The Persuader

More than 300,000 faithful turned out for the Greater Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade over four days at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena last month. One of those people was William Franklin Graham III, Billy's self-described prodigal son, who runs the day-to-day operations of the Charlotte, N.C.-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. After a wild youth that he touts in his memoir "Rebel with a Cause," Graham has come back into the fold. Himself a preacher, the junior Graham runs charity missions to--and preaches the gospel in--Sudan, Russia, Colombia and Iraq. Most recently, he spearheaded a Christmas campaign to send gift-filled shoe boxes to children in the world's most war-torn and storm-battered corners. "If you look at the life of Jesus Christ," he tells NEWSWEEK, "he is our example, he is our role model. He used his power as the son of God to bring healing to people's lives."

But Graham, who is 53 and goes by Franklin, is also no stranger to controversy. A man who often says just what is on his mind, he drew fire from around the world when, in the wake of 9/11, he called Islam "an evil and wicked religion." Today he tempers his remarks about Islam, but he is outspoken in his condemnation of homosexuality and of sex in the media. His liberal critics charge that in addition to his charity work in Iraq, he is out to convert Muslims, undermining the Bush administration's claims to respect Islam. Graham, who is also president of Samaritan's Purse, a nondenominational evangelical Christian program founded in 1970 that serves the poor, refugees and others at home and abroad, recently spoke with NEWSWEEK about his work in Iraq, gay marriage and the role of evangelism. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Do you think that the media and entertainment industry is not reflective of the religious values people say they have? Twenty-two percent of voters put moral values as their top concern in this election yet "Desperate Housewives" is a hot show. Do you see any disconnect there?

Franklin Graham: You can put any kind of smut on television and you'll get a lot of viewership. I have not seen this program but any time you have something that's racy, you're going to attract an audience. No question: there is a disconnect with the entertainment industry and the values of America.

The president seemed to signal that he was OK with civil unions in the last weeks of the campaign. Is your objection to marriage as a word?

This was an issue that I think in this election where people finally said, "I've had it. I don't want that agenda being forced and pushed and mandated on me." You can't legislate morality. A homosexual's sins are no different than a heterosexual's sins. If I go out tonight and I sleep with someone who's not my wife, it's just as great a sin as gay people [having sex]. Sin is sin.

Some people have said that the evangelical community has a disproportionate amount of interest about what goes on people's sex lives as opposed to spending more time fighting poverty, healing the sick, feeding the hungry and trying to do more that is in line with Jesus' teachings.

I don't have an interest in what goes on in other people's bedrooms. I think it's a fascination by the media. When I go around with other Christian leaders, we don't have those conversations, "Hey, Franklin, did you hear who's sleeping with so-and-so?"

What should the work of a Christian engaged in the world be?

If I just fed people and that's all I did--if I clothed people and that's all I did--I would be cheating people. I would be holding back the most important information that I have to give them. It would be a sin for me not to share with them my faith. I want them to know what I know. I was in Sudan last year with the president of Sudan [Omar al-Bashir]. He's a character. In our conversation, he said "I want to make you a Muslim." This is the difference. I don't want to make him anything. I don't want to make somebody a Christian. I want to persuade them to put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ, not to make them put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ.

What kind of reception did Samaritan's Purse get in Iraq?

Very positive. The doctors who all were Baath Party-appointed people and were very receptive to have people coming in. They saw it not as problem not so much with American but with, first, George H.W. Bush then with Clinton. They did not really take that to the American people. What we have now is, I think, we've made some mistakes in Iraq. We've failed to understand Islam. The mistake of disbanding the government and the Iraqi Army was a big mistake. Those are hindsights but we have to deal now with where we are in Iraq.

How do you respond to critics you say your work there has convinced already skeptical Arabs that you're out to convert Muslims?

We don't want to make anyone a Christian. We were there at the invitation of the churches of Iraq who said "We need your help. Some of our neighborhoods are blown up; our hospitals are not working." The first thing we did was go in and help a couple of the large hospitals open up some clinics. These were not Christian hospitals or Christian clinics. These were just government-run facilities run by Muslims that needed intensive-care units, needed operating rooms. We took in several shipments, flew into Baghdad, sent in biomed technicians who could set it up and give their technicians instructions on how to use it. It was very much appreciated. There wasn't a carrot on the stick: "Either you believe the way we believe or we won't give you support." We don't do that. We just give it to them. These are human beings, and Jesus Christ came for the lost.

It hasn't helped having the more mediagenic leaders--Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, you yourself--making inflammatory comments about Islam.

The problem with our country is that we do not understand Islam. We still don't. You get into Islamic countries, there is no separation between the government and between the religion. Islamic law, like in Saudi Arabia, is the law of the land. It's not a secular law, it's a religious law based on the religious faith. It's a strange concept for us, to live under a religious law. Religion and government is one and the same. As far as the teaching and faith of the people, I think since 9/11 there has been a strong debate in America over Islam. There are millions of Muslims in this country who have fled Islamic law; they have fled Islamic law but they have kept their faith but they want to live in peace. They want the American dream and they have every right to it. We as a nation, our values system is based on a whole different set of principles.

You were quoted a couple years ago as calling Islam an "evil and wicked religion." Would you care to revisit that comment?

Those comments started a debate in this country. I don't know what I can add to it. I respect the people of the Islamic faith that have come to this country. I have Muslim friends. But that doesn't stop me from wanting to help them. That doesn't stop me from loving them. I certainly don't believe the way they believe, and they don't believe the way I believe, either. That doesn't make me dislike them, and I love them very much. I want to do all I can to help them. In Khartoum, we have been working for years in a mission in the south. I want to demonstrate to those Muslims that my love for them is sincere. I want them to know about God's son, Jesus Christ. I want them to know but I certainly don't want to force it on them. I would like some day for Muslims to know what Christians do.

Talk about AIDS if you would. What work do you see that needs doing in that arena?

I'm a pilot. If I am up at altitude and I am sitting inside the airplane and I stick my head out, I'm not going to live very long. God didn't create me to live at 40,000 feet. I go to the Caymans each year, and I like to scuba dive. If I put my nose just a millimeter under water and I don't have a breathing apparatus on, I'm not going to live very long because God didn't make me to live underwater. If we get outside of God's perimeters, we are at risk. When we use sex outside of how God intended sex to be used, we are at risk. People have to be educated as to what these risks are. What [distributing] condoms says is: "If you use this the risk is now dealt with. So enjoy sex however you want to use it because you'll be safe." Wrong, you're not safe. And the only way you can be safe is to use sex as God intended: between a man and a woman in a married relationship. That's not a message that the world wants to hear.

Do you support a constitutional ban on gay marriage?

Under normal circumstances, no. But the way judges are rewriting laws. I don't know how else you can stop them.

Was Brown v. Board of Education a case of activist judges making their own law?

I don't know; I'm not familiar with it. Look, there's a lot of good that takes place in this country every day. In spite of all our problems, I am pro-American. I am pro-Republican, I am pro-Democrat and I am even pro-a-few-of-those-Independents-we've-got-laying-around. We've got a great nation. But I do believe that the majority of people, people of Christian faith, are under attack. No question about it.