Heirs to 2 Evangelical Empires, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham, Take Different Paths Into Political Fray

Donald J. Trump, right, with Jerry Falwell Jr. at a campaign event in Davenport, Iowa, in January. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times
Donald J. Trump, right, with Jerry Falwell Jr. at a campaign event in Davenport, Iowa, in January. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times

One, the president of the Christian university his father founded, raised eyebrows and provoked an outcry among some evangelicals when he endorsed Donald J. 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 father’s 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 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 Mr. Falwell, who is not a pastor, and Mr. 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,” Mr. Graham, 63, said of Mr. 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 an 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 Mr. Graham flew to Oregon to help negotiate an end to the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last week, for instance, it reflected his increasing national profile.

Mr. 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. Mr. 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 Senators Ted Cruz of Texas or Marco Rubio of Florida.

Still, when Mr. Falwell, a lawyer, endorsed Mr. Trump, he did it in a way that was reminiscent of his father’s unvarnished and unapologetic approach.

Mr. Falwell said he decided to engage with Mr. Trump’s campaign, in part, because of his father’s decision 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, in 1980.

“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.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Alan Blinder