Franklin Graham's Crusade
He's become the most outspoken and significant leader of a movement of Christian conservatives directly attacking Islam.
BY: Deborah Caldwell
The younger Graham admits he is more outspoken than his father. "I’m probably a little quicker to say what I think," he says. "It’s always good to think before you speak, but even after I hold back and think..."
His voice trails off, and then he plunges in: "I think it’s because of my work with Samaritan's Purse in war areas--you just have to call it the way you see it. And when our hospital got bombed in Sudan seven times and people were killed, it’s the Muslim government trying to kill us, and you just can’t say it any other way."
Billy Graham was far more politically sensitive, Land notes. "His father tended to avoid controversy as a deliberate strategy and tactic in favor of his evangelistic goals."
The dilemma for Franklin is that it was the universality of his father’s message that made him a beloved figure. Though more recently embroiled in a controversy of his own about anti-Semitic comments he made to Richard Nixon, Billy Graham was not thought of as a religiously divisive figure. Indeed, early in his career the elder Graham landed in hot water with fundamentalist Protestants for allowing Catholics to share the podium at his Crusades.
Times are different now. Many Christians believe Islam is more of a threat than it was twenty years ago, says Bill Leonard, a church historian who is dean of Wake Forest Divinity School. "So if we're soft on Islam, then do we diminish the uniqueness of Christianity?"
What are the implications if Franklin Graham follows this path? Most Americans still really don't get Islam and Muslims, even though many of them are trying to figure out what to think about this seemingly exotic faith. So on one level, Graham is speaking to an audience of mainstream Americans who are likely to be receptive to his message.
"If he chooses to take this particular tack, he's clearing some space that's different from his father's--and that’s not insignificant," says Leonard. "In a pluralistic society, one person's convictions become another person's bigotry. And that can happen to all of us."
On the other hand, this is not 1952, or 1962. Americans are by and large more tolerant, more curious, more inherently pluralistic than they were 40 or 50 years ago. So it's possible that Graham's comments-which may in the short term sell books, get him on radio and television programs, and endear him to conservative Christians-will backfire.
He may become leader of the conservative Christian movement--no small accomplishment--but starkly different from the role played by his father, who became the leading religious figure in America.