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As Billy Graham Steps Down, Will His Kids Shape the Future of American Evangelicalism?

Dec 20, 2002 06:08 PM EST

It was a blustery evening in Dallas, the last night of Billy Graham's 412th crusade, and a record crowd filled Texas Stadium, spilling into an adjacent parking lot where thousands of chairs were set up beneath a giant JumboTron screen. The young and the old, parents with small children, seekers, true believers, and the merely curious–all had come out that October night to see and hear, many believed for the last time, the world's most famous preacher. After nearly an hour of music and other preliminaries, the frail, white-haired evangelist slowly made his way to the pulpit to deliver the same simple message he has preached to more than 210 million people in over 180 countries over more than half a century: "God loves you and gave his son to die for you; repent and receive Jesus as your savior."

But as he started out that night, he took longer than usual publicly thanking his coworkers for their hard work and support over the years. "People ask me, 'Isn't this your last crusade?' They say it very hopefully, some of them," Graham said, smiling. "And I say, 'I don't know. That's in God's hands.' I never want to say never, because we don't know.”

For more than half a century, Billy Graham has reigned as the single most visible and revered figure in American Protestantism. But with the 84-year-old Graham in failing health (he suffers from Parkinson's disease, among other ailments), both the future of his ministry and the fate of the broader evangelical movement are poised at a crucial moment. And into that moment have stepped two of Graham's own children, Anne and Franklin.

When she takes the stage, it's usually in a classic suit and pearls, hair and makeup just so–a carefully tailored look befitting a refined southern lady. He, on the other hand, goes for the rugged, outdoorsy look: denim jeans, black leather jacket, motorcycle boots. Yet the family resemblance cannot be missed: Both have the lanky frame, chiseled face, and penetrating eyes of their famous father. And when they stand to preach in that familiar, lilting, North Carolina accent, there is no mistaking their pedigree.

Anne Graham Lotz, 54, is the second of three daughters, and Franklin Graham, 50, is the elder of two sons of the aging icon of evangelical Protestantism. And as much as they owe to their father's legacy, both are emerging from his shadow and making their own way in Christian ministry. She is a successful author and Bible teacher and founder of AnGeL Ministries, a volunteer-run organization based in Raleigh, N.C. He is the head of Samaritan's Purse, a $150 million-a-year Christian relief agency in Boone, N.C., and two years ago, he was named president and CEO of his father's worldwide ministry. Yet despite their success, neither has escaped the inevitable and daunting comparisons to their legendary father. Nor have they managed to avoid controversy: Both have come under criticism for comments in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Still, if there were anything akin to royalty in American Protestantism, it would be the house of Graham. There are plenty of notables in the modern evangelical world–religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, James Dobson of Focus on the Family, former Watergate figure Charles Colson, and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell, to name a few. But none come close to the influence and stature of Billy Graham, who helped create the evangelical movement, a loosely knit network of church and parachurch organizations representing some 60 million to 70 million Americans, from Southern Baptists to Pentecostals, who say they are "born again" (the term used by evangelicals for the experience of conversion, when one personally accepts Jesus Christ as savior and Lord).

What has kept him in such a position of high esteem for so long, observers say, is the simplicity of his message (he avoids potentially divisive doctrinal discourses), the integrity of his ministry (he receives a flat salary and has never handled ministry finances), and the ability to resist the seductions that have brought down so many other religious luminaries in recent decades. His dynamic manner, good looks, and personal charm haven't hurt, either. "He is the most attractive public face that evangelical Protestantism has offered to the wider world in the last half century," says Mark Noll, a historian at Wheaton (Ill.) College, Graham's alma mater, and author of American Evangelical Christianity.

