The ugly face of Billy Graham

The famous evangelist died last week at the age of 99 and we are now going through an orgy of official mourning that would have delighted the adulation-seeking Graham. I have been sickened by the fawning praise that has been rolling in from all quarters for the so-called ‘America’s pastor’, ignoring the many bad things he said and did. So it was a relief to read this article by Bob Moser that paints a very different picture of the man.

Moser said that in 1973 at the age of ten, he was grappling with the torment of his sexuality since he liked boys. So when he heard that Graham was coming to his town in North Carolina for one his ‘crusades’ to save souls, he pleaded with his parents to take him to it so that he might be cured of his yearnings. They agreed and took him to the huge football stadium where the rally was held. Graham’s rallies were meticulously planned three years in advance to make sure that the stadiums were packed and were carefully choreographed performances with Graham on stage expertly working the crowd like a rock star. And of course at the end was the ‘altar call’, where people who wanted to be saved were urged to raise their hands and come forward and be prayed upon and to give their names and addresses to receive literature. People from the back of the stadium got up and began to walk, and Moser, with his father as chaperone, joined thousands of others in the long trek towards the stage. (Moser later learned that the people who initially stood up and walked down, these ‘early bird savers’, were paid staffers doing this in order to encourage others.)

But despite being ‘saved’, Moser’s sexual preferences did not change and later that fall Graham, in his newspaper column in response to a query from a young girl wondering what to do about her attraction to another girl, unequivocally condemned homosexuality, causing immense turmoil for him.

I have never known despair greater than I felt, reading those words. I had already tried to seize salvation, and it had eluded me. I would torment myself for another 20 years trying to find it, trying to “reform,” dating women, attempting suicide, never quite able to shake the voice of Billy Graham promising me eternal damnation, even after I knew it was all a lie. Graham wasn’t given to ranting about particular kinds of sins and sinners like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. So when he was quoted elsewhere calling homosexuality “perversion that leads to death,” it was no small thing for all of us confused kids out there. This was the voice of God on Earth, America’s White Jesus, telling our parents that they were right to worry – and, if needed, to beat the gayness out of their child for the sake of his or her soul, or (worse) send them to “conversion therapy.” And the voice was telling us that our loves and desires would, if pursued, land us in hell for eternity.

It is impossible for us who were not gay children living in those times to appreciate what it must have been like to have to deal with the hostile climate created by people like Graham. But one can totally understand why Moser is angry at the praise now being showered on the person who helped create that climate.

It’s positively miraculous how Billy Graham’s shiny reputation survived, intact, till the day he died – so much so that even a person as astute as Obama could laud him as an untarnished American treasure. But then Graham was, as a historian friend of mine commented the other day, a “stone hustler from the start,” one of the greatest self-promoters ever born. Graham carefully cultivated a reputation for personal integrity and moderation, despite the fact that he was not only a virulent homophobe, but a few other not-so-Godly things as well: Jew-basher, aspiring war criminal, back-stabbing political operator and Christian Dominionist predicting imminent apocalypse, for starters.

Graham, the “humble servant,” courted and flattered presidents shamelessly from the start of his career, though he made no headway with the first one he visited at the White House; Harry Truman, after meeting him, declared Graham “one of those counterfeits,” and added, “All he’s interested in is getting his name in the newspaper.”

Graham always insisted, contrary to all evidence, that he had no interest in politics. In truth, he was a Machiavellian back-room operator. In 1960, when Nixon faced John F. Kennedy, Graham said that if Kennedy was a real Catholic, he’d do whatever the Pope wanted him to do as president rather than follow the Constitution. Graham convened a meeting of Christian leaders in Montreux, Switzerland (among them was young Donald Trump’s pastor, Norman Vincent Peale) to scheme about how to keep the Catholic out of the White House.

In 1969, with his friend Nixon finally in the Oval Office, Graham advised him to try and end the Vietnam conflict in a blaze of glory, with a bombing campaign that Nixon himself estimated would kill one million civilians. This was too much even for Nixon, but not for America’s Pastor.

In brief conversations from 1972 and 1973, Graham comforts and cheers Nixon during his darkest hours, partly by engaging in anti-Semitic banter. The Jews, he told Nixon, were the ones “putting out the pornographic stuff.” Prominent Jews, Graham said, “swarm around me and are friendly to me. They don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country.”

Billy Graham reputedly mellowed and became more tolerant of religious differences in his later years, even as he turned over his vast empire to his more overtly bigoted son, Franklin. Maybe, he even suggested at one point, you didn’t have to be a born-again Christian to attain heaven. But he never evolved on the “gay question.”

