The Fight Over Billy Graham’s Legacy

With the great evangelist in his twilight, his children jostle over his image and the family name.

Billy Graham was upstairs, napping. In the kitchen of the mountaintop home where he and his wife, Ruth, raised their five children, the table was set for lunch. Except for a flickering candle on that table and the exuberant pacing of two large dogs named China and Lars, the house was still, as empty as a museum after hours. The walls—witness to so many squabbles and pranks, prayers and hymns, private conversations with would-be presidents, rock stars, and prizefighters—did not speak.

A floorboard creaked above me. May I see him? I asked. May I say hello?

No, said his son Franklin. In early May I made a pilgrimage to Montreat, N.C., where Billy Graham’s pugnacious fourth child was giving me a tour of the family home. Franklin had just made headlines for aligning himself with the “birthers” and questioning the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s Christian beliefs—statements he clarified after emphatic pushback from the White House. Now Franklin, who took charge of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in 2000, explained the importance of protecting his father from the press. Daddy, as all the children call him, no longer hears very well. Were he to misunderstand a question, or were a casual remark to be taken out of context … well, that was a risk Franklin didn’t want to take.

Billy Graham’s well-publicized hospitalization for pneumonia earlier this month, at the age of 92, served as a potent reminder that even the most vital and visible lives do eventually end. “It’s not death that scares him,” says his oldest child, Gigi, who recently moved back to North Carolina from Florida to be near her father. “It’s the dying process.” Ever since he preached his last crusade in New York City in 2005, and especially since Ruth died in 2007, the man known as God’s ambassador has lived in increasing seclusion, hindered by hearing loss, dimming sight, and the infirmity that comes with great old age. The impatient, gangly Gospel preacher who punctuated his sermons with jagged arm gestures now uses a walker and a wheelchair. The man who was said to have preached for six decades with “a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other,” and who meticulously catalogued his personal library of 13,000 books, now watches Fox, the evening news, and local programming on a massive flat-screen TV.

Graham—who has prayed with every president since Harry Truman—is “in transition,” as his confidants say. In his twilight, his children and publicists continue to wrestle over his legacy and public image. Last year’s visit to Montreat by President Obama was an official meeting—half an hour or so, requested by the president. The two men spoke about their mutual fondness for golf and the loneliness of the presidency. Then each prayed for the other. “The president said afterward that he was deeply moved by Graham’s personal warmth and the grace he extended,” a White House staffer says. Franklin is less effusive: “The president prayed a nice, sweet prayer, and Daddy prayed for the president.”

Most of Graham’s visitors come through the back door, as it were, arranged by the children as special favors to special friends. As kids, the siblings—Gigi, Anne, Bunny, Franklin, and Ned—bickered ruthlessly, “grumbling, interrupting, slurring each other,” according to their mother’s journals. Now they’re grown, ranging in age from 53 to 66, but the rivalry continues. As in so many famous families, each child struggles with how best to wear the family name. Franklin, who has a second home in Alaska (and plans to ride his motorcycle there this summer) has long been friendly with Sarah Palin, and in 2009 helped orchestrate a much–publicized visit between the former governor and his father. Palin, who was on her book tour, came with her parents and her aunt Sally, Franklin says, and she brought Billy a Carhartt jacket. “Sarah Palin loves my father, and like a lot of people she grew up watching him on television. It was just family time.” After the visit, Billy Graham released a statement saying, “Sarah and her family will always be welcome in the Graham home.” This bit of stagecraft looked to some like an anointing. To others, it looked like partisan meddling by Franklin.

Last year, when Bunny extended the same favor to Glenn Beck, Franklin tagged along. “I was a little concerned someone would put a microphone in front of Daddy,” he says, though in the end, no one did. The trickle of visitors to the house reflects a large family’s various priorities. Last month a man who manufactures newfangled physical-therapy equipment traveled up the mountaintop, as did Don Wilton, the minister of a Baptist church in South Carolina. Billy Graham saw Wilton preach on TV and was so impressed that a couple of years ago he joined Wilton’s church and made him his personal pastor. “You can’t say,” chuckles Franklin’s PR man, Mark DeMoss, “that Mr. Graham is being micromanaged or handled.”

The siblings sometimes disagree over how the family story should be told in public. Three years ago Gigi endorsed a Billy Graham biopic that Franklin considered factually inaccurate. “No one else in the family supports or has endorsed this film,” Franklin said through a spokesman at the time, “including [Billy] Graham, who has no personal inclination to view it.” Pulling rank, big sister Gigi told me for a NEWSWEEK story, she wished her little brother had held his tongue.

