Billy Graham's Legacy Threatened By Family Split

Nov 12, 2020

For the Rev. Franklin Graham, the scathing editorial in Christianity Today last year calling his friend Donald Trump “a leader of grossly immoral character” and urging that Trump be “removed from office” was heretical.

To Graham, it was bad enough to read such an attack on Trump. But the insult was compounded by the fact that Christianity Today had been founded by his recently deceased father, Billy Graham, the revered evangelist often called America’s Pastor. So Franklin fired back at the magazine with a powerful riposte to his millions of social-media followers:

I hadn’t shared who my father @BillyGraham voted for in 2016 but because of @CTMagazine’s article, I felt it necessary share now. My father knew [Trump], believed in him & voted for him. He believed Donald J. Trump was the man for this hour in the history for our nation.

That was too much for another Billy Graham descendant, his grandson Aram Tchividjian. In a response to his uncle’s post, Tchividjian wrote with withering sarcasm:

I’ll never forget that day in 2016 when my grandfather @BillyGraham, shrugged off the symptoms of Parkinson’s and hydrocephalus, got up out of bed for the first time in a year, drove down to the polling station, and cast his vote. What a glorious memory!

A reader of this Twitter exchange weighed in with a question to Franklin: Is your nephew calling you a liar?

Indeed, he was.

For those who hadn’t followed the insular world of evangelical Christianity, this exchange blew into full view a rip in the Graham family’s fabric that mirrors a larger split within the entire evangelical community – a split likely to be accelerated by Trump’s defeat for re-election. Tchividjian and his more outspoken sister, Jerushah Duford, whose mother, Gigi Graham Tchividijian, is Billy Graham’s oldest daughter, have emerged as the family’s most visible critics of their uncle and of Trump.

Both have written several books, separately and together, about their grandfather and his worldwide ministry, which was rooted in the North Carolina mountains near Asheville. Although they are not the first among evangelicals to publicly charge Franklin Graham with undermining the memory of his father, the fact that they are bringing the charge from within the family brings powerful momentum to it. Graham declined to comment through a spokesperson.

A time of ‘growing disquiet’

Author Stephen Prothero, a professor of religious studies at Boston University, described the grandchildren as “outliers in their own family and in the wider white evangelical community” in their willingness to accuse their uncle of abandoning Billy Graham’s example of non-partisanship by tying his ministry so tightly to Trump.

“But,” Prothero continued in an interview for this article, “they signal what could be growing disquiet about the hijacking of what was once a clearly Christian (and evangelistic) purpose for what is raw Republican politics.”

Suddenly, in the wake of Trump’s re-election defeat, it appears possible – perhaps probable – that this “disquiet” will force a reckoning within the evangelical leadership. It comes at a time when evangelicalism is at an existential inflection point weakened by declining membership and threatened by a younger generation that is indifferent – if not hostile – to it, according to numerous surveys and the anti-Trump protests of high-profile dissidents.

The Tchividjian-Graham grandchildren are emblematic of those who insist this reckoning is necessary to save the faith they trace back to Billy Graham’s teachings. Jerushah, Aram and their five siblings grew up in South Florida with summer vacations near their grandfather’s home in Montreat, east of Asheville. In the winter, the evangelist and his wife Ruth often flipped that routine, visiting for extended periods in Delray Beach and spending idle time with the Tchividjian grandchildren.

“To us,” Jerushah said of her brothers and sisters, “he was a regular grandfather. He’d take us to school and visit our classes. Sometimes, we’d rent a movie and cuddle around him on the couch eating popcorn. He never wanted to stand out or draw attention to himself.”

She and Aram now live in Greenville, S.C., where he is the technology analyst in an advertising agency owned by Jerushah’s husband, Kyle Duford. She balances speaking and writing engagements with pursuing a master’s degree in clinical mental health while raising the couple’s six children with Kyle. Both grandchildren admit to struggling with the new demands placed on them because of their criticism of fellow evangelicals. “If I had known this would happen, I may have kept quiet,” Aram said of the media attention.

But they agreed to be interviewed by AVL Watchdog a few days before the election to voice their belief that their uncle and other evangelical leaders were “tarring with shame” the faith that Billy Graham espoused in his decades-long public preaching.

