Relaymedia

Speaking Frankly

Dec 04, 2002 06:24 PM EST

In an age of religious relativism, Franklin Graham is not afraid to speak hard truths about Islam. That has resulted in a kind of controversy that his father avoided—and even death sentences from radical Muslim clerics. "My life is in the hands of almighty God," says WORLD's Daniel of the Year.

If you close your eyes, you almost can't tell the difference. You're in some distant corner of the world, in a stadium packed with tens of thousands of people. That distinctive Southern baritone rings out over the loudspeakers, followed by the fast words of an interpreter. The message is short and direct, and when it's over people surge forward, spilling onto the field by the thousands to repeat a simple prayer.

Even when you open your eyes, the spell is not completely broken. The thick, side-swept hair, the patrician features, the piercing eyes and slightly quizzical smile—it's all familiar, yet disconcerting at the same time. There should be more white in the hair, more sag in the skin. You could be at a Billy Graham Crusade, if the year were 1967.

In fact, you're in Mendoza, Argentina, and the year is 2002—but the folks at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) don't mind if it's hard to tell the difference. A few years ago there was talk of shuttering the $96-million-a-year evangelistic empire when its namesake could no longer spread his message. But then the prodigal son came home, learned how to preach, and shouldered the mantel of his famous father. Franklin Graham was, without a doubt, the answer to many prayers within the BGEA: a lookalike, soundalike leader to take the sprawling organization into a new millennium.

Look or listen a little more closely, however, and the generational differences start to become apparent. The accent may be the same, but the emphasis sometimes is not. The younger Graham can attract thousands to his revival services, but he also attracts something that his father, in a career spanning more than 50 years, almost never did: controversy.

He admits that the latest controversy caught him off-guard. At a time when many political and religious leaders were at pains to paint "true" Islam as a religion of love and peace, Mr. Graham broke with the party line. He called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion," criticized its inherent intolerance, and challenged Saudi Arabia's Muslim leaders to issue a public apology to the United States.

Suddenly, Mr. Graham found himself under withering attack from religious liberals on the one hand and from some political conservatives on the other. The National Council of Churches and The Christian Century, both longtime supporters of the BGEA, blasted him for daring to criticize the deeply held faith of millions around the world. At the White House, President Bush publicly distanced himself from his friend's views, while Secretary of State Colin Powell, without naming Mr. Graham specifically, insisted that "this kind of hatred must be rejected."

To Mr. Graham, the only real surprise is that anyone should be shocked by his statements. "I'm a Christian," he says with a what-do-you-expect kind of shrug, "a follower of Jesus Christ. I'm not a Muslim fighter. I'm not on a crusade against Islam. I'm a minister of the gospel of Christ, and I want to take His truth to every person in the world. When Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life,' I believe that. Suddenly I'm a radical and an extremist because I don't believe that all ways lead to God?"

In a world of religious relativism, the very suggestion that any one belief might be superior to another is precisely the kind of heresy that will get a preacher tossed to the lions of political correctness. For that reason alone, Mr. Graham qualifies as WORLD's Daniel of the Year.

But there's more: While other evangelical leaders have followed with their own critiques of Islam, Mr. Graham arguably has the most to lose by taking an unpopular stand. Like the Daniel of the Old Testament, he's a friend and confidant to those in power—crucial access that could be denied if he's viewed as too extreme. His ministry, too, is broader-based than most, with support—or at least grudging respect—coming from outside the evangelical camp. A backlash by any faction of the BGEA's broad ecumenical coalition could hurt severely in terms of both donations and attendance.

And finally, there's the burden of the Graham name itself. Throughout decades of high-profile ministry, the elder Graham stuck doggedly to his goal of promoting Christianity without critiquing or criticizing non-Christian beliefs. For a son who bears both the name and the expectations of a famous family, the pressure to carry on that soft-spoken tradition must be intense. Only convictions that are more intense still could motivate Mr. Graham to speak out where his father remained silent.

