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Franklin Graham Is Big Time Religion's "Donald Trump"

Franklin Graham's story is typical of the preposterous nepotistic "model" of Protestant leadership -- what might be called entrepreneurial ministry through the Divine Right of Succession to the Mailing List If You Can't Find Anything Better To Do.
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Franklin Graham (son of evangelist Billy Graham) has become the anti-Obama, homophobic, anti-Muslim Donald Trump-style self-anointed "leader" of big time American religion. He is a far right Birther publicity hound and a disgrace to American politics, Evangelicalism and Christianity. I first met Franklin when we were both 9-years-old and he visited my missionary evangelical-leader parents with his family.

As I explore in my new book Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics--and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway, Franklin's story is typical of the preposterous nepotistic "model" of Protestant leadership -- what might be called entrepreneurial ministry through the Divine Right of Succession to the Mailing List If You Can't Find Anything Better To Do.

But Franklin also represents something else: the second generation in an Evangelical empire being even harsher and more strictly fundamentalist than the first.

As noted on Huffington Post:

The White House struck back at Christian evangelical leader Franklin Graham on Monday for suggesting that President Barack Obama might not have been born in the United States.

Graham, the son of evangelical leader Billy Graham -- a long-time counselor to Republican and Democratic presidents -- said on ABC television that Obama "had some issues to deal with" in proving that he was born in Hawaii -- echoing claims from the so-called "birther" movement that have been debunked.

"I was born in a hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, and I know that my records are there. You can probably even go and find out what room my mother was in when I was born. I don't know why he can't produce that," Graham said in remarks broadcast on Sunday.

He also seemed to question Obama's religious convictions.

"Now, he has told me that he is a Christian. But the debate comes, what is a Christian?" Graham said of the president.

"For him, going to church means he's a Christian. For me, the definition of a Christian is whether we have given our life to Christ and are following him in faith and we have trusted him as our lord and savior."

Franklin's "Birther" escapade is nothing compared to Franklin Graham's personal Trump-like crass carnival barker opportunism. Even for the ever-so-weird and greedy Evangelical big time, Franklin is in a class by himself. According to the Washington Post on her death bed Franklin's mother begged him to bury her in the family plot. Instead Graham turned her body -- literally -- into part of his fundraising act/Jesus amusement park.

The Family Tomb

According to a Washington Post story, a feud erupted in Billy's family over where he and his wife, Ruth, were to be buried. Was it to be in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the Billy Graham Museum erected in the vicinity of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association headquarters? Or should their remains go to a small private site near their modest family home in Montreat?

Franklin Graham, the (then) fifty-six-year-old "heir" to Billy's ministry, insisted that the burial spot be at the $30 million, 40,000-square-foot museum that mimics the farm outside of Charlotte where Billy grew up. Other family members -- including (the always sensible) Ruth Graham -- wanted to have a quieter final resting place. The Post called the family "debate" a struggle "worthy of the Old Testament, pitting brother against brother, son against mother."

After Ruth's death, according to the Post and many other press reports, Billy was trapped in the middle of the family feud and pondering what to do with her remains. The Post said Ruth had signed a notarized document with six witnesses, saying she wanted to be buried near her home. After her death her wishes were ignored, and Billy was talked into doing what Franklin wanted. Ruth was laid to "rest," against her wishes, in what amounts to an amusement park for the greater glory of -- what?

Franklin's consultants had worked with the Walt Disney Company to create a large "barn" and "silo" as a reminder of Billy Graham's early childhood. Visitors wishing to visit Ruth's tomb (and/or who wish to become an atheist in just an hour or two) pass through a forty-foot-tall glass entry cut in the shape of a cross and are greeted by a mechanical talking cow. From there they walk on paths of "straw" through rooms of exhibits. At the end a stone walkway shaped like a cross takes them to a garden where Ruth lies (as will Billy Graham). The Post also reported that tourists have more than one chance to get their names on a mailing list and later be solicited for funds.

Greed For Jesus (and the Republican Party)

My flawed far right leader father (Francis Schaeffer) was just famous in the Evangelical ghetto, not famous in the entire world. Imagine the discrepancy between evangelist Billy Graham's semiofficial status as the American Protestant "pope" (and chaplain to presidents) and the reality of his actual human self as seen daily from the Graham children's perspective.

