I can’t say that over my life time that I’ve spent much time thinking about Billy Graham. His brand of tent revival evangelizing is not my cup of tea frankly. His “crusades” were often televised, but we certainly didn’t watch them.
Basically, my impression was of a kind of “pastor” to the presidents, a person with a good heart, and one who was committed to bringing his version of Jesus to the masses. He seemed scandal free.
I’ve, in the last few years, had reason to amend and revise my opinion. His publicized bigotry toward Jews was certainly shocking and unsettling. This from the man who had advised twelve presidents and was always in the top ten of “most admired” Americans.
Last night we watched the last of a three-part series on PBS called “God in America“. It focused on the post WWII time to the present. It focused on the rise of Billy Graham in the first hour. I learned a lot.
Graham owed his rise nationally to William Randolph Hearst. Graham was “crusading” in Los Angeles, and giving his usual “atheistic communist” speech wherein Americans were called to combat the red scare by turning their hearts over to Jesus Christ. Hearst was a rabid anti-communist and went out of his way to feature Graham in his newspaper. From there, Graham took off like a rocket.
But there was a dark side. Graham apparently couldn’t reconcile himself to a Roman Catholic in the White House. He sent JFK a lovely conciliatory letter during the campaign, and then promptly went off to Switzerland where he met with others on how to stop Kennedy from winning the Presidency.
Part of this may have been his great fondness for Nixon. And from those meetings with Nixon come the rather infamous tapes in which Graham clearly refers to Jews in a negative fashion. He claimed they held a “stranglehold” on the media and referred to the “synagogue of Satan.” When these surfaced, Graham claimed not to have recalled using these words and protested that he was not bigoted in any fashion.
A possible reason for his animosity toward Jews may have come from the “prayer in school” issue. It was a group of New York Jewish parents who sued to remove a “generic” prayer from the school their children attended. When it reached the Supreme Court of the land, such prayer was banned throughout the US.
Although he publicly condemned segregation, he privately wrote to Martin Luther King telling him that it would be best to “slow things down a bit.” He rather consistently opposed civil disobedience, although he counseled accepting the laws once passed. He couldn’t see human affairs improving in a real way until Jesus returned to earth. His vision was small. And oddly he never saw it seems, civil rights as a natural cause that Jesus would have embraced.
I guess what I come around to on Graham is that he had very strong beliefs about what he thought was right, and like most fundamentalists, sometimes the means are not so important as long as the ends seem correct. This kind of attitude seems to have filtered through to Franklin his son, who sees nothing unChristian in his vilification of Islam as an evil religion.
Graham was not without his white Protestant standards it seems.
This man, at great personal threat to himself, refused to back down, and refused to strike back, returning evil for evil. When his home was bombed, a crowd of sympathizers appears with guns to seek vengeance. He sent them home, after tempering their anger.
He of course was jailed for his marching,and some of his most famous words come from that time in the Montgomery jail. He correctly, I believe, situated civil rights in the ministry of Jesus Christ. He saw, as do most African-Americans, segregation as the American Egypt, and the civil rights act as the equivalency of the parting of the Red Sea and the escape from captivity.
He read Gandhi and, saw his model of pass resistance and peaceful civil disobedience as perfect models for how Jesus conducted his ministry and life. He embraced it as the only way. He was mindful of the same arguments advanced by Henry David Thoreau.
Johnson, took up the cause as the new President, following Kennedy’s assassination. And he counseled King, after its passage, to slow down. But King would not. As much as he must have been grateful to Johnson, he was more dedicated to the Gospel. He pushed Johnson to submit a voting rights bill.
And then he turned to areas of general poverty. And then he turned to oppose the Vietnam war, something that certainly put him at odds with Johnson. Yet, he remained true to the Gospel, supremely focused on “putting on the mind of Christ.”
When I view these two men, I can see quite clearly who really announced the Good News. What do you think?
- How the cold war reshaped Protestantism in America (economist.com)
- Martin Luther King (time.com)
- Marilyn Mellowes: ‘God in America:’ Faith and Politics (huffingtonpost.com)
- “Graham: Obama born a Muslim, now a Christian” and related posts (politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com)
- 4 reviews of Billy Graham (Christian fundamentalist to borderline relativist) (rateitall.com)