“My grandfather’s goal was to introduce people to the saving love and grace of Jesus and he stayed out of politics for the most part because he knew that he would alienate an audience if he was involved,” Jerushah, 42, said, then adding a reference to her uncle: “He is too polarizing of a personality to be introducing people to Jesus. People outside the church are not going to listen to Franklin.”

Her brother, two years older, said that his uncle Franklin’s public claim about Billy Graham voting for Trump was “such blatant baloney” that he couldn’t resist responding with the sarcastic tweet. Tchividjian said that he now regards his uncle and Trump as “two peas in a pod.” 

Family split over Trump goes public

Jerushah’s split from her uncle’s positions burst into public view on August 25 – coincidentally the opening day of the Republican National Convention – in a column she wrote for USA Today under the headline, “I’m Billy Graham’s granddaughter. Evangelical support of Donald Trump spits on his legacy.”

Although in the article she didn’t criticize her uncle by name, she said in the interview that he is included among the “evangelical leaders” she labels as hypocrites. “The entire world has watched the term ‘evangelical’ become synonymous with hypocrisy and disingenuousness,” she wrote.

Her visibility as a spokesperson for anti-Trump evangelicals continued to grow during the run-up to the election when she co-founded a political action committee called Pro-life Evangelicals for Biden and joined an advisory board for the Lincoln Project, which created a multi-million advertising campaign urging Republicans to oppose Trump’s re-election.

Those roles triggered invitations to appear on every major television network, the BBC, and to be interviewed in such national newspapers and magazines as The New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek and Time. The demands on her time were nearly overwhelming, she said, but she found a reward in getting scores of messages daily from other evangelicals who were similarly distressed by their church leaders’ support for Trump.

She pulled out her cellphone and read one: “Jerushah, I am sitting here crying after reading this and several other articles about you. I felt so alone in my feelings and questions about the church’s support of Donald Trump. Everyone I have always looked up to and admired in my life and my Christian faith has shocked me and hurt me by their support of him. Thank you so much.”

To be sure, Franklin Graham has retained the public respect of other family members—which includes his three older sisters, a younger brother and Billy and Ruth Graham’s 19 grandchildren -- and from many within the evangelical community. The mantle he inherited from his father includes the proselytizing Billy Graham Evangelical Association and Samaritan’s Purse, a charitable organization that he took over in 1979 with his father’s support. Samaritan’s Purse provides on-scene medical aid to victims of natural disasters and disease, including the coronavirus pandemic. Both generate hundreds of millions of dollars in donations annually –and a sizeable income for Franklin Graham.

In 2019, according to its IRS Form 990, Samaritan’s Purse paid him total compensation of $722,403. The Billy Graham Evangelical Association changed its IRS classification in 2015 and no longer has to report executive compensation, but Franklin Graham paid himself $258,677 from it in the last year before that change.

His influence extends to social media where he has nearly two million followers on Twitter and seven million on Facebook (though many followers viciously attack his posts). To this digital congregation, he regularly offers snippets of scripture and tweet-sized sermons mixed with unabashed appeals for Trump’s success and health. In the days following the Nov. 3 election when the outcome was uncertain, he wrote in one tweet: “It’s not over! We need to continue to pray for [Trump].” And in another tweet just hours later: “Many fear that some are trying to steal the election, so join me in praying that the … enemies of God will be quieted.”

Evangelical vote shrinking and aging

Although the effort fell short of saving Trump from defeat, white evangelical Christians provided one of Trump’s strongest pillars. Exit polls showed that nearly eight in 10 voted for the incumbent, about the same percentage as in 2016. And throughout his presidency, numerous surveys found that about 70 percent approved of his job performance.

However, these numbers obscure what analyst Robert P. Jones, director of the Public Religion Research Institute, which focuses on American attitudes toward religion, called a “religious sea change” threatening evangelicals. Jones found that in the past decade, the number of white evangelicals dropped from 21 percent of the U.S. population to 15 percent – a greater decline than any other religious bloc.

“But that is only part of the story,” Jones wrote in a column for NBC News. “[T]urbocharging these trends is the exodus of young people from white Christian churches and into the ranks of the ‘nones,’ the growing number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation.”

A survey of young millennial voters by the conservative American Enterprise Institute found that 95 percent of them aren’t interested in affiliating with any religious faith, and 59 percent believe that people who practice a religious faith are less tolerant.

