Should Billy Graham’s legacy be rescued?

Commentary: Graham's recent foray into anti-gay politics has cast doubt on his seemingly compassionate history

by Jason Yonce    defeatedcreek@yahoo.com
Published: February 13, 2013 in Guest Commentary

President Barack Obama with Rev. Billy Graham at his house in Montreat, N.C., April 25, 2010. Photo Credit: Pete Souza/White House.

New Atheism — made popular by such thinkers as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hutchens — makes no apologies for iconoclasm. In the last decade or so of New Atheism’s ascendance into the cultural mainstream there have been no shortage of key religious figures whose lives are revisited by a new vanguard completely unconcerned with respect or veneration of the clergy. Mother Teresa, the Pope and Mahatma Gandhi were a few whose work and writings were called into question. Others like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed were used to the vitriol of many, religious and non-religious alike. The latter comprised part of the religious right in the 1980s and were unapologetically political in their sermons and used controversial social issues like abortion and LGBT rights to give their like-minded politicians a political advantage.

North Carolina’s own Billy Graham was no stranger to the halls of power. He has met with every president since Harry Truman.  Graham, however, lacked the political ambition of his contemporaries in the religious right. Graham in decades of his crusades, bestselling writing and calls to heads of state could have amassed tremendous wealth but settled on a set salary similar to other ministers in urban churches. He could have easily gone on to establish a megachurch similar to John Hagee’s or religious universities like Liberty or Regent. Graham’s home is relatively modest. At 93years old, Graham should be leaving behind a legacy of modesty, as a man willing to move beyond the racism of his generation and many other things that can be completely divorced from his evangelical work which the faithful still consider to be the best part of his legacy.

Yet, many have instead turned a skeptical eye toward Graham and his schmoozing with those in power. Some see him as completely forsaking his apolitical past for a new-found outspokenness against the LGBT community. Iconoclasm and skepticism are both wonderful things, so it’s less concerning to ask what changed about the public and their attitude toward Graham and instead asked what changed about Graham to incite such vitriol.

Graham’s ails began, arguably, in 2007 when the late Christopher Hitchens took on Graham in his book “God is Not Great.” In an interview with C-SPAN that same year Hitchens referred to Graham as a “self-conscious fraud” and that Graham “was in it for the money.” For a better refutation of Hitchens’ claims see Nancy Gibbs’ and Michael Duffy’s piece in Time magazine, “Why Christopher Hitchens Is Wrong About Billy Graham.”

In 2012, Graham took out full-page newspaper ads in The Wall Street Journal and key North Carolina newspapers supporting North Carolina’s national embarrassment, Amendment One.

“At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage,” the ad from Graham read. “The Bible is clear — God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman. I want to urge my fellow North Carolinians to vote for the marriage amendment … Watching the moral decline of our country causes me great concern. I believe the home and marriage is the foundation of our society and must be protected.”

Graham also supposedly showed similar support to Minnesota’s defeated Amendment One during last year’s general election and showed support for Chick-fil-A during its 2012 scandals.

Billy Graham is in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease in addition to his failing sight and hearing. He has undergone major hospitalizations in the last few years including to have fluid drained from his cranium. The work of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) has fallen to his son Franklin who is a much more outspoken anti-LGBT bigot cut from the same cloth as Falwell and Robertson. There is little known about what Billy’s faculties even are at this point although he met with both presidential candidates in 2012 in his home outside Asheville, N.C.

I have no doubt of Graham’s disapprobation of gay marriage as I would have no doubt over most anyone from his generation harboring that prejudice. Bigotry is a continuum. In my own family my maternal grandparents were horrified by the racism of their southern contemporaries, believed in equal pay (my great grandfather fought for equal pay at the local tannery), and had, by all accounts, nothing other than amicable relationships with African-Americans whose community still shares a border with our family’s pasture. However, both of them still disapproved of interracial marriage on largely religious grounds. In Graham’s case, it’s hard for me to imagine the words in the 2012 newspaper ads were his at all.

With this idea in mind it is instructive to look back at two events in the mid-1990s; Billy Graham’s interview with Larry King on Dec. 25, 1994 and his San Francisco crusade in 1997.  In the 1994 interview, Graham stated that he believed that homosexuality was genetic rather than a choice (some sources say Graham used the word “sodomite” but I can’t confirm this). During the 1997 crusade Billy made the following remark recorded in The San Francisco Chronicle:

“There are other sins. Why do we jump on that sin [homosexuality] as though it’s the greatest sin?…What I want to preach about in San Francisco is the love of God. People need to know that God loves them no matter what their ethnic background or sexual orientation. I have so many gay friends, and we remain friends.”

Who those gay friends were may be a mystery but Graham also included in his invocation to a congregation of over 10,000 that night: “Whatever your background, whatever your sexual orientation, we welcome you tonight…” This, while certainly no blessing, was hardly the Graham who supposedly overcame great ailments to take sides on LGBT political issues in 2012.

Becky Garrison writing this month in Free Inquiry (“The Anti-Gay Legacy of America’s Prophet”) shed light on Graham’s anti-Semitic remarks made to President Nixon in the 1970s for which he made a profound and seemingly sincere apology in 2002 once the tapes had been released.  This along with the 2012 newspaper ads serve as all the evidence, it seems, to condemn Graham’s 62-year ministry and label him as a bigot. While even paying lip service to the possibility of Franklin using his father as a puppet some commentators seem satisfied with this to tarnish Billy’s legacy as his days shorten.

Also worthy of mention here is that Billy Graham’s statements from the mid-1990s have also been used repeatedly to slander and attack him from his enemies from the Religious Right. While no visible figure like Falwell or Robertson would risk sullying Graham, many local pastors and commentators have used Graham’s positive statements about Pope John Paul II and Catholicism, his friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton, and other stances as evidence of Billy Graham’s secularity and weak religiosity. A Google search of Billy Graham’s views on homosexuality is actually more likely to direct you to those websites than to those of his detractors among New Atheists.

At any point in the last 62 years of his ministry Billy Graham could have interjected himself into the political arena and yet he avoided doing so preferring to act as a spiritual advisor. He could have sought favor from CEOs and corporations like he now supposedly does with Dan Cathy and Chick-Fil-A, but he didn’t. I am convinced that Franklin and, to a lesser extent, his sister Anne are using their father’s name for their own anti-LGBT agenda. Even sadder, to me, is that my secular and progressive Christian friends seem to content to join ranks with the most hardline and repressive conservative Christian ministers and commentators in tarnishing a man who, despite the misgivings of his generation, seemed to tread carefully and lovingly when dealing with those whom his contemporaries were willing to shun and against whom they encouraged hatred and alienation. This was not Billy Graham and in his twilight he deserves better than what America in 2013 seems willing to give him.