CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As he gives sound bites condemning Islam, promoting top Republicans and raising questions about President Obama's Christianity, North Carolina's Franklin Graham is sounding less these days like the next Billy Graham and more like the new Jerry Falwell.
In the younger Graham's controversial comments - offered recently and over the years on a host of TV news shows - religion scholars, political historians and even some of Graham's fellow evangelical Christians say they hear strident echoes of the combative Falwell.
Throughout the 1980s, as head of the Moral Majority, Falwell lambasted liberals, forged alliances with the GOP and elevated issues such as abortion, homosexuality and public prayer.
The 58-year-old Graham, who came of age in a more religiously pluralistic America than the one that made his father famous, has spoken out against Islam in a way that American Muslims say encourages prejudice - and worse - against them. And though Billy Graham lost some credibility for promoting Richard Nixon during a time of American discord, his son readily mixes theological commentary with doses of political punditry.
Franklin Graham commands no Moral Majority-like political operation, though he told McClatchy he wouldn't rule out launching one "if I thought it could save this country" from Washington politicians of both parties "who have wheeled and dealed, spent the money of our grandchildren and put us in a debt hole."
He does lead two large evangelical organizations - Samaritan's Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Together, they reach millions of mostly conservative Christians via TV specials, websites, crusadelike festivals, a magazine, the Billy Graham Library and more.
And as a Graham, he's royalty in evangelical circles - a status that offers him a potentially formidable megaphone. He has easy access to everybody from pastors to politicians, from Christian music stars to TV talk show hosts. At Fox News, nighttime host Greta Van Susteren and her camera crew have followed Graham around the world, doing stories on him from North Korea, Haiti and the Operation Christmas Child warehouse in Charlotte.
Graham, who lives in Boone, N.C., with his wife, Jane, is widely lauded for his humanitarian efforts as CEO of Samaritan's Purse, a Christian charity. And, so far, he appears to have kept the Gospel message center stage at his festivals.
But as the country prepares to move into another presidential election year, Graham has increasingly veered into politics.
The most obvious example involves possible GOP presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
In 2009, he sent a Samaritan's Purse plane to pick up Palin, then on a book tour, and bring her to Montreat to have dinner with himself and Billy Graham. Late last year, Palin flew to Haiti for a highly publicized inspection, with Graham, of relief efforts by Samaritan's Purse. And, this year, after pundits criticized Palin for her gun imagery in the wake of the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Graham put out a news release defending the former Alaska governor.
Type in "Sarah Palin" on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website and up comes a video of "Sarah Palin on Finding Faith" and photos of her cradling babies in Haiti.
The Graham seal of approval
Will other Republican White House wannabes get similar treatment?
Graham, who's mastered the art of the photo op and of extending his seal of approval, has spoken highly of a few of them. He told McClatchy that U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, a tea party favorite, is "a class act [who] understands the problem we're facing," and that former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is "a sharp guy."
He also touted former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who could benefit the most from Graham's warm words at a time when many evangelical Christians are suspicious of his Mormonism.
"He may be a Mormon, but that doesn't bother me a bit," Graham said. "He has a lot of the same values that I hold dear. I'd rather have him than some other people on the Republican and Democratic side because at least he has a moral foundation."
And Democrat Obama?
The president also has visited with Billy Graham - and his son - at the Montreat homestead in the N.C. mountains. Franklin Graham said Obama is "a very nice man" who inherited a sour economy and bloated budget deficit. But he's surrounded himself with "ultra-left-wing socialists," Graham said on Canadian TV. And, he told McClatchy, "his policies are making [things] worse ... It's going to take new leadership in Washington."
Graham said he has no plans yet to personally campaign for any candidates - including himself: "God's called me to a higher calling."
Still, he frequently offers his opinions - political and otherwise - on the nightly cable TV talkathons and on Sunday morning news shows whose hosts are hungry for headline-making quotes.
"A lot of talk shows used to love to have Falwell or [Pat] Robertson on. They could count on them to go far to the right and give them that sound bite," said Bill Leonard, former dean of Wake Forest Divinity School and now a professor of church history and religion. "When Franklin Graham talks like that today, he may be the new Falwell ... the person you go to, to get the money quote."
Graham doesn't accept or reject the comparison to Falwell, whom he called "a great man." But he said that he doesn't set out to create a storm.
All he's doing, he said, is answering reporters' questions, honestly.
"And I have as much right to speak out as a citizen of the United States as anybody else. I mean, the gays and lesbians get involved in politics. How come a Christian can't? What's happening is that people are trying to say that Christians - even though we have a voice - shouldn't speak out. I just don't agree."
Evangelicals take sides
Some of Graham's recent critics have been Christians who either didn't like what he said or how he said it.
Still other evangelicals may line up with Graham on theological and political positions, but cringe at his tone.
"This [evangelical] group says: 'I may agree with what he's saying, but I wish he'd said it differently,'" said the Rev. David Chadwick, pastor of Charlotte's Forest Hill Church. "He feels inflammatory and too in-your-face for a group of Christians who believe, as it says in Colossians, that speech is supposed to be seasoned with grace."
Graham's pull-no-punches style does have its defenders - including the Rev. Jonathan Falwell, who succeeded his famous father as senior pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va.
If preaching against sin brings controversy, so be it, said the son of Jerry Falwell: "Dad said God never called him to be popular."
'Seems to relish controversy'
Some of the same observers who note the similarities between Graham and Jerry Falwell also point to the contrasts between Franklin Graham and Billy Graham - especially in their rhetoric.
The father turned away from his fundamentalist roots, and for most of his career, took pains to be diplomatic and inclusive. The son is a straight shooter who dismisses Islam as "wicked" and told the Observer that evangelical pastor Rob Bell is a "a heretic" and compared him to Satan for suggesting in a new book that non-Christians may have a place in heaven.
Billy Graham cozied up to presidents of both parties, but later regretted "sometimes crossing the line," as he put it in a January interview with Christianity Today. Franklin Graham says he's never voted to put a Democrat in the White House and is unapologetic about his GOP leanings - including his friendship with Palin and his enthusiasm for several likely 2012 challengers to Obama.
When Falwell was at his politically active peak, Billy Graham kept his distance. When Falwell died, Franklin Graham spoke at his funeral.
And while Billy Graham, 92, is beloved - his recent hospital stay brought the kind of daily news updates usually reserved for ex-presidents - his son has become a divisive figure who, last year, saw his invitation to a Pentagon prayer service withdrawn because of his past comments about Islam.
"Had Billy Graham been dis-invited to such a national event, people would have been at the Pentagon with pitchforks," said Leonard. "He was the nation's chaplain."
Added Randall Balmer, author of "God in the White House": Billy Graham "was allergic to controversy. He ran from it. He hated conflict. Franklin seems to relish controversy."
Ask and he answers
Has Graham ever thought about following his father's late-in-life advice for clergy to steer clear of politics? Maybe decline to comment when asked about the race for the White House?
"First of all, I'm not my father," he said.
Graham said he's only giving his opinions when asked, not out giving speeches.
"I'm not out fighting Muslims. And you've never heard me go out and speak against gay people," he said.
"Just because I happen to have opinions about our country, I get criticized."
With Donald Trump out of the race, and Obama's long-form birth certificate now public, Graham's last controversial comments have begun to fade.
"But I'm sure there will be other stories in the future, on this or that," he said. "And I'm not going to dodge" any questions about them.
And he won't rule out endorsing somebody for president in 2012.
Said Graham: "This might be the most critical election of our life."