Succession. Whether his children or anyone else can preserve the Graham dynasty is uncertain. Franklin is the designated successor, already heading his father's organization and often filling in when his father is too ill to preach. But he is the first to admit: "I can't be Billy Graham." And whether anyone can or should succeed the elder Graham as the pre-eminent public face and unifying figure of evangelical Christianity is equally in doubt. "A Billy Graham comes along once a century," says religion historian Martin Marty, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

That the fate of Graham's ministry and the future of American evangelicalism should be so closely intertwined is no accident. Their paths to prominence were inextricably linked in the roiling religious landscape of the mid-20th century. When William Franklin Graham II was ordained a Southern Baptist preacher in 1939, American Protestantism was sharply polarized, as it had been for decades. The fundamentalist-modernist controversies, which erupted late in the 19th century over questions of the Bible's accuracy and authority, had come to a head in the Scopes "monkey trial" in 1925, when a high school biology teacher in Tennessee was convicted of illegally teaching evolution. In the aftermath, the mainline Protestant denominations–Methodists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and northern Presbyterians and Baptists, among others–became dominated by theological liberals who rejected literal interpre-tations of the Bible and embraced an agenda of social activism and ecumenism. Meanwhile, the fundamentalists–conservative churchmen who believed in the "inerrancy" of Scripture and preached a gospel of personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ–formed their own denominations and seminaries, refusing association with liberals, modernists, or others who, in their view, threatened doctrinal purity.

By the end of the 1930s, says Christian Smith, sociology professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and author of American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving, "much of conservative Protestantism–under the banner of fundamentalism–had evolved into a somewhat reclusive and defensive version of its 19th-century self." While the movement continued to grow organizationally, says Smith, some participants saw its "factionalist, separatist, judgmental character" as "an insurmountable impediment" to spreading the gospel. "The conditions were ripe," says Smith, "for a countermovement from within."

Traveling man. Graham would become one of a handful of mostly young, moderate fundamentalists who set out after World War II to form a "new evangelicalism"–still beholden to salvation, Scripture, and soul-winning, but more culturally engaged than the fundamentalist movement had become. After graduating from Wheaton, a Christian liberal arts college, in 1943, and after a brief stint as a pastor in a Chicago suburb, Graham signed on as an itinerant evangelist with Youth for Christ, a group aimed at converting the nation's young. He traveled the country, honing his preaching skills at youth rallies and citywide revival meetings. In 1949, at the age of 30, he launched a three-week tent crusade in Los Angeles where his dynamic style and simple Bible message, tinged with anti-Communist rhetoric, caught the attention of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who instructed his editors to "puff Graham." The results, says church historian Noll, were spectacular: "The rallies extended for another nine weeks, crowds jammed the 6,000-seat 'Canvas Cathedral,' and a new star had arisen on the nation's religious horizon."

Graham put that star status to use. He organized the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association to plan and finance his crusade ministry, which soon would go international with radio and television broadcasts, movies, books, and a syndicated newspaper column. "He came to prominence at a moment when there was an emergence of media technology, and he jumped on them and exploited them brilliantly," says Randall Balmer, a professor of American religion at Columbia University. A few years later, he was a major force in the founding of Christianity Today magazine, to "give theological respectability" to the movement and "show that there was concern for scholarship among evangelicals."

But the great transitional moment came in 1957 when Graham rejected an overture from New York City fundamentalists and instead enlisted the city's mainline churches to help organize what was to have been a six-week crusade in Madison Square Garden. Fundamentalist leaders were furious, but Graham insisted that he was "willing to work with all who were willing to work with us." The breach between the "new evangelicals" and the old fundamentalists was complete as Graham made "practical ecumenism" a hallmark of his ministry. Meanwhile, the New York crusade ran for nearly four months, resulted in thousands of "decisions for Christ," and drew national newspaper and network radio and TV coverage.

Graham's stature grew even further as he struck up a friendship with President Eisenhower, setting what would become a career pattern as a confidant of presidents and potentates. "Seeing Billy Graham at the White House was a source of pride for evangelicals," says Columbia's Balmer. Graham's close friendship with Richard Nixon, however, would nearly prove disastrous. In his 1997 autobiography, Just As I Am, he relates how he became a fixture at the Nixon White House and allowed himself to be drawn too tightly into Nixon's inner circle, sometimes participating in partisan deliberations. A recently released tape captured Graham making antisemitic remarks in the Nixon Oval Office in 1972 (Graham has since apologized for the comments). Sobered and chastened by the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation, Graham became decidedly more circumspect in his dealings with public figures. He has also carefully avoided criticizing those with different political or religious views.

