Franklin Graham and Frank Schaeffer are outspoken sons of famous evangelical leaders. President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the former is a supporter of Sarah Palin and generally regarded as more conservative than his dad. A convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the latter is one of Palin’s most vocal critics and dramatically more liberal than his late father, the Calvinist apologist Francis Schaeffer.
On November 22, Palin met with Billy and Franklin Graham at the evangelist’s Montreat, North Carolina home. In a statement to the press, Franklin celebrated Palin’s evangelical faith: “Over the last few years, I have had the opportunity while working with Samaritan’s Purse in Alaska to know Sarah Palin and her family. Recently she and her family visited North Carolina and had dinner with my father and me at his home. My father had a chance to pray with her. She shared with us her personal journey of faith in Christ.” Along with Franklin’s statement, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association web site features several videos of Palin’s visit, holding her up as a model of “godly leadership.”
Compare this with Frank Schaeffer’s scathing assessment of the Palin/Graham meeting: “Franklin Graham—Billy’s son and nepotistic ‘heir’ to the Graham empire—says he wants to help the poor. So what is he doing standing next to Sarah – ‘death panels’ – Palin at a press conference as she denounces health care reform as a ‘Government takeover of the US economy’? What is Franklin Graham doing promoting Palin’s plan to destroy the Republican Party in order to push for a pure far right agenda that would leave old style Republicans (like the late William F. Buckley or Barry Goldwater) screaming bloody murder about incipient fascism?”
Both figures have attracted plenty of critics. Arguing that “Billy Graham shouldn’t be used as a political prop,” former Charlotte Observer reporter Ken Garfield criticized Franklin Graham for “moving his father’s ministry to the political and spiritual right.” In an equally critical piece, evangelical author Os Guinness questioned both the letter and the spirit of Frank Schaeffer’s memoir Crazy for God. As a close friend of the Schaeffer family, Guinness disputed Frank’s version of his parents’ lives.
More supportive of Schaeffer’s vision is the journalist Jeff Sharlet, who called Crazy for God “a brilliant book” that tells the “twinned coming-of-age story of Frank and the Christian right.” By contrast, Franklin Graham’s Rebel with a Cause won praise from Kathie Lee Gifford and Ricky Skaggs, evangelical celebrities who loved its account of a prodigal son’s return.
The younger Graham’s work with Samaritan’s Purse has also attracted accolades and accusations for its evangelical approach to relief. Over the years, he has cultivated close relationships with politicians, relationships which have allowed the organization to become a conduit for government dollars. During the George W. Bush administration, it was held up as an early example of faith-based social service provision.
What do the two Franks say about the legacy of post-war evangelicalism? At the very least, they illustrate the dangers of generalizing about a protean religious movement.