If Madison Avenue were orchestrating a publicity campaign for William Franklin Graham III, the tag line might be a twist on a familiar car commercial: “This is not your father’s Billy Graham.”
Franklin recently was selected to succeed his father, the world’s most famous Christian evangelist, and he is emphatic on the point.
“I will never be Billy Graham,” the 43-year-old missionary said. “I can’t be him.
“If I was asked to be Billy Graham, I wouldn’t accept the job. I can’t be the man.”
Franklin’s public image is one of a Christian daredevil in a baseball cap. Dark-haired and handsome, he stares penetratingly from the cover of his just-published memoir.
He is attired in his trademark cowboy boots, jeans, Harley-Davidson shirt and leather jacket.
In interviews, Franklin invariably refers to such non-evangelical activities as riding motorcycles and flying his own plane.
And Franklin likes his guns. He hunts, collects antique weapons and once leveled a tree with a friend’s assault rifle. For a time, Franklin told one reporter, he wore a .38-caliber pistol strapped to his ankle for self-defense.
Risk-taking and the emotional high it can produce are themes that run through the memoir. Franklin’s accounts of missionary trips to developing countries are punctuated with close calls with snipers’ bullets and artillery barrages.
He has embraced an edgy brand of evangelism. His views and activities may strike some as confrontational, in contrast with those of his father, who struggled to avoid controversy.
In his memoir, Franklin wrote that in India, for example, he found “hundreds of millions of people locked in the darkness of Hinduism. It was an unbelievable eye-opener for me to see how pagan religion blinds and enslaves people. These people were bound by Satan’s power.”
As part of his missionary activities, Franklin arranged to train chaplains for the anti-communist Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s. During the Persian Gulf War, according to his book, he helped smuggle Arabic-language New Testaments with U.S. troops despite an agreement between the American military and the Saudi government not to proselytize.
And when Franklin viewed a video of a gruesome atrocity during a visit to Sarajevo, he said he would have shot those responsible.
But there also are parallels with father and son.
When Billy Graham preached in Los Angeles in 1949, he so impressed William Randolph Hearst that the media mogul told his newspaper empire to launch a wave of favorable stories. Hearst’s directive is legendary: “Puff Graham.”
With that secular anointing, the fiery young evangelist was launched into the American consciousness. It was, Billy Graham recalled later, “like a bolt of lightning out of a clear sky.” In the years that followed, Billy Graham became the world’s most influential Christian soul-winner since St. Paul was floored by a divinely inspired light on the road to Damascus.
Nearly half a century later, something similar appears to be happening as Franklin Graham prepares to take over his father’s Minneapolis-based ministry. Franklin’s favorable coverage has spanned the media spectrum from Christian to tabloid.
The publicity campaign is “a stroke of marketing genius” and “no coincidence,” said Randall Balmer, professor of religion at New York’s Barnard College.
“If the Graham organization is involved, I’m sure it’s orchestrated,” said Balmer, who produced the 1994 PBS documentary “Crusade: The Billy Graham Story.”
Publication of Franklin’s autobiography, “Rebel With a Cause: Finally Comfortable Being Graham,” coincided, to the day, with his first father-son crusade with Billy in Saskatoon, Canada. Ten days later, the board of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association named Franklin to succeed his ailing father.
Franklin assumed the post of first vice chairman of the $85-million-a-year organization, according to the Graham organization, “with direct succession to become chairman and chief executive officer should his father become incapacitated.”
The senior Graham, now 77, is faltering under the strain of Parkinson’s disease. He was hospitalized in June when the neurological disorder caused him to miss a crusade appearance in Toronto.
Then he broke four ribs in a fall Dec. 12 and was hospitalized.
The evangelical association announced recently that Franklin will fill in for his father’s scheduled appearances in New Zealand in February and March.
Despite the fanfare, some wonder whether the son can take his father’s place.
“No one is going to step readily into Billy Graham’s place as the world’s most famous evangelist. It just doesn’t work that way,” Rice University sociologist William Martin wrote in Christianity Today.
“Charisma cannot be bequeathed.”
Although noting that Franklin has blossomed and matured, the Rev. Jim Henry, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, also thinks that “nobody can fill Billy Graham’s shoes. He is unique.”
Franklin Graham, all agree, has gone his own way.
He was ordained by an Arizona church rather than a Bible college, like where his father was trained.
He has carved out a distinguished career working with two organizations: Samaritan’s Purse and World Medical Mission. The two groups minister to the physical, material and medical needs of those suffering from poverty, war and national disaster.
At the urging of one of Billy Graham’s associates, Franklin began to shift his focus in 1989, tentatively stepping into his father’s arena: crusade preaching.
He preached for the first time at a small crusade in Juneau, Alaska. Since then, he has preached at eight to 10 crusades a year, averaging 36 nights in the pulpit annually, mostly in auditoriums and school gymnasiums in small and medium-sized cities.
Although he still avoids large stadiums, Franklin recognizes the challenge inherent in supplementing his missionary work with preaching crusades after so many years of going his own way.
“I don’t know if I can avoid comparisons,” he said. “Billy Graham is my father. I’m his son.”
A man of soft-spoken eloquence, Franklin may not yet be able to rattle the rafters of an athletic stadium, chill spines in a megachurch or reach through the television screen to touch the hearts of people sitting on living room sofas. But none of that may matter if he is able to tap into the baby boomers and the so-called Generation-Xers.
How much of Franklin’s image is a subtle effort to reach spiritually hungry baby boomers is difficult to determine.
Mark DeMoss, Franklin’s spokesman, sounds resigned to reporters’ focus on Franklin’s lifestyle.
“Truthfully, it’s getting kind of old,” he said. “We don’t object to it, but we don’t promote it.”
Because some people in the evangelical movement have continued to use Franklin’s lifestyle to tag him as a rebel or a renegade, DeMoss said Franklin “figured he might as well capitalize on it.”
Others see a more sophisticated marketing effort at work.
“What they’re doing is fine-tuning his image, both differentiating him from his father with the rebel business, as well as showing continuity,” said Barnard’s Balmer. “It’s very clever, and I say that with admiration.”