While Graham's influence was key in defining and consolidating a religious movement, it was the election of Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist, to the White House in 1976 that produced the great cultural coming out for evangelicals. Through media coverage of Carter's religious behavior–he taught Sunday school and prayed and read his Bible daily–the nonevangelical world was introduced to what until then had been an all but invisible subculture of born-again Christians, with its conservative social values. The 1980s saw evangelicals venturing as a group into the political arena, first under the banner of Falwell's Moral Majority and later under the Christian Coalition, a grass-roots get-out-the-vote group that grew out of Pat Robertson's unsuccessful 1988 presidential campaign. The attempts at harnessing and brokering the evangelical vote produced mixed results, however, as evangelicals proved not to be the monolith that some had expected. But they succeeded in energizing conservative voters who previously had put little stock in electoral politics or political solutions. By the 1990s, the religious right was a major force in the Republican Party.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the evangelical movement in the near future, experts say, will be in coping with its new cultural status. When it emerged at midcentury, says Balmer, "evangelicalism was a counterculture" that defined itself against the secularism that dominated the American scene, especially in politics. Now, with the White House and other high offices occupied by some of their own, and with the phenomenal success of Christian books like the Left Behind novels and The Prayer of Jabez and the growing popularity of Christian music and movies, says Balmer, "evangelicalism is no longer on the margins." Adjusting to that new reality may prove to be difficult, experts say, as moderates and resurgent fundamentalists vie to redefine the movement's boundaries. For that reason alone, says Noll, "the passing of Billy Graham will mark the end of an important historical era." Short of "unforeseen developments," he says, "the apparent unity that Graham's presence bequeathed to a diverse movement will be a thing of the past."

Graham's unifying influence, experts say, stems in no small measure from his careful rhetoric and avoidance of controversy–traits that Graham's offspring have not yet displayed. "Franklin is less concerned than his father to have everybody pleased at what he says," says William Martin, a Rice University professor and author of A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story. "He is certainly more confrontational and theologically more conservative." Those traits became apparent a month after the September 11 attacks when NBC News broadcast an interview with Franklin Graham. "We're not attacking Islam, but Islam has attacked us," he said. "The God of Islam is not the same God. He's not the son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It's a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion." Graham has refused to retract the remark, although he did attempt to clarify it later in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, saying that while he does not believe Muslims are "evil people because of their faith . . . I decry the evil that has been done in the name of Islam."

Even now, he gets rankled when interviewers bring up the subject. "I've not been on a soapbox going around the country speaking against Islam," he told U.S. News. "Everything I've said on the subject has been in response to questions." Yet in his latest book, The Name, he writes that the two faiths "are as different as lightness and darkness. . . . The god of Islam requires you to give your son to die for him. The God of the Bible gave his son to die for you." Yet Graham has plenty of defenders, who say he has been unfairly criticized and caricatured. "Franklin Graham is about much more than his views on Islam," says David Neff, editor of Christianity Today magazine, citing the younger Graham's solid gospel preaching, his world relief efforts, and tireless work on behalf of AIDS victims. "Let him be known for that."

Healing. Indeed, Franklin has taken a lead role in prodding fellow evangelicals into the battle against AIDS. "The church has been late on this issue," he says. "So many Christians think of AIDS as a homosexual disease, so they don't want to get involved." But with 40 million infected with the AIDS virus, and 100 million new cases expected over the next decade, says Graham, "AIDS is the gravest threat to world security–it's not Saddam Hussein. There's no cure, no vaccine. These people have no hope. We need to reach out to them, care for them, whether they are gay, straight, children, or whatever. When people came to Jesus, he never said, 'Before I heal you, tell me what type of sin or high-risk behavior were you engaged in.' He healed them, and as they were leaving he'd tell them, 'Go and sin no more.' "

