In most respects he certainly does deserve that distinction. Not just for his dynamic style of preaching, one that appeals to people of faith regardless of denomination. Nor for his humble living (still residing in his Montreat, North Carolina cottage rather than the super manors most televangelists favour).
In the very early days of the civil rights struggle he was in the front lines against segregation. Several times, he literally had to knock down rope lines in arenas that separated the "black" and "white" sections and told the organizers he would cancel the crusade if the service was not desegregated. As he famously said in 1969 (to huge applause from both whites and blacks): "Jesus isn't black or white. He is a Palestinian. He has brown skin, and He belongs to all of us!" He never named names but this was almost certainly a shot at Jerry Falwell, who opposed racial integration (including for the longest time refusing to perform interracial marriages).
Graham has also been scrupulous in not openly favouring any candidate in particular for any level of office. He is a registered Democrat, but always has a reserved seat at both the Dem and GOP conventions. Not too many other preachers who have that honour -- one or the other, yes, but not both.
But in the last few years, indeed as he is now in the sunset of his life, he has become quite stubborn on the issue of faith in politics. In particular gay marriage. Earlier this year, he took out ads in North Carolina newspapers urging residents there to pass an anti-gay marriage initiative. I doubt his comments swayed too many voters, the law was going to pass anyway. The Tarheel State, while one of the most progressive in the South, is still deeply religious. Many who are socially liberal on most issues draw the line at abortion and "the right to die."
That's fine. People can have whatever opinions they want.
Dr Graham, however, has taken the unusual step of going nationwide with his advertorials. In his words:
"As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this election could be my last. I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman. Vote for biblical values this November 6, and pray with me that America will remain one nation under God."
That's all well and good. Except for the fact that after Mitt Romney visited Graham earlier this week, Graham's ministry's website scrubbed a whole section that defined Mormonism as a cult. Many apologetics would point out that the LDS church has beliefs that are totally outside of Protestantism -- in fact are outside the articles of faith that the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and the dozens of Protestant denominations agree on. (Read: the Nicene Creed.)
This is about as close to a full endorsement of a political candidate as Graham has ever come. One might suppose that since there is clear firewall between himself personally and his ministry (again, something most other televangelists refuse to do) he has the law on his side.
But I do find it very troubling he has only spoken openly about gay marriage now. True, it is a bridge too far for many people. And yes, he has the right to have his opinions. However, the idea that someone who is LGBT opposes the state of Israel or is automatically pro-choice or supports the strict division between church and state is silly.
As far as marriage is concerned, there is the principle that "God is love." Jesus may have spoken of marriage as one man one woman. But that was 2000 years ago. I would happen to think that if He was here today, he'd say, who cares as long as there is love. While I am still personally troubled by the moral implications of same sex marriage, on a social level as well as a legal principle it is really none of my business who should or who should not get married or to whom.
So Dr Graham, respectfully, you have a right to your opinions, but the mindset of the free world is changing on this one. America wasn't destroyed by desegregation, or women voting or being in the workplace, or by having a central bank instead of having banks print their own money. I hardly think it or any other country will be destroyed by LGBT marriages.
Besides which, the vast majority of gay couples prefer to live common law, seeing marriage as an oppressive institution. And that's not necessary a wrong opinion either.