I happened to become close friends with Franklin's sister Gigi Graham when we were both in our twenties. (We've since fallen out of touch.) Suffice to say that when her sister Ruth wrote to me after reading my memoir Crazy for God to say that she loved the book and that she and the other Graham children were also "sacrificial lambs," I knew just what she meant.

So the story of evangelist Billy Graham's son Franklin strikes scarily close to my own experiences. Long before he was worrying about where to bury his parents, I met Franklin several times while we were both coming of age as the sons of religious leaders.

Our first meeting happened when we children and he visited L'Abri (my parent's ministry retreat center in Switzerland) with his whole family and stayed for church and Sunday tea. (Franklin looked as if he'd rather have been just about anywhere else.)

A few years later, Franklin was poised to follow in his father's footsteps. But just before that he (all-too-briefly) deviated from the usual nepotistic path. Rumors abounded about Franklin's "wild living" and the rejecting of his family's faith.

When I was in my early twenties, I remember talking to Franklin's mother and his sister Gigi about Franklin's "period of youthful rebellion" and how sad they were that he'd "fallen so far from the Lord." But later Franklin "repented" and then rejoined the team and took over his father's ministry.

Franklin's father Billy (a long time family friend of my parents) became less political as the years passed. He also toned down his earlier hellfire Protestant fundamentalism, allowing, for instance, that Roman Catholics and other non-born again people might even be saved.

During one of our meetings at Mayo Clinic in the early 1980s (my father was being treated there for cancer before he died in 1984 and Billy was also a patient at the time), Billy told my father and me that he'd got burned by getting too close to Nixon and being identified with his policies and that he did not intend to be seen endorsing a political figure or cause again. In the 1970s Billy had even point-blank refused to become part of the antiabortion crusade we waged, no matter how often Dad and I (we were both anti-abortion leaders at the time) begged him to join our "call to save babies." Billy said that we'd become "too political" and "too harsh." (He was right.)

By contrast, Franklin Graham became one of the shrillest of the Far Right Republican Party boosters and also a harsh anti-Islamic activist who capitalized on the post-9/11 political climate of fear that burgeoned, in many instances, into paranoia about the Muslim "Other." Franklin disparaged Islam as "a very evil and wicked religion" that does not belong in the United States. And Franklin embraced overt politics. For instance, in an interview with Newsmax Television, Franklin was asked if he thought there was a "pattern of hostility to traditional Christianity by the Obama administration."

"I don't know if it's exactly from President Obama," Graham responded, "but I'm certain that some of the men around him are very much opposed to what we stand for and what we believe."

Franklin continued, "It seems as though Muslims are getting a pass [from Obama]." In the same interview Franklin was asked about "secular oppression of Christians" in the United States. "No question, it's coming!" Graham said. "I think when you preach that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life, I think we're going to see, one day, people will say this is hate speech!"

In 2010 Franklin even managed to get his father to sign a pro-Sarah Palin endorsement! He also let her use his "ministry's" private plane on her book tour.

There was something about that action that struck scarily close to home for me because in the 1970s and 1980s I was the Schaeffer version of a Franklin Graham, well positioned to succeed my father as a powerful Religious Right leader all the while goading my father into taking political stands he would have avoided otherwise.

Roots of Activism

Tragically, I was the person who pushed my father into the antiabortion movement in the mid-1970s. The more doubts I had, the farther to the Right I moved ideologically, as if shouting loudly enough and demonizing any who disagreed with me could solve my real problem: the growing realization that the Bible is horribly flawed. And I think there was another factor in my tilt to the Right that might also have been the case with Franklin: Politics is sexier than mere evangelism.

The secret wish of every person dedicated to "full-time religious work" is to somehow be (or at least appear to be) relevant. (This is Trump's sickness too, not to mention race-based bias as an amazing commentary on Rachel Maddow's show rightly pointed out.) In my case it was my politics, not my faith in Jesus, that got me on "secular TV" (for instance, on the Today Show to blast "Liberals") back when I was a Religious Right shill. And "taking a stand" gets the blood pumping harder than just doing something as mundane as trying to love your neighbor.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer. This article was excerpted from his new book Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible's Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics--and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway In bookstores May 15.

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