Confronting criticism Tuesday that he has commandeered the voice of aging evangelist Billy Graham and turned him into “a mouthpiece for the religious right,” Franklin Graham said his father’s entrance into a tightening presidential race was his own choice.
“Nobody kidnaps my Daddy. He may not see or hear as well, but his mind remains sharp as a razor,” Graham said. “He’s been active in politics since the 1940s. People need to remember that.”
Billy Graham turns 94 the day after the Nov. 6 election. After running a worldwide ministry for six decades, the Charlotte native today is a physically diminished widower who lives alone in his Montreat home. Yet he remains beloved by many Christians.
The evangelist has been a friend and adviser to several presidents from both parties. Yet he traditionally has avoided political endorsements.
Thus the content of some of Graham’s recent comments and his apparent backing of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney have caught longtime Graham watchers off guard.
“The Billy Graham we’re seeing in this campaign is a constructed Billy Graham, constructed by his son,” religion scholar Michael Hamilton said. “A constructed Graham is not necessarily a false Graham or a true Graham. It’s the Graham Franklin wants us to see.”
Franklin Graham said his father is a willing participant in an effort to put a stronger Christian voice in government.
An ongoing media blitz, which features an iconic photo of a younger Billy Graham, urges voters to elect candidates with biblical values.
“I realize this election could be my last,” the advertisement quotes Graham as saying. “I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel.
“I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage.”
The full-page newspaper ads, which ran in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and the Observer, don’t mention a particular candidate.
But Franklin Graham told the Observer that the positions of Romney “are more in line with the moral teachings that I believe in.”
On Oct. 11, Romney met privately with the Grahams at Billy Graham’s home in Montreat. The elder Graham was quoted as telling Romney, “I’ll do all I can to help you.”
Franklin Graham also has a column in the Grahams’ Decision magazine in which he says it’s OK for Christians to vote for a Mormon. Romney is a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which many conservative Christians consider a cult.
President Barack Obama, on the other hand, has voiced support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage, Franklin Graham said.
On marriage, the president supports “a position against God, and my father feels he has an obligation to speak out against that kind of wickedness.”
“The president has made a choice,” he said. “My father has made a choice: At 94, he has chosen not to be quiet anymore.”
Graham’s words were in response to essays by Hamilton and a Graham biographer questioning whether Franklin Graham has orchestrated his father’s political involvement. They say Billy Graham’s role is out of character both in his apparent endorsement of Romney as well as his embrace of social issues more aligned with the Christian right, not his own ministry.
The comments of William Martin, author of “A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story,” and Hamilton, chairman of the history department at Seattle Pacific University, appear under the headline, “Has Billy Graham Turned Political?”
With Graham kept out of the spotlight, Hamilton said, the answer remains unclear.
“We don’t know if Billy Graham has become political. We don’t know that this is Dr. Graham,” Hamilton said Tuesday.
This Billy Graham is “smaller” and “angrier,” and sounds like “a mouthpiece for the religious right,” Hamilton said, not the “world-changing, large-visioned, big-hearted” figure that has been Graham’s legacy.
Franklin Graham, now in charge of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has put that legacy at risk, Hamilton said. He said he might ask the son whether he’s willing to have his father’s life re-evaluated, to have historians say to themselves, “Well, maybe we have it wrong.”
Martin, professor emeritus at Rice University, writes that Billy Graham’s political involvement caught him off guard.
“After realizing that he’d been cynically manipulated by Richard Nixon, resulting in a stain on his ministry that has never faded, Billy Graham resisted joining the Religious Right … and warned religious leaders ‘to be wary of exercising political influence’ lest they lose their spiritual impact,” he said.
Homosexuality, which is raised in the newspaper ads by the comments in support of traditional marriage, “was never central” to Billy Graham’s ministry, raising suspicions that “Franklin Graham has steered his father in this direction, perhaps against his will or at least without full enthusiasm.”
Martin suggests that a small group of group of reporters be allowed to hear Graham’s comments directly. (The Observer regularly requests interviews with Billy Graham. The last one took place in 1996.)
Asked about such a plan, Franklin Graham said, “That’s not going to happen. I’m not going to allow my father to get penned in. If you don’t believe what I say, that’s fine. If you want to think I’m behind all of it, I don’t care.”
He said his father’s longstanding political neutrality, reiterated Tuesday in “Christianity Today” by Billy Graham’s longtime spokesman, Larry Ross, has been misunderstood.
For example, Billy Graham had his photograph taken in Florida with then-presidential candidate George W. Bush two days before the 2000 presidential election. Bush narrowly won Florida, and with it the White House.
“That picture may have turned the election,” Franklin Graham said. “Are you going to blame that on me, too?”
Graham said his father, a registered Democrat, was “dismayed and sickened over what happened in Charlotte” when delegates to the Democratic National Convention initially left “God” out of the party’s platform – Obama insisted on correcting what convention officials called an oversight – and again voiced support for abortion, contraceptive rights and same-sex marriage.
Graham, like many conservative Christians, believes that homosexual behavior is a sin.
Obama, who visited Billy Graham at his home in 2010, “has taken a stand that is against God’s standard. He is saying it’s OK for people to sin. The president is wrong,” the younger Graham said.
Graham, who answered questions less than a hour before leaving on a humanitarian trip to Africa, said he has already cast his ballot. He said he voted for Romney.
Billy Graham has also voted, his son said.
For Romney? “I don’t know,” Franklin Graham said. “I wasn’t there.”