Sometimes a man can spend his whole life trapped in his father's shadow. So it is with Franklin Graham, whose Easter Sunday comments on ABC News' This Week stirred up controversy again.
Reiterating his support for Vladimir Putin's treatment of gays and voicing his belief that gay people don't adopt but "recruit children into their cause," the head of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association staked out new territory in his decades-long effort to shake off the stigma of being a preacher's kid.
I remember when he was introduced as the heir apparent to his father's extraordinary ministry twenty-five years ago (selected over his far more capable sisters), and presented as the prodigal son who had returned from a life of mild debauchery to embrace his father's God.
Graham has never worn that mantle with ease. Trained to parrot Billy's message of God's love and compassion, he always looked as if those words left a sour taste in his mouth. On the preaching circuit, he presented a Christianity that was rugged and difficult, embraced skeptically with the head but never fully with the heart.
To his credit, Graham has been a faithful steward of his father's business empire (the Billy Graham Evangelical Association's net assets in 2012 were over $124 million), but he's worked hard at being the "anti-Billy," talking about his love of machine guns and assault weapons, and being photographed with his huge gun collection and the fast cars he loves to drive.
While his father was ecumenical and warmly embraced leaders of other faiths, Graham has been quoted making fun of Hinduism and called out for harsh and inflammatory remarks about Islam. While his father was called the "preacher to the presidents," providing welcome spiritual counsel to Democratic and Republican presidents alike, Graham takes every opportunity to publicly castigate President Obama, helping to propagate the myth that the president is Muslim.
Defining himself by difference, he is one of the American Evangelical leaders who have led the movement from a period of enormous social and political clout to a moment in which their very relevance is questioned. His positions on This Week were so extreme and voiced with such a hard edge that even his fellow Evangelical leaders seemed embarrassed by his words.
Christianity reminds us that the words that flow from a man's mouth reflect the condition of his heart. To equate a parental relationship with "recruiting" speaks volumes about one's understanding of family. Recruitment speaks of duty and obligation, of joining a cause instead of being welcomed and accepted by family who knows and loves you, no matter what. Graham seemed oblivious to the fact that a gay parent -- or any parent, for that matter -- would choose to adopt out of love and a desire to give a child a better life than they might otherwise know.
What a dry and parched experience of family he must have had. And what a sad and conflicted legacy he will leave.
I asked my youngest son, Matthew, who is 15, to watch the This Week segment with me. His only reaction was to snort dismissively when Graham spoke about gay parents and adoption. "What does he know?"
Franklin Graham and his comments were about as relevant to my son as a rotary dial phone. For Matthew and his two brothers, just like the thousands of other kids across the country adopted into loving gay families, the rhetoric Graham espouses is antithetical to their experience.
If Matthew represents his generation (and statistically, his views are right in line with those of his peers), then Graham's inflammatory claims will increasingly fall on deaf ears. He's become an anachronism, with no relevance in a world that has long moved past the days when his father sought to make the Gospel relevant to a new generation of Americans.
Some men spend their lives trapped in their father's shadow. In Franklin Graham's case, it is better for the world that he stays there.