His son, Franklin Graham, is taking a different approach. He has become the most outspoken and significant leader of a movement of Christian conservatives directly attacking the fundamental beliefs of Islam. He's been criticized by Muslim groups for being, in the words of one Muslim group, "bigoted, hateful and divisive."
And while his father went out of his way to support presidents, Franklin Graham has gone directly against the stated views of President Bush, who repeatedly declares that "Islam is a religion of peace." The fifty-year-old heir to Billy Graham's movement is getting a lot of attention for his views. The question, over time, will be: can this approach bring the son the same level of influence that the "brotherly love" message brought the father?
The latest Graham controversy began Wednesday when he said during an interview that Muslims hadn't sufficiently apologized for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks--and he challenged Muslim leaders to offer to help rebuild Lower Manhattan or compensate the families of victims to show they condemn terrorism.
That comment followed a string of remarks about Islam and Muslims in the last few weeks, as Graham has promoted his new book, "The Name." In the book, Graham writes that "Islam--unlike Christianity--has among its basic teachings a deep intolerance for those who follow other faiths."
In a new interview with Beliefnet, released today and conducted 10 days ago, he reiterated his opinion, saying, "I believe the Qur'an teaches violence, not peace."
In an indirect criticism of President Bush, Graham told Beliefnet that after September 11, "There was this hoo-rah around Islam being a peaceful religion--but then you start having suicide bombers, and people start saying, 'Wait a minute, something doesn’t add up here.'"
And he believes other Americans agree with him. "Every time there’s another suicide bomber who detonates himself on a bus, there will be more people inclined to agree with my comments," he says. "If a Roman Catholic strapped dynamite on himself, walked into a mosque in Saudi Arabia and said, 'I'm doing this in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and Catholics around the world,' and blows himself and the mosque up, the Pope would be on television within minutes denouncing this man, denouncing this act and having a fund-raising appeal--not for the family of the bomber, but for the families of the victims of the people who got blown up in the mosque. Every cardinal, every bishop, every priest the next Sunday would denounce this man from the pulpit. Every Protestant would join the Catholics and denounce this.
"But there has been silence from the Muslim clerics," Graham says. "Saudi Arabia has had fundraising appeals for the families of the suicide bombers, but not for the victims. This is more evidence that something is wrong here."
"This is crazy," says Hodan Hassan, communications coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington lobbying group. "To condemn the attacks is one thing, and American Muslims did that. But to apologize is another thing, because it assumes we must take responsibility for them--and we did not support or aid the attacks. Individuals carried out the attacks, and to ask an entire faith to apologize and accept responsibility for the actions of a few individuals is ludicrous."
She adds: "Will we get a response from him for the Inquisition, the Crusades, the enslavement of African-Americans, and the Ku Klux Klan?"
Hassan's organization, and other American Muslim groups, labeled Graham's earlier comments "a smear" and "defamatory."
Will Graham's approach work? It depends on what the goal is. As one of the first prominent Christian leaders to break with President Bush's approach, Graham made it safe for others to take the same tack. Since then it has become acceptable and even fashionable to criticize Islam as fundamentally violent.
Clearly Graham has a different kind of appeal than his father, but it is an appeal nonetheless.
"Trust me, Franklin Graham is only giving speech to what a lot of people already think," says Richard Land, chief executive of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "Why hasn't the Islamic community denounced [violence and the terrorist attacks]? And why aren't they protesting when Christian churches are machine-gunned in Pakistan? If it's because they're afraid of retaliation, then that proves Franklin Graham's concern. What kind of religion is it that says, 'If you disagree with it, we'll kill you?' I don't think they can blame outside observers for taking their silence for assent."
"He's saying exactly what he believes," says Rev. Jack Graham, president of the Southern Baptist Convention. "And I don't think he's wrong. I think Franklin is his own man." The pastor of the 20,0000-member Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, Jack Graham adds, "Certainly what he's said lately is controversial with some people, but I see Franklin as a man who runs toward a problem--whether it's a problem in the world or whether it's Ground Zero. He's never been willing to play it safe."
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.