Anne Graham Lotz, meanwhile, also has faced critical scrutiny. In a TV interview shortly after the attacks, she said she believed "God would use [the attacks] as a warning to his people. And I believe if we don't repent that we're going to see something worse. I believe you can't shake your fist in God's face, as we seem to have done over the last few years." The comment seemed to echo those of Jerry Falwell, who suggested after the attacks that God was judging America because of the sins of abortionists, feminists, homosexuals, the American Civil Lib- erties Union, and others. But in an interview with U.S. News, Lotz said her comment was misconstrued. "I don't believe September 11 was a judgment for our sin," she said. "But I think it's a warning to people, and to the church foremost, to wake up and get right with God. . . . We have told him with vehemence over the past few years to get out of our schools, get out of our government, get out of our marketplace . . . and then when something like this happens we ask, 'Where is God?' "

If the two Graham siblings have a harder edge than their father, say some family observers, it probably reflects the bumpy road they traveled growing up Graham. For Franklin, expectations were high for the elder son of an American legend. So he rebelled as a teenager: He drank, smoked, and was expelled from college before accepting Christ at age 22. "I wanted to live life on my terms," he says of those years. Even after his conversion, when he felt God calling him to Christian relief work, he vigorously avoided the pulpit. "I was afraid I'd be compared to my father," he says, "and I could never be him." It was only after the persistence of one of his father's associates that he reluctantly agreed to give preaching a try–haltingly at first, in small venues, until he gained experience and confidence. Now he says he's comfortable with the preaching ministry and holds several of his own crusades (he calls them festivals) each year. "I don't think I would have done it without this man pushing me," he says. Though he didn't know it at the time, his father had put the man up to it.

Glass wall. Anne, meanwhile, fought a different battle. When she felt God calling her, at the age of 40, to a national Bible-teaching ministry (she prefers "teacher" over "preacher"), she bumped into strong and sometimes rude resistance from some in her Southern Baptist denomination who contend that the Bible–particularly the writings of St. Paul–bars women from the pulpit and other positions of authority in the church. At one gathering of ministers, she recalls, men in the audience turned their backs on her when she got up to speak. "It was like a glass wall went up, and I could just feel the hostility," she says. After the incident, she went home and studied the Bible and prayed. "I felt God was telling me, 'You're not accountable to your audience; you're accountable to me. Keep your focus on me.' . . . So it's their problem if they don't want a woman in the pulpit. I'm not going to give an account to the Southern Baptist hierarchy for my ministry." Even so, she says, she tries to keep her message geared mainly to women, the vast majority of her audiences at the gatherings she calls "Just-Give-Me-Jesus revivals," aimed, she says, at drawing Christian believers into a "deeper walk with the Lord." It is a ministry different from those of her father and brother, she says, who attempt to make converts of nonbelievers.

Both Franklin and Anne say they support each other's ministries but plan to keep their organizations separate and apart from their father's even after he is gone. In the meantime, while his own ministry winds down, Graham's organization is stepping up its efforts to ensure that his mission continues to flourish. "We are living in an age of great spiritual hunger," Graham said during a recent groundbreaking for a new headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., "and I believe that this place is going to be a center for proclaiming the gospel throughout the world." Under his son's leadership, Graham said, "we are developing a much larger and deeper vision for the future. . . . That could mean some of our best years are ahead of us." Already, during the past decade, his organization has held conferences in over 180 countries to recruit and equip evangelists to replicate his ministry. Such efforts are expected to multiply.

Not that Graham assumes he will see this come to pass. On that night in Dallas, he spoke of the death of a friend–and of his own mortality. "You can read the last chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes," he said. "It'll tell you exactly how you'll feel when you get old. . . . I have the same feelings described by the writer of that chapter. There's a loneliness, in a way. There's a certainty that in this life not many more days lie ahead–or months. But I'm not–I'd like to have nothing more except to go to heaven," he said, looking to an opening in the stadium roof. "I'm looking forward to it. I think there'll be a hole up there somewhere, and we'll go right out."

By Jeffery L. Sheler