Franklin Graham, Religious Extremism, Dad, God and Me (Confessions of a Former Religious Nut Leader)

There seems to be a consistent pattern when it comes to the right wing leadership of American religion: The louder the protest against "the lack of morals," the more likely it has been that the person doing the protesting and/or trying to make others conform to his or her beliefs was also mired in doubts that, if known, would have given a lie to the protester's moralizing. I think that is why sometimes the sons (or daughters) of some religious leaders are harsher and even more extreme in their rants against "the world" than their parents were.

The next generation must shout down its own doubts all the more loudly since the children of religious leaders have seen firsthand that their parents had feet of clay. These children know that in fact their parents' public image and private lives were often wildly different. For instance, having an evangelical-leader father who hit my mother made it a little hard for me to take his book about love The Mark of the Christian -- described by the publisher in the sell copy as "what a true Christian witness looks like in our needy and broken world" -- terribly seriously.

As I describe 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 my flawed Religious Right leader father 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 happen to have become close friends with Gigi Graham when we were both in our twenties. (We've since fallen out of touch.)

Suffice to say that when Billy Graham's daughter 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 Graham strikes scarily close to my own experiences.

I met Franklin several times while we were both coming of age as the sons of religious leaders. Our first meeting happened when we were both nine and he visited my parent's ministry of L'Abri Fellowship (with branches in Switzerland where I lived then, the US, the UK, Holland, Korea etc.,) 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 (in the 1970s), 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 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.

Franklin's father (Billy Graham) became less political as the years passed. He also toned down his earlier (1950s) hellfire Protestant fundamentalism, allowing, for instance, that Roman Catholics and other non-born again people might even be saved. During one of our meetings in the mid-1980s, Billy told my late 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 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. 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. Tragically, I was the person who pushed my father into the antiabortion movement.

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.

The history of theology (Christian or otherwise) is the history of people desperately trying to fit the way things actually are into the way their holy books say they should be. (Think of the billions of words written in tens of thousands of books on religion "explaining" pain and suffering in the light of God's purported goodness.)

There is another choice: To admit that the best of any religious tradition depends on the choices its adherents make on how to live despite what their holy books "say," not because of them. "But where would that leave me?" my former self would have asked. "I'd be adrift in an ocean of uncertainty." Yes, and perhaps that's the only honest place to be. Another name for uncertainty is humility. No one ever blew up a mosque, church, or abortion clinic after yelling, "I could be wrong."