Friday, February 23, 2018

Assessing Billy Graham's Legacy: "Wrong Side of History," "Toxic Brand of Evangelicalism That Has Kneecapped American Politics"

Thoughtful statements I've read about the legacy of Southern Baptist minister and "unofficial pope of white Christianity" (see Fred Clark below) Billy Graham, following his death: 

With Graham's death, it's time to reconsider how his promotion of a nationalistic version of Americanized Christianity has influenced evangelicals today. Graham's proximity to the office of the presidency and government since the Eisenhower administration is part of why we see scenes of eager evangelicals embracing President Trump. It's also responsible for a large cohort of evangelicals who are actively supporting Islamophobia, isolationism, and America first policies. . . . 
This proximity to power which Graham achieved as the representative of Christian America is unparalleled. That is without dispute. What is up for conversation, is how that representation has culminated in evangelical leadership backing the president with the lowest approval rating in American history, while posing for pictures with him in the oval office. We have Billy Graham to thank for that dubious distinction, and it's worth looking back in the wake of his passing to see how his form of folksy American pious politics morphed into a power grab by evangelicals to establish their particular brand of theocracy in America. President Trump fully embraces the isolationist, hegemonic WASP politics that son Franklin Graham and many others promote today. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Franklin Graham simply represents a more strident version of 1950s Billy Graham.

There is a story we tell about America ― one that twists together the conflicting narratives of patriotism, guns and God. We tell this story every time we hold our hands over our hearts, intoning, "one nation under God," or whenever we stand teary-eyed in a stadium honoring our troops, Blue Angels flying overhead, while someone sings "God Bless America." 
It's there in our trucks, in the before-dinner prayers at tables in the heartland, penetrating our politics until faith and the White House become one in a nation founded on the principles of separation of church and state. 
This wasn't always the story of America. 
World-famous evangelist Billy Graham died on Feb. 21, 2018. In the wake of his passing, there will be a grappling with and a whitewashing of his legacy ― his spiritual advisement to every president from Eisenhower to Obama and his loathsome attitudes toward LGBTQ people, for instance. But it's also worth noting that the toxic brand of evangelicalism that has kneecapped American politics, the full merging of patriotism and Christianity, would not have been possible without Graham's relentless pursuit of civil religion.

In 2003, when my Baptist parents were searching for a cure for my homosexuality, they had only a few sources they trusted to guide them in their decision-making process. One was the Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, which was heavily affiliated with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; the other was Graham himself, who was by far the most trusted leader in the evangelical Christian community at the time. Both sources pointed to a cure for homosexuality. On the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website, dating as far back as January 2001 and still today, the question of homosexuality is addressed multiple times, and a cure is offered: "God not only wants to protect you from homosexual behavior, but He wants to begin to meet the deep needs at the root of your same-sex desires," it once said. The site went on to suggest contacting Exodus International, the largest conversion therapy umbrella group at the time, or Homosexuals Anonymous. In its current version, the site still recommends reading a book on the gay cure. 
My parents enrolled me in conversion therapy sessions that in the past had used electroshock therapy, and used a form of psychological torture while I was there, and in the years that followed my parents and I had a difficult time coming to terms with why, exactly, we had all agreed that I should attend them. For my father, whom I compared to Billy Graham in my memoir, the answer can best be found in Graham's own words: "Let me say this loud and clear!" he wrote to another young woman in his advice column. "We traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual warfare." Every time my father, who was becoming a preacher at the time of my outing, consulted a church leader, he found them repeat the same "loud and clear" message. My mother, married at sixteen, had been taught to listen to my father, so there was no room for disagreement. For many Christians like ourselves, the patriarchal chain ended at Billy Graham, who never retracted his statement on homosexuality. His refusal to address the "hot-button issues" that controlled my fate brought on years of suicidal ideation and estrangement. I have since heard from many conversion therapy survivors that Graham was one of the most frequently-cited sources on homosexuality in their childhood households.

Graham had the opportunity to lead fundamentalists into a new era. He could have pushed them to take social reform seriously as a God-given mandate to save the world from environmental destruction. He could have tackled racism, America's original sin, by championing the federal government's aggressive civil rights policies. 
But he squandered it. He could not overcome the speculative end-times schemes of his cohort of evangelicals, with their anti-government hostilities. 
Graham had good intentions, as his work desegregating his crusades demonstrated. But when his influence really would have counted, when he could have effected real change, real social transformation, he was too locked into last-days fearmongering to recognize the potential of the state to do good. We are all paying the price. 
A different kind of last days may soon be upon us. Racial tensions are rising, the earth is warming, and evangelicals are doing little to help. That may be Graham's most significant, and saddest, legacy.

