I was an evangelical Christian between the ages of 18 and 30, primarily due to the influence of a group of Oberlin friends who provided my social life with a structure that the college otherwise did not afford me. I ultimately realized that, as a spiritual (and otherwise) guide for my life, evangelical theology was not a good fit for me, made peace with the decision to walk away from it, and did so. Although I still regard as friends most of the people I befriended during this period, I have never looked back at this decision, and am completely at peace with having made it.
During this period, I went from seeing Graham as a slightly sinister figure, due to his association with Richard Nixon, to accepting the mainstream evangelical view of him as the central leader of a spiritual revolution that America desperately needed. I even got an opportunity to hear him speak in person, at a missionary conference in Urbana, Illinois in 1976. As an actor/attorney, and therefore as a connoisseur of public speaking, I have to say that, when it comes to sheer rhetorical skill, I still regard Graham as one of the leading public figures of the 20th century, without regard to the content of that rhetoric. That evening I listened to him is the main reason I feel that way. True, I had seen him many times on television. But seeing and hearing him in person took the experience of listening to him to another level.
Even so, there in one moment in that evening that telegraphed, in a way, the downfall of the evangelical movement his ministry launched. He told a story that, subsequently, I learned he was fond of telling often in sermons and in speeches. As told by him, he was having lunch on Capitol Hill one day in the Senate dining room. One of the Senators with him mentioned a conversation he had with his colleagues about the world being divieded between optimists and pessimists. He asked Graham whether he was an optimist or a pessimist. Graham replied "I'm an optimist. I've read the last page of the Bible, and I know that God's going to win." The audience at the conference roared with laughter, and otherwise with approval.
That mix of humor and conviction was obviously what Graham was hoping to express in telling this story, and it obviously worked for the audience on that evening, and I'm sure on many others. But there's something else about the telling of it that struck me, then and now. Graham was obviously very proud of his political connections, even though he recognized through his experience with Nixon that those connections had hidden dangers that could manifest themselves at any time, dragging him down in the process. The lessons of Watergate had not stopped him from trying to serve Caesar and Christ at the same time.
Billy Graham's marriage of televised preaching and political networking, like it or not, has to be viewed as the topsoil from which the modern televangelical movement began to sprout in the late 1960's, beginning with Pat Robertson and the "700 Club." He liked to dissasociate himself from some of the more extreme political views of that movement, but not from all of those views. Simply put, he helped to plant in the minds of a large number of Americans the idea that evangelical Christianity and political conservatism were in every sense joined at the hip, despite obvious points of departure between the two such as the issues of poverty and civil rights. To paraphrase both the Gospels and the epistles of Paul, Graham helped to popularize the idea that one can serve both G-d and Mammon, and that politics demands that believers be "unequally yoked" with unbelievers.
Fast forward several decades to the present. The White House is now in the hands of a man who works doubletime to enhance his well-earned reputation as a moral reprobate, both financially and sexually. This is not fake news, or fake anything else. These are facts against which any efforts at denial die on contact with them. Who helped to elect him? Who, in fact, make up his most durable constituency, one that simply shrugs off the daily litany of scandal oozing out of the Oval Office? Evangelical Christians, based on little more than Donald Trump's latter day status as a "anti-abortion" President.
And who is one of the most prominent, if not the most prominent, "spiritual advisor" to this President? None other than Franklin Graham, Billy's son and heir to his ministry. And, while his father made at least some nominal attempt to separate himself from the seamier sides of politics, Franklin's effort in this regard feel even more half-hearted. Perhaps the best illustration of that fact is the following quote, taken from a New York Times article that assesses the differences in the lessons that father and son learned about mixing faith and politics:
“In my lifetime, he [Trump] has supported the Christian faith more than any president that I know,” Mr. Graham said. “That doesn’t mean he is the greatest example of the Christian faith, and neither am I, but he defends the faith. There’s a difference between defending the faith and living the faith.” (emphasis added)Someone needs to tell Franklin that the sophistry in that last sentence is fooling no one, at least no one who is thinking for himself or herself. Personally, the best and most concise rebuttal to that statement came in a letter to the Times' editorial page in response to the article:
Yes, it is called hypocrisy.That, however, is a purely secular perspective. For a more spiritual one, perhaps for many a more devine one, it might be worth considering the words of another source:
‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.' (Matthew 15:8-9, ESV)I do not condemn the Grahams and their broadcast descendants for their failure to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. The Gospels and the First Amendment both do that for me. At this point, it's up to these televangelical sinners to stop talking out of both sides of their mouths, and to stop using that which is held as sacred by many as a vehicle for empowering a few. And its time for the followers of these sinners to remind themselves and each other that G-d does not choose political sides, but only asks who is on His side. And that He expects us to treat everyone, regardless of their political views, with humility and respect.