This suggests a bleak future for evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham – and perhaps especially for Franklin Graham. To people outside the evangelical community, Franklin Graham may be best known for using his ministry to champion Trump, to forgive him his trespasses and to broadcast his own strident views on culture and politics. These have included condemning gay marriage (“sin against God”); inveighing against LGBT rights (unisex bathrooms and locker rooms are frequent targets); disparaging Islam (“an evil and wicked religion”), and spreading such false conspiracy theories as former President Obama is secretly Muslim and anti-Christian.

As recently as October, Graham criticized Pope Francis for declaring that the Roman Catholic Church would no longer oppose civil unions for homosexuals: “For Pope Francis to attempt to normalize homosexuality is to say that Holy Scriptures are false, that our sins really don’t matter, and that we can continue living in them,” he wrote on social media.

Rallies, prayers and profits for Trump

His support for Trump hasn’t been confined to scripture and politics. In 2017, just weeks after Trump’s inauguration, Graham arranged for the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, which he heads, to host a lavish banquet at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC at the cost of nearly $400,000. The expense was noted as income in Trump’s tax returns uncovered by The New York Times in September.

Boz Tchividjian, older brother of Aram and Jerushah, tweeted: Wow, almost $400k paid to the Trump hotel and most of that money likely coming from hard-working donors to BGEA who give primarily because of their love for my late grandfather … and who probably couldn’t afford to stay even one night in a Trump hotel. (The BGEA later defended the expense and the location saying that it was necessary because it was the only venue able to handle a banquet of that size on that date).

In 2019, Franklin Graham organized a national series of revival-style rallies called the Discover America Tour. Although these were ostensibly non-partisan, each rally was heavy with praise for Trump and criticism for Democrats. In September, he co-organized a “prayer march” that drew thousands to the National Mall and, though he claimed this, too, was non-partisan, he urged the crowd to “just pray that God will watch over and protect” Trump who, he said, had “fulfilled all his promises” to evangelicals. Later that day he was a prominent guest at the White House gathering announcing Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court (an occasion that became a Covid-19 super-spreader).

This devotion to Trump, although accepted by the majority of evangelicals, has crossed the line for some prominent religious leaders. The Rev. John Piper, one of the nation’s most respected Protestant theologians and chancellor of the Bethlehem College and Seminary, drew Franklin Graham’s ire on the eve of the election by writing that he failed to understand why many Christians could support a leader guilty of such “sins” as “unrepentant sexual immorality, boastfulness, vulgarity, factiousness, and the like.” Piper warned that the evangelical community “is paying dearly” for that support.

To Jerushah and brother Aram, Franklin Graham’s views and devotion to Trump’s presidency are only part of their reason for going public with their criticism and, in her case, of endorsing President-elect Biden. In the interview at an outdoor restaurant in Greenville, both said they are motivated by a fear that Billy Graham’s preaching about the importance of love and inclusion of all – and especially of “marginalized people” -- is being nullified by his son’s actions. They worry that young people who hear Franklin Graham’s reactionary messages will assume he inherited them without change from his father.

“They see [Franklin and Billy Graham] as one and the same,” Aram said.

Billy Graham’s public positions weren’t without controversy. He was overheard on tape in a conversation with then-President Richard Nixon expressing anti-Semitic views – words for which he later apologized and expressed deep regret. He also preached that homosexuality was contrary to scripture. But in an interview with Hugh Downs on ABC’s 20/20 program, Downs asked Graham, “If you had a homosexual child, would you love him?” Graham’s immediate reply: “Why, I would love that one even more.” Duford said she couldn’t envision such words coming from her uncle Franklin.

“What I would respect,” she said, “is if he would come out and say, ‘I know that Trump’s a liar, he’s a cheater, he’s narcissistic and he’s rude and he disrespects women, and I hate all that, but he puts forward policies that I agree with and those policies are going to be in place long after he’s gone, and therefore I will vote for him.’”

But she continued, Franklin Graham cannot make such a statement “because Trump doesn’t accept that. You have to give him blind, complete loyalty, or he shuts you out. And [evangelical leaders] still want his ear, so they stay quiet.”

