Cover Story

Speaking frankly

In an age of religious relativism, Franklin Graham is not afraid to speak hard truths about Islam. That has resulted in a kind of controversy that his father avoided-and even death sentences from radical Muslim clerics. "My life is in the hands of almighty God," says WORLD's Daniel of the Year

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2002," Dec. 7, 2002

If you close your eyes, you almost can't tell the difference. You're in some distant corner of the world, in a stadium packed with tens of thousands of people. That distinctive Southern baritone rings out over the loudspeakers, followed by the fast words of an interpreter. The message is short and direct, and when it's over people surge forward, spilling onto the field by the thousands to repeat a simple prayer.

Even when you open your eyes, the spell is not completely broken. The thick, side-swept hair, the patrician features, the piercing eyes and slightly quizzical smile--it's all familiar, yet disconcerting at the same time. There should be more white in the hair, more sag in the skin. You could be at a Billy Graham Crusade, if the year were 1967.

In fact, you're in Mendoza, Argentina, and the year is 2002--but the folks at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) don't mind if it's hard to tell the difference. A few years ago there was talk of shuttering the $96-million-a-year evangelistic empire when its namesake could no longer spread his message. But then the prodigal son came home, learned how to preach, and shouldered the mantel of his famous father. Franklin Graham was, without a doubt, the answer to many prayers within the BGEA: a lookalike, soundalike leader to take the sprawling organization into a new millennium.

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Look or listen a little more closely, however, and the generational differences start to become apparent. The accent may be the same, but the emphasis sometimes is not. The younger Graham can attract thousands to his revival services, but he also attracts something that his father, in a career spanning more than 50 years, almost never did: controversy.

He admits that the latest controversy caught him off-guard. At a time when many political and religious leaders were at pains to paint "true" Islam as a religion of love and peace, Mr. Graham broke with the party line. He called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion," criticized its inherent intolerance, and challenged Saudi Arabia's Muslim leaders to issue a public apology to the United States.

Suddenly, Mr. Graham found himself under withering attack from religious liberals on the one hand and from some political conservatives on the other. The National Council of Churches and The Christian Century, both longtime supporters of the BGEA, blasted him for daring to criticize the deeply held faith of millions around the world. At the White House, President Bush publicly distanced himself from his friend's views, while Secretary of State Colin Powell, without naming Mr. Graham specifically, insisted that "this kind of hatred must be rejected."

To Mr. Graham, the only real surprise is that anyone should be shocked by his statements. "I'm a Christian," he says with a what-do-you-expect kind of shrug, "a follower of Jesus Christ. I'm not a Muslim fighter. I'm not on a crusade against Islam. I'm a minister of the gospel of Christ, and I want to take His truth to every person in the world. When Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life,' I believe that. Suddenly I'm a radical and an extremist because I don't believe that all ways lead to God?"

In a world of religious relativism, the very suggestion that any one belief might be superior to another is precisely the kind of heresy that will get a preacher tossed to the lions of political correctness. For that reason alone, Mr. Graham qualifies as WORLD's Daniel of the Year.

But there's more: While other evangelical leaders have followed with their own critiques of Islam, Mr. Graham arguably has the most to lose by taking an unpopular stand. Like the Daniel of the Old Testament, he's a friend and confidant to those in power--crucial access that could be denied if he's viewed as too extreme. His ministry, too, is broader-based than most, with support--or at least grudging respect--coming from outside the evangelical camp. A backlash by any faction of the BGEA's broad ecumenical coalition could hurt severely in terms of both donations and attendance.

And finally, there's the burden of the Graham name itself. Throughout decades of high-profile ministry, the elder Graham stuck doggedly to his goal of promoting Christianity without critiquing or criticizing non-Christian beliefs. For a son who bears both the name and the expectations of a famous family, the pressure to carry on that soft-spoken tradition must be intense. Only convictions that are more intense still could motivate Mr. Graham to speak out where his father remained silent.


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