The Southern Baptist churches I grew up in loved Billy Graham and I can remember as a young person listening to his “crusades” on television. His oratorical power and presence combined with a fervent and warm religiosity appealed to my family, as he appealed to so many.
Now decades later, I see Rev. Graham in a more complicated way. Perhaps you have heard that phrase, “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This is sometimes taken up as a slogan for pastors, preachers and journalists! There is something of the truth that resonates in that slogan. But what I have come to conclude is that—for whatever reasons, be it naïveté or cynical and machiavellian religion—Billy Graham turned that phrase on its head. He did not comfort the afflicted in a time of Viet Nam and Civil Rights and Women’s Rights. He afflicted the afflicted. He did not afflict the comfortable but was intwined with the State, providing cover and aid to Richard Nixon and even participating in anti-semitic conversation with the President. And this is, perhaps, the telling point for me as regards this Baptist preacher who called his mass evangelistic rallies “crusades”—insensitive to the historical reality of what a word like “crusade” even conveys, violence in the name of Christ—he was a Baptist in name but historically severed from Baptist proclamations about liberty and its distrust of the State. When he wrapped the Gospel in the American flag and became a spokesperson for the Empire, he looked less and less like a Baptist and more and more like a sycophant of the State. He must, however, be given credit for his having denounced the proliferation of nuclear arms.
Years ago I attended a session of the DC Baptist Convention where Anne Graham Lotz spoke as a keynote speaker. Her sermon bristled with homophobic rhetoric. Billy’s son, Franklyn, is a darling of the right wing, using his voice to harm the stranger in our midst, lashing out at Muslims and carrying the cross to oppress women and minorities. Surely these acorns did not fall far from the tree.
Billy Graham was a true believer. He was a powerful preacher. He was a crusader wrapped in red, white and blue. Those who fell sway to him should soberly ponder his legacy as those who were harmed by him continue to feel oppressed by his ministry and those who carry its torch.