North Carolina icon Billy Graham passed away Wednesday at the age of 99. As the renowned evangelist is being remembered around the world, the organization he started in 1950 begins a new era without him.
For more than a decade the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has been led by Billy’s son, Franklin. The younger Graham spreads the word of salvation, also leads a humanitarian organization, and is no stranger to controversy.
In December 2013, the younger Graham spoke with WUNC in his large corner office at the Billy Graham Library complex in Charlotte. The conversation jumped around from squirrels and his love for the outdoors, to professors, many of whom he says belittle Christianity, and to his friend, Sarah Palin.
“I’m here to tell you that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Not Mohammad, not Buddha. I don’t believe in those guys. It’s Jesus Christ," said Franklin, who bears a strong resemblance to his late father and echoes many of his father's messages. "So yes, I want to promote the Christian faith because it is the faith. It is the way. It is the truth.”
Franklin Graham is a preacher’s son. He was kicked out of high school and college. For a long time, following in his father’s footsteps seemed unlikely. On his 22nd birthday, he was with his dad in Switzerland during a conference. After dinner at an Italian restaurant on Lake Geneva they took a stroll.
"So we walked a little ways and we stopped and he said ‘Franklin I want you to know your mother and I love you’," the younger Graham remembered. "We walk a little further then he stops and looks me in the eye and says ‘Franklin I sense there is a battle for the soul of your life. And you’re going to have to make a choice either to accept Christ and his claims or reject him. It’s your choice. You’re going to have to make a choice. And when he said that it kind of made me angry, because I knew what he was saying was right.”
Graham said he accepted Jesus two weeks later. Since that moment four decades ago, he has preached the word of Christ to millions of people, helped raised billions of dollars as President of Samaritan’s Purse – a Christian Evangelical humanitarian group, and has become the public face of the Graham family. But some have questioned whether his approach is far more controversial, conservative and combative than his father’s.
“Franklin is someone who speaks not sort of with the broader umbrella that Billy Graham had used but someone who really wants to identify with one particular political religious and philosophical ideology,” said UNC-Asheville Religious Studies Professor Roger Payne.
Franklin Graham has aligned himself with the neo-conservative political right. He called Islam an evil religion following the 9/11 attacks. And has publicly questioned the faith of President Obama - later apologizing. Scholars like Professor Payne say we will probably never know for certain whether what has been perceived as a shift in philosophy by the organization was driven by Billy or Franklin.
“Probably to some extent this reflects Billy Graham’s own political leanings but again, he’s just never been quite as overt about that until recent years. So the question is: whether it’s really something he is leading or whether the association of which he is still a part is moving in that direction and dragging him along with it,” added Payne.
At Billy Graham’s 95th birthday party, Palin, Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump and Roger Ailes were all in attendance. And in 2012, he was an outspoken supporter of Amendment One, which banned same-sex marriage.
"He has decided for whatever reasons that he’s really kind of casting himself more in the Jerry Folwell mold who feels an obligation to speak out on political issues, and encourage and not only speak out but encourage people to vote this way," said UNC-Asheville history professor Dan Pierce.
Franklin concedes some aspects of the organization have shifted, but maintains the mission is still to spread the word of forgiveness from God.
“Oh sure it’s different and some of it is my leadership and a lot of it has to in which the times we are living. But the message is exactly the same. We haven’t changed our message and we have changed our focus as an organization,” Franklin explained.
The Evangelistic Association uses the library in Charlotte, videos, literature, and of course the pulpit to spread its message. It had total revenue of more than $101 million in 2012. That’s about one third of the revenue of the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Franklin’s duties don’t end with the association his father started though. He also oversees Samaritans Purse, headquartered in Boone.
The evangelical Christian humanitarian organization operates in more than 100 countries. It had $376 million in revenue in 2012; making it one of the 30 largest charities in the U.S., according to Forbes. Graham is leading these organizations at a time when the economy has been fragile and religious participation is dropping.
“You've got to raise the income for the organization. You’re dealing with an organization that is built around the name of a person and that person is not the focal point any more," Franklin Graham said. "In a secular society where fewer people are going to church, fewer people are exposed to the Christian faith and those have been exposed to the Christian faith have been exposed in a negative way. So yeah, those are all challenges, but I like a challenge.”
For Franklin Graham, the challenges are expanding the evangelistic association his father started more than half a century ago, bringing his missionary relief organization to dozens of new countries and for the most part, staying clear of controversy.