The Fall of the House of Graham

Billy Graham is passing slowly into shadows. His legacy is following close behind.

We know him as the “Evangelical Pope” and “Pastor to Presidents.” For the last half of the twentieth century, he was, without argument, the leading religious figure in America.

If you went to one of his rallies, they were simple but powerful. The gospel, in all of its elemental grace, was preached, and the audience was invited to respond. Many, many people around the world made a decision to follow Jesus as a result of Billy Graham’s undiluted and unpolluted sermons.

He was, to use a biblical phrase, above reproach in his character and personal integrity. He went to great lengths to protect and preserve his personal purity and his family relationships. While he was arrow-shaft straight in his presentation of the gospel, he moved like a ballerina through the corridors of power. Though a lifelong registered Democrat, he served as confidant to presidents of either party and made it clear that praying for politicians was more important than praying to politicians.

He had been a firebrand in his early years, given to moralistic bombast as any clear-eyed zealot. But when his mundane chumminess with Nixon threatened his above-the-clouds moral stature, he became—in a politically savvy move—diligently apolitical. He kept Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority at arm’s length. He demurred to suggestions that he translate his influence into political capital, making jokes about his wife, Ruth, threatening to divorce him if he had sought political office.

He fell and broke his pelvis at age 80, and his health has been slowly deteriorating ever since. Parkinson’s, prostate cancer, pneumonia, hearing and vision loss: his body has been crumbling like the walls of Jericho for the past 14 years. In the rare case of public appearances, he is spray-tanned, propped up in a chair, and, when instructed, manages to wince a smile in the general direction of the cameras. His gaze is vacant and his words are few and low. Any comprehensible words are issued as “statements” written or spoken by his handlers.

It is curious, then, to witness the ascendant political career of Billy Graham in this his 93rd year.

In 2012, Graham has made five major political moves:

1) He supported the North Carolina Amendment One (“the marriage amendment”) with full-page ads in 14 state newspapers defending “traditional marriage” and opposing gay marriage.

“At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage. 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 on Tuesday, May 8.”

2) He issued a statement in support of Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s comments about “the biblical definition of the family unit.”

“I appreciate the Cathy family’s public support for God’s definition of marriage.”

3) He published a “prayer letter” entitled “My Heart Aches for America,” criticizing America’s “declining morality” and comparing the nation to Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Self-centered indulgence, pride, and a lack of shame over sin are now emblems of the American lifestyle.”

4) He obliquely endorsed Mitt Romney for President, which necessitated his Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s (BGEA) removal of any references to the “cult” status of Mormonism from its website.

“What impresses me even more than Governor Romney’s successful career are his values and strong moral convictions. I appreciate his faithful commitment to his impressive family, particularly his wife Ann of 43 years and his five married sons.”

“What you’re planning, what your son has shown me, is going to be very, very helpful. And I appreciate that. It’s going to be terrific,” said Mitt Romney, near the end of their thirty-minute meeting.

5) He ran a series of full-page ads in USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and several swing state newspapers encouraging Christians to vote for candidates who promote “biblical values.” The ads were also made available as church bulletin inserts.

“I believe it is vitally important that we cast our ballots for candidates who base their decisions on biblical principles and support the nation of Israel. I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.”

I must pause for a moment and hit rewind. About seven years ago, a feeble but still lucid Billy Graham appeared on NBC’s Today Show. In the interview, Katie Couric asked Graham if he was concerned about “the current mix of Evangelical Christian doctrine and politics.” Graham responded that preachers have mixed politics and religion for centuries, but “I stay as far away as I can.” Couric pressed him for an explanation, and Graham continued, “I think that if I would talk on a political subject, if I talk about it, it would divide the audience on that issue. That’s not my issue. My issue is Christ.”

Now that sounds like the Billy Graham we all used to know. The political pontification from 2012 sounds like, well, someone else. And that’s because it comes from someone else: his eldest son, Franklin Graham.

