Last month, Franklin Graham, son of famed international evangelist Billy Graham and president of his father’s namesake ministry, lauded Russia’s recently enacted heavy-handed anti-gay laws that ban gay “propaganda” while associating homosexuality with pedophilia.
“Isn’t it sad, though, that America’s own morality has fallen so far that on this issue — protecting children from any homosexual agenda or propaganda — Russia’s standard is higher than our own?” Graham wrote in a column in the March issue of the ministry’s magazine, Decision. “In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues. Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.”
The younger Graham has made it no secret that he thinks there’s a gay and lesbian agenda in the U.S. And that he believes children are at risk because of it.
His hard-line stance against homosexuality and Barack Obama’s administration, which he says promotes it, is a stark divergence from the largely apolitical legacy of his father. The vitriol highlights a generational divide among evangelicals and a deviation from the trend among younger generations of increasing tolerance of homosexuality. As most of the public skews toward supporting things like gay marriage, strict evangelicals — with Franklin Graham leading the charge — are cranking up the rhetoric.
Christian gay rights advocate Justin Lee, however, who was raised a conservative Southern Baptist before discovering his sexuality, said he understands the source of Graham’s beliefs.
“Growing up in that environment, I believed that gay people chose to be gay and that it was a choice that could destroy their future and their relationship with God,” said Lee, executive director of the Gay Christian Network, based in Raleigh, N.C. “That meant that it was my job, if I cared about them, to speak out about any pro-gay messages the same way you might take drastic steps to stop the spread of a dangerous, addictive drug like crystal meth.”
A loving church
Critics say evangelical rigidity and rhetoric on homosexuality in the U.S. carries weight that can influence human rights abroad.
“We’ve seen that misguided evangelical statements from evangelical Americans have had a tremendous impact in some of these other countries in providing support for some really draconian policies,” Lee said. A new law instituted this year in Uganda criminalizing homosexuality with a penalty of life in prison, for example, was said to have been influenced by American evangelicals.
Graham’s outspoken criticism of the Obama administration and homosexuality, contrasts with his father’s approach. Billy Graham, now 95, has advised every U.S. president since World War II and is credited with preaching to live audiences totaling more than 215 million people in more than 185 countries, according to the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. The cornerstone of his ministry, according to historians, was compassion.
More than 25 percent of Americans identify themselves as evangelical Christians, who believe that every individual needs to have a conversion experience of sin recognition. About two-thirds of evangelical churches, 64 percent, believe homosexuality should be discouraged by society, according to the Pew Research Center.
Overall, however, Americans are growing more comfortable with homosexuality — a flip of attitudes held about a decade ago. In 2001, only about 35 percent of Americans were in favor of gay marriage, compared with about 54 percent today, the Pew Research Center reported last month.
The change in attitude is happening one person at a time, Lee said. With each friend or family member who comes out of the closet, evangelical members are forced to rethink their assumptions of what it means to be gay, he said.
“Every time an evangelical leader makes a statement that makes LGBT people issues instead of people, they alienate the evangelical millennial, who has LGBT friends, who, whatever their theological views, wants to see the church be more loving to LGBT people,” he said. “I think there’s a tremendous backlash going on, and I think it has the potential to be very damaging to the evangelical community and to the broader Christian community.”
While several evangelical youth pastors contacted by Al Jazeera would not comment on the generational split on views toward homosexuality in the church, one youth pastor in Charlotte, N.C., who did not want to be identified, downplayed the schism, saying the young people he works with prioritize the need to belong.
“They are growing up in a more pluralistic world and society, and their biggest fear is being left out,” he said. “In my experience, many young people are all over the board in regards to what they think or believe when it comes to the national discussion on sexuality. Many of them don’t feel comfortable talking about it.”
The pastor went on to say of some of the young people he works with — the ones who believe sex outside of a marriage relationship between a man and woman is a sin, for example — that “they don’t feel safe saying what they think because they fear it will jeopardize their belonging and acceptance from others.”
Franklin Graham, who began his ministry career focused on missionary relief efforts through the organization Samaritan’s Purse, has said he felt called by God, not his father.
“My father never pushed me to do this,” Graham told an El Paso, Texas, news station this month. “I was a little afraid to do it because I never wanted people to compare me to my father.”
When it comes to the leadership of the global empire of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, however, comparisons are inevitable.
Even though Billy Graham was always involved on the political stage, he hated to offend anyone, said Michael Hamilton, a history professor at Seattle Pacific University who specializes in American religion, fundamentalism and evangelicalism.
“He hated it for an instrumental reason: He was very conscious that getting into controversy would hurt his ministry, and he didn’t want to do that,” Hamilton said.
It’s an inclination not readily exhibited by his son.
“Franklin has been willing to adopt that attitude of the religious right, which his father never did,” Hamilton said. “I think because the religious right is a faction within the Republican Party, it has made the Republican Party more absolutist, less compromising because evangelicals — they think their moral values are absolutely true.”
Unlike his son, Billy Graham just didn’t like for people to be mad at him, Hamilton added.
“He always tried to smooth out personal relationships. He always tried to say nice things about people,” Hamilton said. “One of the secrets to his enduring popularity is that he really tried to build bridges between people who were different than he was,” such as reaching out to the Catholic Church or mainline churches that were theologically more liberal. And when he sparked controversy, he tried to walk his comments back, Hamilton said.
“The more [Franklin Graham is] willing to say nice things about repressive regimes, that’s bound to put limits on his ministry and his influence that his father never had,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton’s students at Seattle Pacific, a Christian liberal arts university, range from age 18 to 24 and mostly identify as evangelicals.
“It’s crystal clear to me that their generation does not care about homosexuality the way that the baby boomers and Billy Graham’s generation cared about it,” he said. “There is no doubt that when the baby boomers are all dead, evangelicals are going to have a small core of anti-homosexuality. The paradigm is about to die out.”