The latter days of Billy Graham's long career as "America's Pastor" may well be remembered with words and images such as this:
This is a full-age ad that ran in the New York Times late last month. It calls attention to the case of Calvary Chapel pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American convert to Christianity who was arrested in Iran in 2012 and sentenced to eight years in prison. His lawyers say Abedini was building an orphanage. Iran says he was undermining national security, specifically through his evangelistic efforts. Abedini's cause has been important to evangelicals since his arrest a year ago, and has been taken up by the US State Department as well. When President Obama spoke to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a historic phone conversation in September, Abedini's fate was one of the things they talked about.
Graham's ad ran on Sept. 26, the anniversary of Abedini's arrest, two days before Obama's conversation with Rouhani. According to the Ashville, North Carolina Citizen Times (Graham's hometown paper), Graham's message was sent to the Iranian president in a letter and published at the same time as a paid advertisement.
The evangelist's involvement in this issue isn't particularly controversial and hasn't stirred too much conversation. As the North Carolina paper notes, though, this is something of a new thing for Graham, taking public stances on big political issues, putting his weight behind causes in this way.
Reporter John Boyle writes:
Graham has been in poor health in recent years but remains mentally alert and up on world affairs, according to his son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, who now heads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association ...
While the elder Graham has always been politically connected, counseling numerous American presidents, he has typically not spoken out in advertisements or via letter on hot-button political issues. That leads some observers to suggest Franklin Graham is pushing the issues, not his father.The ad is actually the third featuring the now-94-year-old evangelist since the spring of 2012. This is the third time he's intervened in this way into politics, foreign and domestic, lending his name, his reputation, and his authority to a cause. Each of these ads are similar in style, prominently featuring the iconic visage of the elder preacher -- somber and strong and determined -- along with a political message from Graham and his signature.
This is how his image is being presented and how his ministry represented in his latter days.
The first full-page ad was run in 14 papers in North Carolina in May of last year, making use of Graham's resolute face to support an amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman. The ad is presented as a message from Graham to North Carolinians:
The North Carolina amendment passed, 61 percent to 38.9 percent. Though Graham's role in the victory is unclear, the ad campaign did mark a change in course for him. There is a sense that with that ad, Graham was entering a new political phase.
This apparent shift was noted especially after a statement was released in July 2012 expressing support for the fast-food corporation Chick-fil-A, whose president stirred controversy with a statement against same-sex marriage. That culture war kerfuffle, led by former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, made the chain's chicken sandwiches a shibboleth for conservatives, at least temporarily. The result was a significant spike in sandwich sales, and a controversial political statement from the man known as America's preacher.
Graham, in the statement, echoed the company's ad campaign, and said, "As the son of a dairy farmer who milked many a cow, I plan to 'Eat Mor Chikin' and show my support by visiting Chick-fil-A."
That was fairly controversial: As one journalist wrote at the time, "On same-sex marriage, Billy Graham is once again a culture warrior, and he's leaving no doubt where he stands."
It wasn't just the issue of same-sex marriage, though. Anyone who thought it was only this one issue that brought Graham out, politically, was proven wrong in the fall of 2012.
In October, another full page ad was put out with Graham's face and signature. This time, the campaign was national, an intervention into the presidential campaign. The ad ran in Ohio, one of the most contested states, and also ran in national papers, including the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. The ad didn't explicitly call for Bible believers to vote for Mitt Romney, but the message was nonetheless clear. Graham was exerting his influence. He lent his name and authority to the Republican candidacy. The ads even invoked his birthday, and the nearness of his death.
The implication was that Graham would give himself to this issue, to this political intervention, even if it's the last thing he would do.
Now, with the third ad, it seems clear that Graham's latter days will be defined by these public stances, taken in this way. Whether particularly controversial or not, this is how the elderly Graham is going to speak on public issues now, and this is likely to be seen as an important part of his ministry in his last days.
This upsets some. There are many critical of these ads and specifically of what they see as a turn, a change, in Graham. Those critical of this newfound activism have focused on especially on Franklin Graham, as the reporter for the Citizen Times pointed out.
At the Associated Baptist Press, Mark Wingfield, a Baptist pastor from Texas, said the younger Graham "is single-handedly undoing his father's legacy." Where Billy Graham had placed the message of the cross above any other agenda, he had now "put God in a political box," making it harder for many to hear the "good news of redemption through Christ."
In the same vein, Washington insider and religion columnist Sally Quinn wrote, "I do no believe that Billy Graham would have instigated the ad essentially endorsing Romney. I wouldn't be surprised if Billy Grahahm didn't even know about it ... Franklin should stop this exploitation now." According to Quinn, the Graham legacy is tarnished by the ad, and the elder Graham was revered "around the world" in part because he didn't speak out in such ways, "never using his religion for political purposes."
"Never" is clearly overstatement.
Graham hasn't used his religion for political purposes recently, but he has used it. He's never opposed political engagement in principle, either. He's avoided it for practical reasons, and out of embarrassment over his close relationship and support for Richard Nixon, but has never really been as apolitical as is sometimes imagined. There are those close to Graham, including the man who has been his spokesman since 1981 and his grandson, evangelist Tullian Tchividjian, who say the public statements are consistent with Graham's concerns, and there's reason to believe them. "Nobody," Tchividjian says, "including my uncle [Franklin], would have done it if my grandfather had not agreed to it or signed off on it."
Whether or not Graham is leveraging his name and image for political purposes or they're being leveraged for him, this is happening. This is how he's speaking now and what he's speaking out about. This is the face being shown to the public.
The last chapter of Graham's very long life's work as "America's Pastor" is still being written. These ads are a part of it.