Franklin Graham is a lot of things: evangelist, CEO of two faith-based nonprofits, and culture warrior in America, just to name a few. But perhaps most of all, he is a mind-bending mystery. How can a person lead Samaritan's Purse one week as its doctors heroically fight the Ebola virus in West Africa, and then spend another week denouncing Target's removal of signs for gendered building blocks, even if they are a very recent marketing innovation?
How can someone swing between the extremes of cutting edge outreach work and the dullest battle yet in America's culture wars?
The younger Graham may actually resemble his father more than we realise. Granted, some of the differences are notable: Franklin admires Donald Trump, is planning a 50-state "non-partisan" campaign to encourage Americans to vote for candidates who uphold biblical principles (that's code for "Republican"), and isn't afraid to blame President Obama for bringing about the end times. Even with the elder Graham's admitted mistakes as an ally of Richard Nixon, he never went as far as pinning the apocalypse on anyone.
However, by comparing the two Grahams, we may find a clearer picture of the best and worst parts of the evangelical movement and at the very least make sense of the seeming contradictions of Franklin Graham.
Coalitions for the Sake of the Gospel
Billy Graham is best known for the coalitions he built in the name of sharing the gospel, especially with Catholics and mainline Christians, despite criticism from fundamentalists. While refusing to preach at segregated crusades starting in 1952, Graham also made inroads with African American civil rights leaders, including an invitation for Martin Luther King Jr. to pray at his New York City crusade in 1957.
Although Graham wasn't afraid to draw lines in the sand on theology and social issues, he should be credited with building coalitions to share the gospel, rather than using the gospel to share the agenda of any one group.
An End Times Gospel Preacher
A favorite theme of Billy Graham's sermons was the story of Noah's Ark. For Graham, the ark captured the urgency of salvation and provided the perfect canvas to recast current events for the sake of his audience. If you read one of Graham's sermons today, you could just as well swap the communist threat with terrorists or the Islamic State.
Graham routinely shared that the world is spiraling out of control, humanity continues to rebel against God, and judgment and destruction are immanent. He took meticulous notes on world events, building his case that now is the time to respond to the Gospel – lest you find out that you're too late.
If you read what Franklin Graham has to say, all of these end times/judgment of God elements are present as either outright statements or assumptions. The main difference is that the younger Graham uses this pending judgment for the purpose of the culture wars and the cause of conservative groups. The elder Graham used his end times message in order to draw his listeners to Christ, while the younger Graham divides his time among many masters.
Passing on a Worldview, Leaving Behind a Legacy
Franklin Graham represents the legacy of Billy Graham's theology that focused on immanent judgment, but he has failed to carry on his father's single-minded focus of leading people to saving faith in Christ. Some may argue that Franklin Graham's culture wars and moral crusading is part of being a prophet or a "watchman," but we need look no further than his father to see that the Gospel does just fine on its own without a moral crusade tacked onto it.
When we consider the legacy of Billy Graham, we would do well to hold onto his commitment to prayer, relentless dependence on Christ, and deep commitment to work with any group (or technology for that matter) that would help him share the Gospel with one more person (check out The Billy Graham Story).
When the mainline churches wanted to help with a crusade, the elder Graham invited them in as full partners.
When partisan politics threatened his ministry, the elder Graham learned from his mistakes with Nixon.
Perhaps Franklin Graham believes that the best way to share the gospel in America is to divide his time between preaching and leading battles in the conservative evangelical culture wars. Whatever he believes, we shouldn't be surprised by his actions since he is the product of his father's end times theology – a theology that is quite common in American evangelicalism.
The main difference is that the elder Graham used his theology in order to prod people into the arms of Christ, while the younger Graham is using that theology in order to prod people into a political movement.
Ed Cyzewski (MDiv) is the author of 'Coffeehouse Theology, A Christian Survival Guide', and 'The Good News of Revelation'. He writes at www.edcyzewski.com.