Franklin Graham remaking father's ministry with activist emphasis

Posted: Friday, December 13, 2002

BOONE, N.C. (AP) -- He's no Billy Graham -- and Franklin Graham, son of the world's most famous evangelist, says that doesn't bother him a bit.

''I think maybe people say that to be a little put-down,'' Franklin Graham said. ''It's not a put-down to me. Yeah, that's true. That's right. I'm not.''

The comparisons are more pointed than ever these days, with Franklin Graham -- now in charge of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association -- emphasizing the international component of his ministry and making headlines with sharp comments about Islam.

Graham, who turned 50 this year, has set a course that differs from that of his 84-year-old father, whose famous stadium crusades have been slowed in recent years by persistent health problems, including Parkinson's disease.

Though Franklin Graham took full leadership of the ministry in 2000, he has been prominent in evangelistic circles for a quarter-century as head of the Boone-based Samaritan's Purse, which has conducted Christian relief and aid missions in places like Afghanistan, Sudan, India and Peru.

One of Graham's programs is Operation Christmas Child, which over the past decade has delivered shoe boxes filled with gifts to millions of children worldwide.


The Rev. Franklin Graham gestures as he talks in his office at the headquarters of Samaritan's Purse in Boone, N.C., Nov. 7, 2002. Graham, who turned 50 this year, has set a course that differs from that of his 84-year-old father Billy Graham, whose famous stadium crusades have been slowed in recent years by persistent health problems, including Parkinson's disease.

AP Photo/Chuck Burton

''I'll never be a Billy Graham or be able to do necessarily what he's done in life,'' Franklin Graham said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

''But at the same time, he didn't do what I've done, either. His generation was criticized for not being involved socially in the world. ... Here I come along and for 25 years, that's exactly what I've been doing.''

Graham said he is looking outward, to an international future for the broad-based Christian evangelism his father made famous.

As Philip Jenkins notes in his recent book, ''The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,'' while Christianity is largely stagnant in the United States and Western Europe, it is growing explosively in the ''global south'' of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In the last two years, Franklin Graham has staged crusades -- his are called ''festivals'' -- in Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Brazil, El Salvador and Argentina.

''He's got his own ministry, and I think he recognizes pretty clearly that he doesn't want to be the nation's pastor,'' said William Martin, a Rice University sociologist and Billy Graham biographer.

Martin said the younger Graham accomplishes ''a great deal of good,'' though he acknowledges, ''I wince at some of the statements he makes, and wish for a more nuanced kind of perspective.''

Preston Parrish, the Graham ministry's executive vice president, said Franklin Graham's approach to evangelism can be off-the-cuff: ''When you're involved in crisis relief, your agenda is often set by what's in the news or what comes in the mail.''

That was clear after the Sept. 11 attacks. Led by Franklin Graham, the Graham ministry and Samaritan's Purse quickly opened a Billy Graham Prayer Center in New York.

''To launch into an outreach program like that in a matter of days was a new development,'' Parrish said.

But Graham's post-Sept. 11 comments on Islam led to criticism, both at home and abroad. In a televised interview a year ago, Graham called Islam ''a very evil and wicked religion.'' And in a radio interview this summer, he criticized Muslim clerics for not apologizing for the attacks. His latest book, ''The Name,'' pursues the theme.

During August interviews promoting that book, Graham said the Muslim scriptures preach violence and accused Muslim leaders of silence in the face of terrorism. The Council on American-Islamic Relations accused the evangelist and others of false and ''defamatory attacks'' that ''can only lead to a spiral of distrust and intolerance.''

Asked recently about Islam, Graham declined to revisit the subject. Said Parrish, who has known Graham for more than 30 years: ''He is a man who is not afraid to ruffle feathers in the interest of accomplishing the work of Christ.''

Martin and others say his opinions spring from personal experience.

Samaritan's Purse runs a hospital in southern Sudan, where for nearly two decades the country's Islamic-oriented northern government has been at war with rebels demanding autonomy for the mostly animist and Christian south.

''Long before the events of 9-11 that shook the very heart and soul of this nation, I learned firsthand how some followers of Islam express their faith,'' Graham wrote. ''The Islamic government of Sudan has purposely targeted Christians and minorities of other faiths.''

Though frustrated that Christians generally do not have the same religious freedoms in Muslim countries that followers of Islam enjoy in the United States, Graham is excited by political changes that are giving his evangelism new reach.

''This is probably the most exciting period of time in all of history in which to live,'' he said. ''We have more open doors in (Russia) than we have today in this country. We can work in schools in Russia! China's beginning to open up to some degree.''

Graham said he even plans his second trip to North Korea in 2003.

Graham recalled that when he committed himself to ministry in the mid-1970s, it was a decision independent of any desire to follow in his father's footsteps.

''I just decided I'm going to find out what God in heaven has for me to do and do it -- and not worry about being the son of Billy Graham,'' he said.

''Am I going to spend my life worrying about identity, or just doing what God's got for me to do, and let him worry about the identity?''


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