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Who will Inherit the Mantle of Billy Graham?

Who will Inherit the Mantle of Billy Graham?
Is Tim Tebow a better candidate for the task than Graham's son Franklin?

By David W. Virtue, DD
February 26, 2018

It is believed, wrongly I think, that Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham is the natural heir and inheritor of the Graham mantle for global evangelism.

Stephen Prothero, writing for Politico, believes that Franklin has no "right" to the title and says that Graham is, in fact, dismantling his father's legacy and movement.

Graham handed over the keys of the empire to his son, Franklin, twenty years ago and Franklin has since become a political hack, rapidly rebranding evangelicalism as a belief system marked not by faith, hope, and love, but by fear of Muslims, homophobia and full identification with the Republican Party.

"The rabid anti-communism that caught Hearst's attention blinded Graham in his early years to the ways the United States had fallen far short of its ideals. Graham got into bed with the wrong man in Richard Nixon. And while he must be praised for integrating his revivals (which he called crusades) and for inviting the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver an invocation at his massive New York City crusade in 1957, he was missing in action when it came to civil rights legislation," writes Prothero.

"When he spoke to the nation at the post-9/11 memorial service at Washington's National Cathedral, he spoke of evil, but he did not denounce Islam. Throughout his career, Graham was criticized by fundamentalists for working with Catholics and liberal Protestants at his crusades. He prayed with Democratic and Republican presidents. And instead of castigating Christianity's religious rivals, he focused on preaching Christ. When asked to join in common cause with Jerry Falwell after the foundation of the Moral Majority in 1979, Graham refused to yoke his organization to the cultural wars of the Religious Right and the Republican Party."

But Franklin Graham is a very different sort of person who has made right-wing political pronouncements coupled with his evangelistic forays. Shortly after 9/11, Franklin Graham provided the sound bite of today's culture wars when he denounced Islam as "a very wicked and evil religion." He later became the standard bearer for the view that Islam is, in his words "a religion of hatred . . . a religion of war."

In addition to purveying the birther nonsense that helped to propel Donald Trump to political prominence, Franklin Graham suggested that President Barack Obama was not a Christian and might, in fact, be a secret Muslim. Along with Jerry Falwell's son, Jerry Falwell Jr., he helped to elect Trump president by swinging 80 percent of white evangelical voters to his side. And then, when Trump was elected, Franklin attributed Trump's victory not to a surge of White Christian support or to swing states in the Midwest, but to divine providence, says Prothero.

So, the question is this: Is Franklin Graham's political pronouncements destroying the evangelical witness his father devoted so much energy to building up precisely because he did not take political sides which Franklin has done?

"Franklin Graham seems blissfully unaware of the possibility that there might be even the slimmest of gaps between the words that come out of his mouth and the words written down in scripture. More damningly, he demonstrates no awareness of the ways in which during the World War II era, European churches were hurt badly by the affiliation of Christianity with right-wing political movements. During the 1940s and 1950s, the United States persisted in its religiosity as European countries secularized. In fact, the Americans witnessed a powerful religious revival after the war, thanks in part to Billy Graham. That revival is over. Religion is now declining in the United States, and evangelicalism with it. In fact, over the last decade, the portion of white evangelical Protestants in the United States declined from 23 percent to 17 percent," writes Prothero.

The qualities of temper and judgment that made Billy Graham so singularly successful are almost entirely lacking in his son, who now imperils his father's legacy. Thanks to Franklin Graham and his cronies on the Religious Right, American evangelicalism has now become first and foremost a political rather than a spiritual enterprise. The life of Billy Graham helped build it up. And his death may well have ensured its demise, says Prothero.

The most significant religious development in America is the rise of religiously unaffiliated (otherwise known as "nones"), who now account for roughly one quarter of all Americans. This increasing distance from religious institutions is accompanied by increasing distance from religious beliefs and practices. Today 27 percent of Americans describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious" and another 18 percent as "neither religious nor spiritual."

There are many reasons for this decline in religious believing and belonging. But the most important is the increasing identification of evangelicalism with right-wing politics.

Thanks to Franklin Graham and other leading-edge evangelicals that include prosperity preachers, which his father would have nothing to do with, Franklin has morphed his father's legacy into a political rather than a spiritual enterprise.

What Billy built up, Franklin is in real danger of tearing down.

Enter Tim Tebow.

With Graham's death, Tebow will become the nation's most influential Christian, writes Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel. "With the death of the Rev. Billy Graham, I believe Tim Tebow will someday become the most influential Christian leader in our country."

"Like Graham, Tebow has the incredible charisma to inspire the masses, the impeccable character to avoid scandal and the uncanny political ability to be beloved and respected by both Republicans and Democrats alike. And like Graham, he has the cult of personality to fill football stadiums and counsel presidents," writes Bianchi.

Could Tebow someday be the president himself? If a controversial reality TV star can become president, then a unifying sports figure and compassionate Christian can certainly get elected as well.

Tebow, much like Billy Graham in his later years, has already learned to distance himself from the polarizing political climate and the volatile issues that divide Americans today, writes Bianchi.

"The goal is to bring people together," Tebow has said. "We're not supposed to divide people. People are going to disagree on things, but we can have unity if our No. 1 priority is we love Jesus and our No. 2 priority is we love people. Let's agree on that and have the 300,000 churches in this country work together. If we did that, nobody would be dying of hunger."

Tebow, much like Graham, is also a massive philanthropic figure whose goal in life is to make the world a better place to live.

Tebow's faith has inspired him to build hospitals for the needy in the Philippines, do missionary work to provide food and medical care to Third World countries, preach to prisoners on death row and earlier this month, hold his fourth annual "Night to Shine" for 90,000 special-needs kids in 16 countries.

"Night to Shine" is essentially a prom for special needs children around the world in which Tebow's foundation gives them the royal treatment. The kids dress up in fancy tuxes and classy dresses; they arrive in limousines and walk down the red carpet filled with cheering fans and paparazzi. And then they are provided with the memory of a lifetime as they dance the night away.

"I got a chance to spend some time with one young lady at one of the proms," he said. "As I was starting to leave, her mom came up to me crying and said, 'My daughter is never going to get married and she's never going to have kids, but tonight she felt like a princess.' That made it all worth it. That's our ultimate goal -- to make these kids feel like kings and queens," she told Bianchi.

If Tebow is God's man and not Franklin Graham, then evangelical Christianity is in good hands. All it requires is for Franklin to get out of the way. A deeper question is will Nones, particularly Generation Z, raised on social media make their way to stadiums to hear "Just as I am without one plea" and heed the call to new life in Christ. We shall see.


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