Grahams offer a familiar case study in father-son dynamics

    If you were intrigued by the Bushes, welcome to the Grahams.

    It didn’t take a disciple of Freud to analyze the rush to invade Iraq as an effort by George W. to settle a score with his father.

    George H.W. had refused to push the Gulf War into Iraq itself, leaving Saddam Hussein in place, so his erstwhile black sheep of a son allegedly was itching to make up for his father’s weakness.

    Thus, the psychoanalysis goes, he acted out his grudge against dad from some urge in some unconscious source of which he may not have been aware.

    Now consider the Grahams, father Billy and son Franklin. Since Billy picked him, the fourth of his five progeny, to head the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Franklin has appeared to go out of his way to undermine the good faith the elder Graham took so long to establish.

    The latest foray by the outspoken son was his sympathy for the ludicrous claim that Barack Obama wasn’t born an American and his sidling up to the most blatant spokesman for that code-worded attack, Donald Trump. Franklin Graham backed off slightly in the face of Hawaii’s release of Obama’s long-forum birth certificate, but only grudgingly.   And he said he would have backed Trump for president.

    Crossing the line into politics, paling around with Presidents, especially Republicans and particularly Richard Nixon, had once threatened Billy Graham’s respect as a Gospel preacher. He held services for Nixon in the White House, was a court chaplain to Reagan – who otherwise paid no attention to traditional religion – and appeared at Republican campaign rallies.

    He said he’d toyed with the idea of running for the Senate. Political juices flooded his veins.

    Franklin seems to have similar genes. Preaching somehow isn’t enough; politics is where the real power lies. He’s in good company there. Religion has become increasingly a sidelight in determining priorities for some high-profile clergy whom talk-show producers have on speed dial.

    Repenting partisanship

    Billy Graham long ago repented, however. One of his redeeming qualities, in addition to an abundance of good nature and humility, is his willingness to admit when he was wrong. Now 92, he openly says he’s sorry for his attraction to power and to partisanship. He has said he would approach Jewish leaders on his hands and knees to apologize for remarks on the Nixon tapes that appear anti-Semitic.

    He never allied himself with the religious right, despite desperate efforts to enlist his star power, and said he rid himself of party affiliation on grounds that Jesus wouldn’t have enlisted in partisan politics.

    Otherwise, his integrity was never damaged. He ran a scrupulously clean evangelistic organization that drew millions to rallies around the world for decades. He refused to build colleges or theme parks or other sites that would promote his name. He settled into preaching and writing books on faith. President Obama went to him for a blessing last April.

    Whether or not Franklin feels that his father’s contrition and subsequent rehabilitation in the eyes of many admirers was a sign of weakness for which he must atone, he has positioned himself as an extremist who may seriously harm his father’s legacy as well as his own shaky standing as the inheritor of it.

    Attacking Muslims

    His savage attacks on Muslims pose perhaps the greatest danger. Since the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, Franklin has branded Islam “a very evil and wicked religion” and most recently “a religion of hatred.” He still conducts straight-forward conversion rallies and oversees Samaritan’s Purse, a worthy relief agency. But his attention has increasingly drifted in more political directions such as his visits with Sarah Palin, whom he just might support “depending on who the other candidates are.”

    If there’s an element of paternal resentment behind the delinquencies of Franklin and George W, an additional coincidence is that the two examples of competition follow the same generational parallel. George H.W. is 86, George W, 65; Billy, 92, Franklin, 58.

    Father-son rivalry was depicted long ago in the Greek myth of Oedipus as a more or less standard feature of human nature.

    But where tensions do arise, they are usually played out adequately in private with little or no consequence to outsiders. Seldom are the rivals such well known figures as the Grahams and Bushes whose playing out of Oedipal dramas affects major public events, with the players’ global reputations are at stake.

    Ken Briggs writes regularly on issues of religion and spirituality for NewsWorks. He is former religion reporter for the New York Times and an adjunct professor at Lafayette College. He has written several books on the Catholic Church.

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