomania were a necessary means to a greater end — promoting the word and spreading scripture. Graham was charismatic; he was devoted; he was the face, the voice, and the personification of a new tool of conversion effectively utilized (e.g., abused) by Protestants for many years which was guilt-tripping the hell out of hundreds of thousands of groveling souls without direction in their lives who were so gullible they’d latch onto and believe anything with even a speck of appeal.
By his own admission, Graham’s words, and more often his own actions fell far short of his sermons and teachings. He was deadly silent on civil rights during the 1960s. He enthusiastically supported the most disastrous period of the Vietnam War. He was one of President Richard Nixon’s closest personal confidants.
But let’s also credit Graham for some remarkable courage along the way when it was least expected. In 1957, while many of the states where he preached had separate drinking fountains mandated by Jim Crow-era laws designated for Blacks and Whites, Graham desegregated his own big tent revivals and church-related events. Those actions cost him some Bible-thumping bigots but also won him a much larger following, which became increasingly diverse racially over the course of his lifetime. He also allowed an up-and-coming young 24-year-old Black preacher from Georgia to speak at his revivals. His name was Martin Luther King.
Credit Graham also for realizing by 1970 the disaster of American involvement in the Vietnam War and speaking out, which also surprised his hawkish base. Credit Graham with favoring nuclear arms control agreements of the 1970s and 1980s and preaching against the terrible waste of spending so much on weapons of mass destruction. Credit Graham for “liberalizing” many of his own positions in later years, which demonstrated at least some capability to change with the times.
But it’s Billy Graham’s intertwined and complex relationship with Richard Nixon that is the most deeply revealing, especially as to the striking differences between the introspective preacher with a conscious guided by a moral compass — versus his Machiavellian, morally-compromised, utterly deceitful, hypocritical crackpot of a grifter-son, Rev. Franklin Graham, the faux-spawn who bears his name but shares none of his late father’s goodwill or honesty.
Graham trusted Nixon, a serious error of judgment, for sure. The two men engaged in multiple telephone conversations that surfaced when the infamous Nixon tapes were publicly released. The ongoing dialogue between the two power brokers does reveal deeply troubling instances of overt antisemitism and shared beliefs in conspiracy tropes. The tapes aren’t just embarrassing — they’re shocking, especially to hear Graham’s voice on them as we eavesdrop on his immoral sycophantic cheerleading.
But as Nixon’s lies and crimes were uncovered, Graham began to recognize the betrayal. Slowly perhaps, but surely. He backed away from his public support for Nixon, avoided the press when asked about it, and even withdrew from the American political landscape altogether for several years in the aftermath of Watergate, perhaps recognizing the fruits of his political activism and faith had been misplaced into the wrong basket. The far-Right religious revival led by the likes of Rev. Jerry Falwell and others may have indeed been firmly rooted in Graham’s soil as a foundation. But by 1980, Graham had veered away from much of his political sermonizing.
Let’s be clear. At least the elder Graham realized his own mistakes and even took some measure of personal responsibility for those miscalculations. He knew that he’d misled how own people, particularly millions of his religious followers.
That was then and this is now. A generation later, his deviant seedling has learned none of these important lessons of the past nor apparently read any of the scriptures that address the monumental catastrophe of sins engulfed within the gutter-psyche of Donald Trump. To this day, the disgraced Trump continues to be Franklin Graham’s political messiah. Once Nixon was proven to be a gross abuser of power and a congenital liar, father Billy quietly walked away. When Trump was proven to be a threat to democracy and a serial arsonist of truth, son Franklin doubled down. The evangelical fawning to this day is nauseating. Trump makes Nixon look like a boy scout.
Wrong as they may be on so many issues, all evangelists are not the same. Some are better than others. A few, though flawed, do even manage to live up to the word they preach.
They say the apple never falls far from the tree. But in the despicable case of Franklin Graham and his late iconic father, the apple didn’t just fall from the tree and roll into a canyon of deplorables. Franklin isn’t even planted in the same orchard.