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)