Next week, Graham’s corpse will lie in state at the Capitol rotunda – only the fourth private citizen to be so honored, and the first since Rosa Parks in 1995. This is a disgrace. But in a certain way, it’s also right and fitting – as oddly appropriate as Graham’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. If Billy Graham was, ultimately, a conniving hypocrite with a layman’s grasp of the Bible and a supernatural lust for earthly power, he was also a quintessential American success story. He was not so much “America’s pastor” as its greatest evangelical entrepreneur – the man who launched a whole separatist (and lucrative) Christian media culture, who laid the foundations for megachurches and prosperity ministries, who brought Jesus back into American politics. He was a public-relations savant, a shameless sycophant who whispered sweet nothings to power in lieu of hard truths. He demonstrated what fortunes could be made, and what human glory could be attained, by transforming evangelical Christianity into a patriotic corporate entity. If that’s not American, by God, what is?

About the only thing that distinguishes Graham from the other pernicious religious hucksters was that he did not, as far as we know, make himself extremely wealthy and managed to avoid financial and sexual scandals. This is not an insignificant fact given the corrupt world of mega-evangelism. But that is it, as far as his good qualities go.

As is my custom on such occasions, I will link to The Eulogy Song that addresses the way that the death of people results in their deep faults being erased. This is from an Australian sketch comedy program so some of the people mentioned may be unfamiliar to a US audience, but you get the general idea. (Language advisory)


  1. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    About the only thing that distinguishes Graham from the other pernicious religious hucksters was that he did not, as far as we know, make himself extremely wealthy

    Wasn’t his net worth on the order of $25 million or so? Vancouver and Victoria are hideously expensive placed to find housing, so I could spend a couple million (in today’s dollars) over the course of a lifetime without acquiring any lavish luxuries, and if I had a house paid off when I died I might accidentally end up with that same couple million in my estate due to real estate market inflation. But if I lived in, say, Portland, Oregon or San Antonio, Texas, I’d end up with more like half a million. NYC and LA are more like Vancouver in their ability to provide a seemingly substantial estate from the mere act of trying to ensure a roof remains overhead during your later years, but their housing markets aren’t *more* inflated than Vancouver.

    So how do you get $25M without “making [oneself] extremely wealthy”? Don’t forget that in addition to acquiring that much in personal wealth, compared to the other 9 of the top 10 richest pastors in the USA (Graham was #8) he enjoyed a greater percentage perks that he didn’t pay for -- not even through his charities or businesses -- than other pastors. Flying first class might cost $10k per trip to Europe. Flying Air Force One to Europe cost Graham nothing, and is famously more luxurious than any first class ticket one could buy from any commercial carrier.

    He turned down opportunities to cash in more directly, and Joel Osteen (#1 on the richest pastor list) with $750+ million in personal wealth outclasses Graham by an order of magnitude. But not cashing in directly quite as much as other mega-pastors was also part of his cachet. Snagging a quick million from Hollywood might very well have compromised the image used for his marketing to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Much of this money is/was spent on good causes, including literally feeding the hungry. But much also was spent building an infrastructure that gave the charities themselves substantial, enduring assets such that they can now pay Graham’s family members half a million dollars each, per year, for life.

    By comparison to other money-grubbing preachers, Graham comes out admirable as a result of the scanty percentage of funds he siphoned off for himself and for his family’s sinecures. But I would not go as far as you do, Mano, in saying that he did not use his religion to make himself extremely wealthy.

  2. Matt G says

    The population of the Hell I don’t even believe in just increased by one. Good riddance, you fraud. My father attended one of his rallies (purely as an observer) and when the crowd was not as big as Graham expected, he cut the whole thing short. Same kind of ego as Trump.

  3. kestrel says

    I saw your post title and immediately thought, “You mean he had a *good* face?!” I had always found him ugly in the extreme. Not wanting to wish ill on anyone, but it would not break my heart if the son also died. He won’t, though. We’ll just have to settle for the old man.

  4. says

    My dad looked (looks!) a lot like Graham. People used to accost dad occasionally, and say stupid worshipful things, which always embarrassed poor dad. Dad is the very soul of courtesy, so he always tried to handle them graciously.

    I always though dad was a good looking guy, in his way but maybe that’s because I see so much of his face in my mirror. At least I didn’t inherit his Billy Graham looks.

  5. says

    When I was still in high school, by dad told me how when Graham was on early television in the ’50s he would ask the audience to lay their hands on the television so that they might receive a special blessing via the air waves (if they made a donation, of course).

    Yeah, the man was a fraud from the get-go and his special relationship with President Richard Milhous Nixon should be sufficient proof for anyone.

  6. Johnny Vector says

    Times like these is when I most miss Frank Zappa.

    Those Jesus Freaks, well, they’re friendly but
    The shit they believe has got their minds all shut.
    And they don’t even care when the church takes a cut.
    Ain’t it bleak when you got so much nuthin’?

    So whaddya do?
    Eat that pork! Eat that ham!
    Laugh till you choke on Billy Graham.
    Moses, Aaron and Abraham;
    They’re all a waste of time.
    And it’s your ass that’s on the line.

    —The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing

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