Samaritan’s Purse anti-gay pledge

Among their uncle’s opinions, the ones that offend and worry these grandchildren the most is his intolerance of gay rights. They are offended because both say that gay people are among their closest friends and strongest supporters.  And they worry because they believe their uncle’s stances on this issue threaten the future of Samaritan’s Purse, which has been lauded for its disaster-relief work.

Under Franklin Graham’s leadership, all employees and volunteers for the organization must sign a “statement of faith” agreeing to a definition of marriage as being “exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female” and acknowledging that God “will banish the unrighteous to everlasting punishment in hell.”

This requirement ignited a firestorm of anger when Samaritan’s Purse aid workers set up medical tents in New York City’s Central Park to take patients during the pandemic from overcrowded city hospitals. Although patients were not required to agree to this or any other religious statement, prospective volunteers were. After operating for several weeks, religious and civic leaders declined to continue sending patients to Samaritan’s Purse for care because of the anti-gay policy. Bishop Andrew M.L. Dietsche of the Episcopal Diocese of New York told The New York Times it was contrary to the Episcopal faith’s work on “the full inclusion of gay and lesbian people.”

Aram Tchividjian recalled the story of a former female co-worker from the Caribbean island of Saint Martin whose family members were displaced by Hurricane Irma in 2017. The family spoke glowingly about how a Samaritan’s Purse relief team arrived on scene within days of the massive hurricane and remained long after most other relief organizations had departed.

Aram knew that the co-worker was active in the gay community and that she was stunned to later learn that Samaritan’s Purse was headed by Franklin Graham. “He was the source of so much pain for so many of her dear friends [only to] find out that this guy she despises was head of the organization that she loved…. All the good that is done by Samaritan’s Purse gets almost negated by his bigotry, his rhetoric, his blind support of Trump.”

Franklin Graham has been unyielding in defending the required “statement of faith” disparaging gay marriage noting that, as a “private Christian organization” it has the legal right to require its workers share its values. He also insists he isn’t anti-LGBTQ. He told Fox News host Laura Ingraham: “I love [homosexuals] enough to care to warn them that if they want to continue living like this, it’s the flames of hell for you.”

Jerushah agreed that the work done by Samaritan’s Purse merited praise. But, she added, her uncle’s controversial positions were eroding the support it has previously enjoyed. Several former employees of have confided in her of their “extreme disappointment” of Graham’s stances and political views and said “they’re done supporting Samaritan’s Purse.”

She and Aram agree that Samaritan’s Purse and the BGEA will likely retain the financial backing of an older generation that provides the basis of support through donations and estate plans. But they question whether these organizations will find new donors among a younger generation of evangelicals who, according to multiple surveys, reject Franklin Graham’s harsh opinions.

Family outliers but not alone

Aram and Jerushah concede that their criticisms make them outliers in both the extended Graham family and among many evangelicals. Their mother, Gigi, staunchly supported both Trump and Franklin. His daughter, Cissie Graham Lynch, was among the speakers at the Republican National Convention heaping praise on the president and vilifying the Democratic candidates. “The Biden-Harris vision for America leaves no room for people of faith,” she said in painting a dystopian portrait of the nation if Democrats gain control. (She didn’t respond to a request to comment for this article).

But Jerushah said she has private support from other cousins who have thanked her for speaking out while they feel they cannot. And she said she is confident that her positions on such issues as gay rights, the treatment of refugees and respect for “the most marginalized” are those that not only resonate with the future generation, but that align with those of her grandfather.

“I have spoken out as much as I have because I feel that some of these evangelical leaders are tarring [Christianity] with shame,” she said, in a pointed reference to her uncle. “People who don’t know Jesus are not being introduced by the leadership to the Jesus I know.”

Prothero, Boston University’s professor of religious studies, said in an email for this article that elections provide “times of choosing” for religious communities. This election’s aftermath, he continued, will create an opportunity for evangelical dissidents like Jerushah, Aram, Chancellor John Piper, Christianity Today and many others to be heard now that the supportive din for Trump has faded.

“I can only hope--for their sake and the sake of the country--that these outlier voices represent a groundswell rather than some last gasp,” Prothero continued, “and that Franklin and his enablers (in his family and in the wider white evangelical world) will be called in some way to account.”

AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Tom Fiedler is a Pulitzer Prize winning political reporter and former executive editor of The Miami Herald. Contact us at avlwatchdog@gmail.com.