Erik Loomis, "Billy Graham": 

People such as Jerry Falwell get most of the credit for the politicizing of evangelicals, but while Graham is seen as less grotesquely partisan and horrible than Falwell, he had at least as big a role in this process. 

Fred Clark, "Billy Graham is dead":

Billy Graham, the unofficial pope of white evangelical Christianity, has died at the age of 99. 
Throughout his many years of public ministry, Graham preached to live audiences totaling in the millions, with many millions more watching live broadcasts of his unfortunately named evangelistic "crusades." It is said that Graham "reached" more people than any other evangelist. 
We have to ask, though, what this "reach" entailed. Millions were "saved" through Graham's evangelism — many of them more than once. But if Graham's evangelism produced converts, we have to ask what, if anything, it was these folks were converted to. (And what, if anything, they were converted from.) 
And that means we have to talk about Franklin. Graham's son, the heir of his spiritual (and financial) kingdom, is an ugly piece of work. Franklin Graham is one of the most viciously and enthusiastically hateful people in American public life — and the competition for that distinction is notably fierce. Take any outrageously hateful statement from Donald Trump and you will find its equivalent made by Franklin Graham years earlier. 
So did Billy Graham "reach" his own son? Is Franklin Graham a convert of his father's gospel? 
I think he is. Yes, Graham fils is radically different in tone and in emphasis from Graham père, which is why I often refer to him as Franklin Hophni Phineas Graham (look it up). . . .
Where Billy spoke cheerfully of "proclaiming Christ to the world," Franklin cackles gleefully about "Cowards destined for the lake of fire." That progression isn't pretty, but there's a kind of logic to it. Billy devoted his life to proclamation evangelism because he believed that non-Christians were doomed to eternal conscious torment in Hell if they didn’t pray the prayer of salvation. Franklin heard that message his whole life. He absorbed it. He learned what it taught him about the character of God and he learned what it taught him about the character of all those unsaved souls. These people — the unsaved, the un-Christian — deserved Hell. They deserved the worst possible torment imaginable. Forever. How could that not mean that they are utterly despicable and undeserving of love? 
The folklore/doctrine of Hell is a hell of a drug. 
And Billy's otherworldly, inconsequential gospel of hollow conversion — of conversion to nothing more than the claim of having been converted — offered Franklin no antidote to the lessons he was learning about the nature of God and the nature of his damnable neighbors.

From the mid-nineteen-seventies through the mid-eighties, evangelicalism, led by the Reverend Jerry Falwell, began its steady march rightward into the embrace of the Republican Party. The movement came to be defined by its social conservatism, though Graham himself tried to steer clear of issues like abortion. "I’m just going to preach the gospel and am not going to get off on all these hot-button issues," he told the Times, in 2005. "If I get on these other subjects, it divides the audience on an issue that is not the issue I'm promoting. I’m just promoting the gospel." 
Other evangelical leaders, including Graham's eldest son, Franklin, who has inherited his father’s mantle as the leader of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, adopted a very different tack. Many evangelical leaders have been stalwart defenders of Donald Trump, even in the face of allegations of adultery, sexual assault, and harassment, believing they have found in him a staunch ally. "I believe Donald Trump is a good man," Franklin Graham said on CNN, last month. "He did everything wrong as a candidate and he won, and I don’t understand it. Other than I think God put him there." Last November, many of these same leaders continued to back Roy Moore in his Senate bid in Alabama, despite allegations he had sexually assaulted teen-age girls. 
The result is a brewing existential crisis, particularly among younger believers, many of whom are choosing to shed the evangelical label. Graham and his cohort sought to forge a movement that was distinct from the fundamentalism of their day, yet that is precisely what modern evangelicalism has come to be associated with. The overriding interest of Graham and other neo-evangelicals, as they were called, was in spurring a religious revival in the United States. That was why they sought to overcome the divisions that beset Protestants at the time. The question, today, is whether evangelicalism’s leaders remain primarily interested in the spiritual, as Graham was, or if their agenda has become purely political. If it turns out to be the latter, that may well spell the end of the movement Graham helped forge.

