Reverend Billy Graham, the influential evangelist whose Crusades reached millions of people, died this morning at the age of 99.
Graham, for most of his life, was an admired individual, someone who always appeared on those popularity polls, even long after he stopped preaching. He was an adviser to presidents from both parties, a minister with a star on the Walk of Fame, and — believe it or not — a registered Democrat.
He may have dedicated his life to preaching things that had no basis in fact, but he wasn’t publicly the bogeyman/bigot that his contemporaries like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell turned out to be. (He wasn’t without fault, of course. In a 1972 conversation with President Nixon, Graham said of Jews in the media: “This stranglehold [that Jews have] has got to be broken or this country is going down the drain.”)
But that wasn’t typical of him — and Graham apologized many times over for what he claimed was just him basically nodding his head as he stood next to a President. The same can’t be said about his son Franklin, the current President and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Franklin sullied the family name — and arguably his father’s legacy — by being everything his father wasn’t. Franklin has never had a problem trashing Islam, using the word “Muslim” as a slur against people like President Obama, and even using his father’s image to stop marriage equality and get people to vote Republican.
As fellow Patheos blogger Fred Clark said so perfectly, “Not content with living off the interest of his father’s legacy, Franklin has been burning through the capital.”
The last time we really saw Graham was at his 95th birthday party, a celebration that included the likes of Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and Rupert Murdoch.
The look on Graham’s face just reeks of “What have they done to my legacy?”
Graham never had serious doubts about his faith at the end of his life, but I have to wonder if being surrounded by those people a few years ago made him rethink his career path.
But look: As an atheist, I can still respect how he had plenty of opportunities to cash in on his fame and didn’t. As Time magazine said of him a few years ago,
Well aware of how easily a famous preacher could be destroyed by financial or sexual scandal, Graham took pains early on to protect himself from both. He insisted that crusade accounts be audited and published in the local papers when the crusade was finished. Having founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1950, he took a straight salary, comparable to that of a senior minister of a major urban pulpit, no matter how much in money his meetings brought in. He was turning down million-dollar television and Hollywood offers half a century ago. He never built the Church of Billy Graham, and while he lived comfortably, his house is a modest place. If he had wanted to get rich, he could have been many, many times over.
Today’s megachurch pastors pay far more attention to their own self-interest and promoting their own warped ideas of morality, sexuality, and masculinity. They could’ve learned lessons from Graham — and I’m sure they’ll all be praising his life and what he taught them in the days to come — but they have purposely taken a different path. Graham was probably as honorable as he could’ve been given the fiction he was selling. He was like a sincere, well-intentioned psychic, doing the best he could in spite of his beliefs.
He could’ve been much worse.
Evangelical Christianity today often seems like nothing more than a wing of the Republican Party. Evangelicals are known for their hypocrisy and bigotry, not their love of Jesus, much less their ability to act like Him. Christianity has become everything Graham tried to avoid. The entire faith would be a lot more respectable today if its modern leaders took a page from Graham’s book instead of acting more like his son and daughter.
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