One, the president of the Christian university his father founded, raised eyebrows and provoked an outcry among some evangelicals when he endorsed Donald Trump before the Iowa caucuses.
Another, a son of perhaps the nation’s most celebrated evangelist and the successor to his father’s ministry, has drawn attention for his scathing comments about Muslims and is in the midst of what he describes as a 50-state tour “to challenge Christians to live out their faith at home, in public and at the ballot box.”
Jerry Falwell Jr., whose father, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founded Liberty University and the Moral Majority movement, and the Rev. Franklin Graham, whose father, Billy Graham, is estimated to have preached the gospel to millions of people, now find themselves forces of their own. Both are trying to balance their own identities, and their fathers’ legacies, at a time when religion is playing a powerful role in American politics.
The excitement among Christian voters has been on display this month in Iowa, which held caucuses on Feb. 1, and South Carolina, where Republicans will vote on Saturday and Democrats on Feb. 27. Similar dynamics could prove pivotal as conservative candidates also seek support in the nine other Southern states where Republicans will vote by March 5. The stakes are high for Falwell, who is not a pastor, and Graham as they ponder the rewards and perils of creating political identities apart from the ones their fathers forged decades ago.
Both men say there is no rivalry between them as they pursue different ways of engaging in politics.
“He’s got to make decisions and do things that he feels God is calling him to do,” Graham, 63, said of Falwell, 53. “And I have to do things that I feel God is calling me to do.”
But for both, those decisions play out in the shadows of their fathers.
“The Grahams and Falwells across generations have chosen different tactics, but the tactics could be equally influential,” said John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and a co-author of “The Bully Pulpit: The Politics of Protestant Clergy.”
He added: “I don’t see Franklin Graham as deeply involved in partisan politics the way Jerry Falwell Jr. is with his endorsement of Trump. But he’s much more active in politics in the broader sense.”
When Graham recently flew to Oregon to help negotiate an end to the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, for instance, it reflected his increasing national profile.
Falwell’s decision to support a candidate surprised his associates, chiefly because of what they described as his long reluctance to become a political figure, unlike his father, who, before his death in 2007, helped mold conservative Christians into a powerful voting bloc. Falwell even described his decision as “unusual and out of character.”
Equally surprising to many was the subject of the endorsement. Most evangelical endorsements have gone to other Republican candidates, like Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas or Marco Rubio of Florida.
Still, when Falwell, a lawyer, endorsed Trump, he did it in a way that was reminiscent of his father’s unvarnished and unapologetic approach.
Falwell said he decided to engage with Trump’s campaign, in part, because of his father’s decision in 1980 to support Ronald Reagan, a Republican who had divorced and remarried, over Jimmy Carter, a Democrat whose Baptist faith was central to his political appeal.
“The fact that Christians were criticizing my father for supporting a Hollywood actor who had been divorced and remarried over a Sunday school teacher, that did have an impact on me,” he said. “I heard a lot of Christians saying this time, ‘Trump’s been divorced and remarried’ and ‘Cruz is a great Christian’ or ‘Rubio’s a great Christian.’ It almost sounded like history repeating itself.”
He said he had received requests for endorsements from others but, “The reason I endorsed Trump was because I feel like our country is at a crossroads.”
Much of the perceived risk associated with Falwell’s endorsement, which alarmed some Liberty University alumni, is tied to Trump’s personal and business histories, including his marriages, his casino ownership and, according to some critics, his scant and unsophisticated interest in organized religion.
Falwell, who often spoke of Trump’s candor and record as a businessman, disagreed.
“I really believe that anybody on the left or the right that tries to invoke the teachings of Jesus to say they should vote for this candidate or that candidate, I think they’re stretching Scripture,” he said.
Graham’s Decision America Tour, which organizers promote online and at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, is part of a strategy that seems to try to balance his father’s avoidance of partisan politics with his own hard-right political instincts.
“I’m not going to tell people how to vote, but I’m going to encourage them to vote and as they vote, to look at biblical principles and godly principles that these candidates might support,” Graham said.
It also reflects his father’s history of speaking to mass gatherings, though Franklin Graham’s efforts to rouse Christian votes are not meant to approximate the scale of Billy Graham’s religious crusades, which would attract hundreds of thousands of people over a period of days. (The South Carolina Department of Public Safety estimated that 10,000 people attended Franklin Graham’s rally in Columbia on Feb. 9.)
Billy Graham, however, earned a reputation as a counselor to presidents of both parties who largely avoided the perception of being a partisan. His son has not been shy about emerging as a prominent voice in conservative politics. He used Facebook this month to criticize the news media’s coverage of President Barack Obama’s visit to a mosque in Baltimore and has previously described Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion.” Some said such statements conflicted with his father’s reputation for civility and religious tolerance and with the traditions of the ministry Billy Graham established.
Franklin Graham insists the 2016 tour is nonpartisan and consistent with his father’s vision. “I think both parties are corrupt,” he said. “I believe our system is corrupt, and there’s got to be a change. And I believe the only way that change can happen is with almighty God.”
But others say there is little question which party is more likely to benefit from Graham’s tour and how influential a role he could play in turning out conservative voters.
“Though he’s just registering voters, he’s got a pretty good idea of how most of those voters are going to vote,” Falwell said. “I think what he’s doing is a lot more proactive than it may seem.”
Graham said he would not endorse a presidential candidate in 2016, four years after he and his father met with Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, weeks before the general election. The meeting, and a subsequent statement from Billy Graham, was interpreted as an implied endorsement of Romney.
This year, with Billy Graham, 97, rarely seen in public, Franklin Graham has chosen to evoke his father’s name and legacy in his speeches outside state capitols.
“I believe if my father were my age,” Graham told a crowd in Tallahassee, Fla., last month, “he’d be standing here today doing exactly what I’m doing.”