David A. Hollinger, "Billy Graham's Missed Opportunities": 

From the 1970s onward the Grahams of American religion triumphed over the Niebuhrs, largely because the evangelicals continued to espouse a cluster of ideas that remained popular with the white public while the liberal, ecumenical leadership abandoned these same ideas as indefensibly racist, sexist, imperialist, chauvinistic, homophobic and anti-intellectual. 
Prominent among these ideas was the assertion that the United States was a "Christian nation," rather than one in which persons of many faiths, and of no faith at all, were civic equals. Another such idea was that claim that the heterosexual, nuclear, patriarchal family was God's will. Yet another was that faith in Jesus was the only road to salvation. 
Mr. Graham had a choice as to where he would urge his followers to come down on these issues. Consistently, he distanced himself from the efforts of ecumenists to revise Christianity in cosmopolitan directions. He encouraged his vast and devoted following to believe that God’s word was unchanging and that liberals were substituting their own ideas for those of a supernatural, unchanging deity revealed in the Bible. He dumbed down his inherited faith instead of helping it to address the challenges of modern times. 
The memory of Mr. Graham is rightly honored by those who shared his values and the goals for which he mobilized evangelical Christianity. But the rest of us can surely be forgiven if we remember him differently.

George Will, "Billy Graham was no prophet": 

Graham was no theologian. 
Neither was he a prophet. Jesus said "a prophet hath no honor in his own country." Prophets take adversarial stances toward their times, as did the 20th century’s two greatest religious leaders, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paul II. Graham did not. Partly for that reason, his country showered him with honors. . . . 
Graham frequently vowed to abstain from partisan politics and almost as frequently slipped this self-imposed leash, almost always on behalf of Republicans. Before the 1960 election, Graham, displaying some cognitive dissonance, said that if John F. Kennedy were a true Catholic, he would be a president more loyal to the pope than to the Constitution but that he would fully support him if elected. 
Graham's dealings with presidents mixed vanity and naivete. In 1952, he said he wanted to meet with all the candidates "to give them the moral side of the thing." He was 33. He applied flattery with a trowel, comparing Dwight Eisenhower's first foreign policy speech to the Sermon on the Mount and calling Richard Nixon "the most able and the best trained man for the job probably in American history." He told Nixon that God had given him, Nixon, "supernatural wisdom." Graham should have heeded the psalmist’s warning about putting one’s faith in princes.

It is my considered opinion that the history of the last 40 years would have been infinitely better off if evangelical Protestants had stayed where the Scopes trial put them. (They did, after all, actually win that case.) What Graham showed them not only was the way to come back into mainstream influence, which they did with a vengeance. He also taught them to monetize the process of doing so, which they did with an extra vengeance. He created the greatest religious empire since Suleiman The Magnificent. He showed them the way. Unlike his many successors, he evidently was a man of great personal ethics. Otherwise, quotes like this might alarm me. 
"Returning home with a friend that night, Mr. Graham said, he thought: 'Now I've gotten saved. Now whatever I do can't unsave me. Even if I killed somebody, I can't ever be unsaved now.'" 
In politics, however, his career was decidedly mixed. He started out as such an effective Red-baiter that William Randolph Hearst stake-horsed him early in his career. He got too close to Richard Nixon and too eagerly joined the pile of history’s yard waste that was that worthy’s career. It was a marvelous environment for bigotry and Graham let his freak flag fly. 
Again, from the Times
"Mr. Graham's image was tainted in 2002 with the release of audiotapes that Nixon had secretly recorded in the White House three decades earlier. The two men were heard agreeing that liberal Jews controlled the media and were responsible for pornography. 
'A lot of the Jews are great friends of mine,' Mr. Graham said at one point on the tapes. 'They swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I'm friendly with Israel. But they don't know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country.'"
In the 1960 presidential campaign, Mr. Graham, a registered Democrat, was strongly sympathetic to Nixon, a Republican, and offered him advice in his campaign against Senator John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic. At one point, concerned that a Kennedy administration would be influenced by the Vatican, Mr. Graham invited more than two-dozen Protestant leaders to a meeting to discuss ways to defeat him.
Given the fact that we are now left with his inexcusable wing nut son, Franklin, I'm not inclined to look too harshly on Billy Graham's career. It can always get worse, and has.

(Thanks to Brian Gallagher for pointing me to the George Will piece.) 

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