If Franklin Graham is unafraid to say the hard things, maybe it's because he's seen the hard things firsthand. He was barely a teenager the first time he visited a Muslim country, and a few years later he dropped out of college for one semester to help build a tuberculosis clinic for Bedouin tribesmen in Jordan. Since then, he's been around the world with Samaritan's Purse, the humanitarian organization he headed up even before he took up his father's evangelistic cause. He estimates he's made 70 visits to the Muslim world, from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia. And everywhere he goes, the lessons are the same.

"My opinions and my views are shaped by years of working and seeing Islam up close," he says. "There is no religious freedom. I have seen the persecution. It is taught by them, it is in their Koran. They cannot deny it."

Statements like that earn scathing condemnation from big-tent religionists, who accuse Mr. Graham of being a "bigot" and "hater." But such labels stick awkwardly to a man who spends most of his time delivering humanitarian aid rather than sermons. Through Samaritan's Purse Mr. Graham raises roughly $150 million a year to bring physical relief to devastated people—many of them in the Muslim world. He's built hospitals in Sudan, schools in Afghanistan, and children's playgrounds in the Balkans. Everywhere he travels, he brings both good news and goodies.

In Mendoza's squalid Three Stars barrio, for instance, 75 children gathered in a flimsy church on the final afternoon of Mr. Graham's three-day "Festival of Hope." Normally these children would dig through the garbage dump across the street for castoff clothes or broken toys, but on this day they will have a taste of an American-style Christmas. In neat rows, two-by-two, they sit squirming on the church's concrete floor, holding brightly wrapped shoeboxes in their laps. When every child has a box, they count in unison, "uno, dos, tres," and tear into their treasures.

Every item pulled from a box elicits a squeal of delight—then, often, a puzzled inspection. A miniature Etch-A-Sketch and a wind-up toy car are forms of entertainment these children have never experienced. One little boy, perhaps 3 years old, focuses exclusively on the one item from his box that he knows how to use: a blue rubber ball. He tosses it several times until he misses a catch and the ball goes rolling across the hard floor. He chases it in a panic until it comes to a stop against another child's wheelchair. After such a close call, he refuses to toss the ball again, grasping it tightly to his chest while other children swirl around him with prized gifts of their own.

This scene is repeated, with variations in language and skin pigment, each time Mr. Franklin's team rolls into a new city. Operation Christmas Child, as the effort is known, operates independently of the revival festivals, as well. This year, some 6 million children in 100-plus countries around the world will receive Christmas shoeboxes packed by their American counterparts.

Recently, Mr. Graham was invited to distribute his Christmas gifts in war-torn Sudan, where Muslims in the north are trying to wipe out Christianity in the south. A hospital built by Samaritan's Purse has been repeatedly bombed by northern forces, so Mr. Graham was surprised to get a call from the Sudanese ambassador, asking him on behalf of the country's Muslim president to bring thousands of gift boxes and to take part in the peace process.

The evangelist replied that he would love to go, but he first wanted the ambassador to relay a message to the president: "Would you please ask him to stop bombing my hospital?" Mr. Graham asked testily. He went on to lecture the ambassador about targeting innocent civilians and disrupting UN food distribution efforts, then concluded: "And please give my warmest and special greetings to the president."

It was the sort of confrontation that could easily get him dis-invited from the Sudan summit, but high-level elbow-rubbing doesn't much appeal to Mr. Graham, anyway. "I have never sought to win favor or friendship with people in high places," he says. "I've never once thought, 'I'm going to withhold the truth because if I speak the truth then maybe I won't get invited to the next cocktail party.' I don't drink, so I don't care. Some people live for that, but it doesn't matter to me. If God opens up doors in life, you just walk through them and try to be faithful to Him."

That attitude has led to more than his share of run-ins over the years. During the Gulf War, Gen. Normal Schwarzkopf blasted Mr. Graham for shipping thousands of Bibles to U.S. servicemen stationed in rigidly Muslim Saudi Arabia. When he prayed in place of his father at the inauguration of George W. Bush, he was loudly criticized for asking God's blessing in Jesus' name. A few months later he was taken to task for sharing the gospel at a memorial service for the students killed at Columbine. And then, of course, there was the Muslim flap.