A year earlier, Ned, the youngest (who has since moved to the West Coast), waged a public war against Franklin over their beloved mother’s burial site. Ruth loved her mountaintop and had expressed her strong desire to be buried there in a family plot. Franklin was insisting that she (and Billy, eventually) be interred at the new Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C., his pet project and a source of great personal pride. Ultimately, Billy gave his consent. Ruth Graham lies in rest in a meditation garden on the library grounds, beneath a stone marker that reads “End of Construction. Thank You for Your Patience”—a favorite saying, taken from a road sign. “That was the one thing we all agreed on,” Franklin says.

All the Graham children are evangelists like their father, but they interpret the job differently. Anne, who Graham-family observers say inherited her father’s oratorical gifts, cannot become a preacher, by the rules of the Southern Baptist Convention. So she travels the world speaking to massive audiences about the gospel and calls it “teaching,” which is permitted to women. Franklin—who’s been accused of being a rhetorical and theological bully, saying, for example, that Islam is “wicked and evil”—agrees with the assessment that he is less gentle than his dad. “We preach the same Gospel,” Franklin says, but “Daddy hates to say no. I can say no.” Franklin adds that he is much more engaged in the day-to-day management of the BGEA than his father ever was, and through the efforts of his humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse has much more experience on the front lines of global conflicts, such as those in Rwanda and the Middle East. This perspective, he argues, justifies his harder edge. “I’ve been doing a different kind of ministry,” he says. “That has shaped my views on a lot of things.”

And what of the criticism that Franklin, a Christian minister, takes political sides in a way that his father did not? Billy Graham formed friendships with many politicians, and had intimate (though complex) relationships with both Richard Nixon, a Republican, and Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat. Franklin’s political friendships lean hard to the right. He most recently expressed support for the quixotic presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, telling Christiane Amanpour, “The more you listen to him, the more you say to yourself, you know, maybe the guy is right.” Franklin says the rules of political engagement have changed since his father was a public figure. “It’s sad to see how polarized our nation has become. If a political party doesn’t like you, then they start attacking you,” he says. “I like the president. He’s a nice man. I just disagree—strongly—with the spending that both Republicans and Democrats alike are responsible for. It’s not right.”

Billy Graham has not lived a faultless life, but he did act carefully to protect his legacy and the significance of his reputation. In private, aware of his own human weakness, he instructed his ministry staff never to leave him alone in a room with a woman who was not his wife. In these last years, he speaks frequently of Ruth and of his yearning to go home to heaven to see her. His children have not been so cautious. Bunny, Gigi, and Ned are divorced and remarried. Ned, whose ministry builds and encourages Christianity in China, has spent time in rehab for prescription drugs, and Franklin admits to having had an appetite for alcohol as a younger man. Among Graham’s 19 grandchildren, at least three have become Christian preachers. But according to a 2008 story in The Columbus Dispatch, there has been drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, and eating disorders in that generation as well. Gigi and Ruth have made ministries out of helping families endure such struggles.

“I’m just not comfortable being thought of as coming from a wonderful family,” says Gigi. “We’re not exempt from some of the problems that everyone has. We’re empathetic to, sympathetic to, all the problems that people have today. We support one another, love one another when we’re going through some of the things we’re going through.” Franklin sees these family troubles somewhat differently. He and his siblings “don’t see each other that often. I think some of them have made bad choices in life, but I’m responsible for my life. I have to stand before God and give an accounting of my life.” He pauses, then adds, “I love my sisters and would do anything I could to help them.”

Graham’s enormous collection of books was recently moved down the mountain to the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. Here, in unadorned, well-lit hallways, the shelves shout in a way that his quiet rooms do not. Graham had books on Christian theology, of course, and collections of sermons, but also volumes on golf, Transcendental Meditation, and nutrition. The man who made shameful, anti-Semitic remarks in the Oval Office (to Nixon) had read widely not just about Judaism, but also Islam, Hinduism, and African religions. He had a well-worn copy of The Federalist, as well as The Scoutmaster Handbook,Richard Wright’s Black Power, and that poetic exploration of contemporary Jewish mysticism, Martin Buber’s I and Thou. This rich collection, offered up to the faithful, is also his legacy.