Franklin Graham is the Steve Jobs of evangelicalism, serving as CEO of two ministries simultaneously: the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and Samaritan’s Purse (SP). Both are excellent and impactful ministries that do important work around the world. I am not taking issue with either ministry, per se. But both the BGEA and SP have become politicized over the last few years under Franklin Graham’s leadership.

Here, for example are Franklin Graham’s comments about the Chick-Fil-A controversy, taken from the Samaritan’s Purse website:

“The restaurant chain has been, and continues to be, under a concerted attack from same-sex marriage advocates,” he said. “I applaud the courage of [Dan] Cathy to take a bold stand for the Biblical definition of marriage between a man and woman in a culture that has grown openly hostile to the Christian faith and its followers.” Graham added that supporting the restaurant for one day is just a skirmish in a much larger battle. “This is no longer a cultural war; it’s a religious war,” he said. “And the Church of Jesus Christ within America must wake up out of its slumber and stand up and fight for Biblical truth within our society that is increasingly becoming anti-Christian.”

As we say in the South, “Them’s fightin’ words.”

Franklin, who is influenced by PR magnate and Romney’s liaison to evangelicals, Mark DeMoss (a trustee of Liberty University), recently wrote an article entitled “Can an Evangelical Christian Vote for a Mormon?” in the October 2012 issue of BGEA’s Decision magazine. Spoiler alert: the article’s last word is “yes.”

In that article, Franklin Graham argues, “We must use our influence to elect those who will govern with respect for the sanctity of marriage as between one man and one woman; the sanctity of life; and yes, the protection of God’s beloved nation Israel.” He makes a case that the “common values” of “God’s moral law” trump a candidate’s “religious persuasion.” He paints the picture of a “profound crossroads” where an atheistic or pantheistic culture is led by “secularized” Christian leaders who defy the founders’ vision of “one nation under God.” He encourages his readers to “put aside labels and vote for principles—God’s principles.” And, in case the younger Graham’s political ambitions were not explicit enough, he says: “We need something like what Jerry Falwell did in the 1980s. We need a ‘moral majority’—made up of Christians, Jews, Mormons, Catholics and many others of faith—to come together to take a stand for our religious freedoms and rights.”

It is a tone and a message striking in its similarity to the recent political pronouncements of “Billy Graham.”

When a withered and cataracted Billy Graham is soon awakened in fields of splendor, he might say, trembling, “Dark have been my dreams of late.”

Back in 2005, Billy Graham told Katie Couric that he’d like people to remember him as “faithful to the message all his life.” He hoped they’d say, “He didn’t depart. He didn’t veer.” I, for one, don’t think he has.

About Ben Ponder, Editor-at-Large

Ben Ponder, PhD, is Editor-at-Large at Media Rostra. Ben has received decorative pieces of paper conferring upon him an unnamed set of “rights and privileges accorded thereto” from the University of Arkansas, Regent College, and Northwestern University (where he was a Presidential Fellow). He studied (in alphabetical order) architecture, classics, communication, history, political science, rhetoric, and theology. He is the author of American Independence: From Common Sense to the Declaration (“Sizzling.” – TMZ) and the co-editor of Making the Case: Advocacy and Judgment in Public Argument (“Six-pack abs-olutely great!” – US Weekly). Ben is currently an executive in the educational software industry. He and his organic wife, Amy, live with their four free-range kids in a farmhouse Ben designed and built. His personal site on the Interweb is benponder.com, and he can be reached on Twitter @ponderben.

Comments

  1. “I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”

    — Rev. Billy Graham, Parade, 1981

  2. Lesley DeyselNo Gravatar says:

    “Dark have been my dreams of late.” Darn, you made me cry. Here, I raise you a “grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

    I also don’t believe that Billy Graham has turned his back on the message he was given. It’s terribly sad to me that a son can use his father’s name in this way, but not as sad as it would have been if Rev. Graham had really sold out to a political ideology.