Franklin Graham wants to make America Christian again — even if you think his methods and rhetoric are controversial.
Graham, a hellfire evangelist and a social conservative force, has taken over the reins in many ways for his father, Rev. Billy Graham, the legendary evangelist who was a preacher to 12 presidents before his death Wednesday at the age of 99.
He now heads The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and has become a confidant of President Trump, including speaking at his inauguration.
But in many ways Billy Graham can never be replaced for a multitude of reasons, including the culture shift that has attendance at churches on the decline with a younger generation. Plus, somewhere, somehow, Graham himself will always be preaching.
He became a household name in the late 1950s, touring the world and preaching to large crowds at what he called "crusades." He was a voice of reason and comfort in times of crisis: the rise in communism, the nuclear arms race, the civil rights movement and countless wars.
He found a way to preach without judgment and “went to great lengths to make the gospel as appealing to as many people as possible. He avoided deal breakers,” said Duke University Professor of Christian history Grant Wacker, author of America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.
Billy Graham believed a lot of things he wouldn't necessarily preach "because he knew they would offend or divide people," Wacker added.
But Franklin has taken a different approach and created his own path — speaking directly and bluntly to Americans. Though he looks like his father — Charlton Heston-esque, square-jawed, tall and rangy — his bravado in the public square “is my mother coming out in me," he says.
Franklin has used his sermons and sharp-voiced Facebook posts, where he has 6.3 million followers, to mock both Islam and LGBT rights, as well as to raise funds for "persecuted Christians."
He’s a popular guest on Christian broadcasting and Fox News. He has called for boycotts on businesses that use gay couples in advertisements and blasts the separation of church and state as the godless successor to Cold War communism.
His father, while providing comfort and prayer to 12 presidents, said he learned his lesson years ago to stay out of public politics.
Franklin Graham, on the other hand, arrived on the U.S. political scene at George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration when he prayed “in Jesus’ name,” thereby excluding non-Christians — a shift from the ways of his father and his prayers to "the Lord" at decades of inaugurations and national memorials, religion historian Martin Marty said.
Some see Franklin's rhetoric and tone as divisive and offensive, but Graham, citing Trump, says "we don't have time for tone!"
Where Graham sees himself standing by biblical truth, others see his words as bordering on hate speech and calls for discrimination, particularly toward Muslims and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“If you disagree with them, it’s hate speech. That’s the line,” Graham said.
“I have been very careful to say that I love Muslim people, and I care for them,” he said, adding that Islam won't save your soul, and "it can’t keep you from the doors of hell. It won’t open the doors to paradise. I want people to know the truth.”
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The same goes for members of the LGBT community.
“I don’t wish (them) ill,” he said. But he will tell them their “lifestyle” is sin, and “if they don’t repent, God will one day judge them, and they will spend eternity in hell."
“Is that hate speech because you love somebody enough to warn them that they are getting ready to fall off a cliff?” he asked.
Though Franklin has taken the reins for his father and paved his own path on helping spread the message of God, it's unlikely that he or any other individual evangelist will succeed or surpass Billy Graham.
Today, there are a plethora of religious and spiritual niches and distinctly different Christian voices who draw world attention:
• California megachurch leader Rick Warren, author of the 30 million-selling handbook The Purpose Driven Life, calls himself a pastor guiding people in living and deepening their faith, not an evangelist focused on winning new souls to Christ.
• T.D. Jakes, founder of The Potter's House, reaches out to black believers. His preaching events, plays, movies and a stream of books — all rooted in Scripture but rife with emotion — are directed at motivating women and men to godly lives and relationships.
• Graham's five children do not see themselves as the 21st-century version of dad. Franklin runs the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association with the administrative skills he developed in his own Third World development and evangelism association, Samaritan's Purse.
One of Billy Graham's three daughters, Anne Graham Lotz, is "the best preacher in the family," Billy once quipped, politely ignoring the Southern Baptists Convention's stricture that women cannot be senior pastors. She's the author of many books exhorting Christians to rely on Jesus and operates her own AnGeL Ministry.