CHARLOTTE — Confronting criticism that he has commandeered the voice of aging evangelist Billy Graham and turned him into “a mouthpiece for the religious right,” Franklin Graham said his father’s entrance into a tightening presidential race was his own choice.
“Nobody kidnaps my Daddy. He may not see or hear as well, but his mind remains sharp as a razor,” Graham said Tuesday. “He’s been active in politics since the 1940s. People need to remember that.”
Billy Graham turns 94 the day after the Nov. 6 election. After running a worldwide ministry for six decades, the Charlotte native today is a physically diminished widower who lives alone in his Montreat home. Yet he remains beloved by many Christians.
The evangelist has been a friend and adviser to several presidents from both parties. Yet he traditionally has avoided political endorsements.
Thus the content of some of Graham’s recent comments and his apparent backing of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney have caught longtime Graham watchers off guard.
“The Billy Graham we’re seeing in this campaign is a constructed Billy Graham, constructed by his son,” religion scholar Michael Hamilton said. “A constructed Graham is not necessarily a false Graham or a true Graham. It’s the Graham Franklin wants us to see.”
Franklin Graham said his father is a willing participant in an effort to put a stronger Christian voice in government.
An ongoing media blitz, which features an iconic photo of a younger Billy Graham, urges voters to elect candidates with biblical values.
“I realize this election could be my last,” the advertisement quotes Graham as saying. “I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage.”
The full-page newspaper ads, which ran in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and the Charlotte Observer, don’t mention a particular candidate.
But Franklin Graham said the positions of Romney “are more in line with the moral teachings that I believe in.”
Franklin Graham is responding to essays by Hamilton and a Graham biographer questioning whether Franklin Graham has orchestrated his father’s political involvement.
They say Billy Graham’s role is out of character both in his apparent endorsement of Romney as well as his embrace of social issues more aligned with the Christian right, not his own ministry.
The comments of William Martin, author of “A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story,” and Hamilton, chairman of the history department at Seattle Pacific University, appear under the headline, “Has Billy Graham Turned Political?”
With Graham kept out of the spotlight, Hamilton said, the answer remains unclear.
“We don’t know if Billy Graham has become political. We don’t know that this is Dr. Graham,” Hamilton said Tuesday.
This Billy Graham is “smaller” and “angrier,” and sounds like “a mouthpiece for the religious right,” Hamilton said, not the “world-changing, large-visioned, big-hearted” figure that has been Graham’s legacy.
Franklin Graham, now in charge of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has put that legacy at risk, Hamilton said. He said he might ask the son whether he’s willing to have his father’s life re-evaluated, to have historians say to themselves, “Well, maybe we have it wrong.”
Martin, professor emeritus at Rice University, writes that Billy Graham’s political involvement caught him off guard.
“After realizing that he’d been cynically manipulated by Richard Nixon, resulting in a stain on his ministry that has never faded, Billy Graham resisted joining the Religious Right aEUR and warned religious leaders ‘to be wary of exercising political influence’ lest they lose their spiritual impact,” he said.