He insists the criticism doesn't bother him, no matter what the issue. "If it's the right thing to say or do, you do it, regardless of what people think. If God wants to give me favor, He'll give me favor. If He wants to pull me down, He'll pull me down."

Still, Mr. Graham does see the mounting criticism as a sign of the times. "We've had many freedoms in this country, and as Christians we've had a wonderful opportunity," he says. "But I do think those freedoms are slowly being eroded. Our nation is becoming more secular.

"When Jimmy Carter announced in the Pennsylvania primary that he was a born-again Christian, it caught the attention of the nation. It was a very popular thing to talk about back then. But today the church of Jesus Christ is under attack. There's an onslaught against the church. Being an evangelical Christian is not a popular position any more, and it's getting worse, not better."

Popularity. For 40 years or more it was the intangible asset that allowed Billy Graham to shatter attendance records at stadiums the world over. Wherever he went, throngs would show up to see the man so often described in the media as "an internationally beloved figure" or "the greatest evangelist since the Apostle Paul." In October, after a long hiatus, the 83-year-old Graham patriarch showed he could still pack them in, attracting 255,000 listeners to a four-day crusade in Dallas.

But such numbers don't come by courting controversy. Indeed, if Franklin Graham's critique of Islam has been amplified in the press, it is precisely because his father's opinions on the topic are so muted. If Pat Robertson's or Jerry Falwell's offspring were to criticize Muslim theology, it would hardly make news. But Grahams have simply never said such things—until now.

Some observers have tried to interpret the comments of the younger Graham as a break from his father, perhaps even a basic theological difference. But Mr. Graham says they are jumping to conclusions. "Nobody knows my father's thinking because he never issued any comments on Islam, and I don't think he has any intentions of making any statements."

So how does the father feel about his son's outspokenness? "I've always backed him and supported him, and he's always backed and supported me," Franklin Graham told WORLD. He emphasized that none of his advisers had told him to soften his blunt style—including, presumably, his father, with whom he is extremely close.

Still, Billy Graham hasn't changed his own style to come out in public defense of his son's comments, and he recently told a Dallas newspaper that "[Franklin] and I don't always see exactly alike on everything." At a joint appearance in October, when faced with several dozen Muslim protesters, the reactions of the two Grahams were markedly different. "We are to reconcile one another to God through faith in Jesus Christ," Franklin Graham said. "My interest is for the future of this property [the new Charlotte headquarters of the BGEA] and not people standing on the fringes with other interests."

His father, meanwhile, was as conciliatory as ever: "I welcome them all and I love them all," Billy Graham said. "I have many friends in that part of religion."

So far, the controversy hasn't seemed to hurt attendance at the Franklin Graham Festivals. More than 20,000 people showed up every night in Mendoza, and response rates were among the highest ever recorded—better than 10 percent. Mr. Graham says the mail has been running about 100-to-1 in favor of his position and that donations, thus far, haven't been affected.

If his convictions cost him, the real price may not be known for years to come. Borderline supporters could be turned off by a steady stream of negative press coverage. Already a festival scheduled for next year in Tulsa has drawn stronger-than-usual opposition among the local population, and the newspaper has covered the controversy extensively. "I hope our Muslim neighbors know that many of us are disgusted and embarrassed that Franklin Graham is being brought to Tulsa in the name of Christianity," read one letter to the editor. "This man is full of hatespeak, anger, and condemnation."

That kind of reaction is nothing compared to the vitriol coming out of the Middle East, where several fatwahs, or death sentences, have been issued against Mr. Graham by radical Muslim clerics.

The target of the threats is unconcerned, however. "My life is in the hands of almighty God," Mr. Graham says. "I gave my life to Christ over 25 years ago, and He can take it today if He wants to. It's for a reason, it's for a purpose, and who am I to argue with God? I don't want to be silly or foolish, but you can't hide in a cave. We're all going to die sooner or later. I hope that when my day comes, I will be able to live up to that moment a life that is pleasing to my Father in heaven.

"I don't want to be politically correct and shame Him by disowning Him. I want to be faithful. I want to hear from His lips, 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant.'"

By Bob Jones