For seven hours today, the remains of the evangelist Billy Graham will lie in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Why? Billy was a family friend but this is not appropriate.
We aren’t Iran. We aren’t a theocracy. Watch Franklin Graham and Mike Pence strike a blow for further establishing of a homophobic white nationalist American theocracy this week by abusing the Billy Graham funeral/lying in state hoopla. And Trump will try to get in on the afterglow too.
The Religious Right is set to hijack Billy’s remains as his own son Franklin has long since planned to do.
I first met Billy Graham when I was nine. He visited my parents’ home and spent the day with us. I sat next to him and his then nine-year-old son Franklin, as they listened to my father preach in our living room that doubled as our chapel at my parents’ evangelical mission of L’Abri” (the shelter) in Switzerland.
I last saw Billy in the early 1980s when I was with my evangelist father Francis Schaeffer (“credited” as one of the founders of the religious right) who was undergoing treatment at Mayo Clinic. Billy, Dad and I met several times there when Billy was visiting for his checkups.
It seems to me that Billy died in the very year that the subculture of white evangelicalism he helped create has committed suicide by continuing to support Trump. And the double irony is Billy’s son Franklin has led what might now be called the Trump Crusade, not for Christ, but for power.
Trump’s most vocal evangelical supporter is Franklin Graham. Admired among far right white evangelicals, Franklin has defended Trump on television and social media through the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, the crackdowns on immigrants and refugees, the Stormy Daniels scandal, and the slur against Haiti and Africa.
When Barack Obama was president, Franklin Graham was part of the “birther” conspiracy that claimed the president was not an American citizen. He lied suggesting that Obama was not a Christian and might secretly be a Muslim.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Franklin held rallies in 50 states to pump up evangelical turnout on what he called a “Decision America Tour.”
There’s a bizarre symmetry here: To get elected Trump held Graham-like mass “evangelistic” rallies and led white Christians to deny the faith Billy Graham had once preached. They denied Graham’s Jesus for the sake of accepting earthly and utterly corrupting power as their new “personal savior.”
Trump becoming president may turn out to be the lasting Billy Graham legacy. Graham’s funeral in North Carolina on Friday, which Trump will attend, will serve as a reminder of nothing so much as how the evangelical movement has mutated and splintered from one generation to the next. And sadly Billy fused his faith message with 1950s American anti-communism in ways that are still playing out today. As Anthea Butler writes in Religion dispatches (February 22, 2018 Billy Graham and the Gospel of American Nationalistic Christianity):
With Graham’s death, it’s time to reconsider how his promotion of a nationalistic version of Americanized Christianity has influenced evangelicals today. Graham’s proximity to the office of the presidency and government since the Eisenhower administration is part of why we see scenes of eager evangelicals embracing President Trump. It’s also responsible for a large cohort of evangelicals who are actively supporting Islamophobia, isolationism, and America first policies.
Billy Graham may have been “puffed” by William Randolph Hearst newspaper reporters in his first crusade in Los Angeles, but the more important event in Graham’s ministry was his Washington, D.C. crusade in 1952. It was there that he would begin what was part of his lifelong work: fusing Christianity and Americanism together to create a potent cocktail of Evangelical Christian Nationalism.
When Billy Graham is buried this week, it will be the second Graham family burial to happen at the Billy Graham center. The first cast a light on just what a JERK Franklin Graham is aside from even his far right politics. Billy’s wife (and my mother’s good friend Ruth), died in 2007. And — to put it mildly — Franklin was exposed as a real low life by that event. He went against his mother’s last wishes as to where to be buried. Franklin wanted to create a sort of emperors’ tomb for his parents as an ongoing fundraising gimmick. With his parents buried at his center, Franklin figured – correctly – that he’d keep the visitors coming and the money flowing.
As the Washington Post reported (Graham: Wife to Be Buried in Charlotte June 14, 2007)
Ruth Bell Graham’s … burial site has been a matter of contention for months, threatening to break apart the country’s most famous Christian family. A Washington Post story in December revealed that son Franklin Graham, chief executive officer of the BGEA, had told potential donors that he planned to bury his parents at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte.
Two of the other four Graham children, Ned Graham and Anne Graham Lotz, objected, as did Ruth, who called the library, a Disney-like building in the shape of a barn, “a circus.” In the presence of six witnesses, including Ned, a neuroscientist and a Graham employee, Ruth signed a notarized statement saying she wished to be buried in a memorial garden at the Cove, a mountain retreat center that she and Billy built about 20 years ago.
…Ned Graham said yesterday that when he visited his mother a week and a half ago, she told him she still intended to be buried at the Cove. He said he and his sister Anne first learned of the change last night.
“I know this goes against my mother’s wishes,” he said.
Franklin Graham is cashing in on his parents’ deaths by making a shrine of their final resting place, and this was against his mother’s wishes. White evangelical Trump supporters don’t care about such niceties these days. They are into Franklin’s magical thinking — that Trump is president because of God’s will, notwithstanding details like being a scum woman-abuser– and no doubt think that Franklin is even more in touch with God’s will – even in matters of where his mom wanted to be buried – than the rest of us, let alone his mother.
Billy made magical thinking mainstream. He shaped an evangelical movement that then became as political as he was in his Nixon-supporting years and unlike Billy, this movement never repented of trading Jesus for politics. Full circle: Billy Graham sought to forge a movement that was distinct from the Southern racist fundamentalism of his day, yet that is precisely what today’s evangelicalism has become again.
Magical thinking isn’t a very good basis for policy or politics. “I believe Donald Trump is a good man,” Franklin Graham said on CNN, last month. “He did everything wrong as a candidate and he won, and I don’t understand it. Other than I think God put him there.”
Graham’s converts from the 1950s to 1990s (my generation, old, white, and tired) lined up to support not only Trump but Roy Moore. One of their very own, Sarah Huckabee, stands up every day and knowingly lies for Trump, covering for his multitude of sins on everything from racism to his lies about paying off porn stars, to abusing scores of women and denying that the Russians attacked our democracy to help get him elected.
Graham and the neo-evangelicals, as they called themselves, tried to create religious revival in the United States. Fifty years on what they got instead was Trump and Roy Moore, climate change deniers, white nationalism and the NRA’s lock on the party evangelicals uniquely empower.
Franklin Graham actually went to bat for the NRA. He blasted President Obama for his stand against military weapons being legal. Graham parroted the NRA/Gun-Lobby line in a Facebook post (January 6, 2016): “Your executive actions will do nothing to change this horrific problem. You can take all the guns in America and put them in a pile on the Mall in Washington DC, and those guns will stay there and will eventually rust and decay. Not one gun will crawl out of that pile and shoot or harm anyone. It takes a human being, and a human heart bent on evil, to pick up a gun, load it, and pull the trigger.”
Do evangelicalisms’ leaders remain interested in the spiritual at all these days as Billy Graham sincerely was? Or has their agenda become merely political? Trump is the answer to those questions.
The fatal arc of decline is clear. To use the biblical analogy of Saul, before he converted and took the name of Paul, holding the coats of the killers stoning St. Stephen to death, Graham’s son’s Franklin, is “holding Trump’s coat” while he stones American decency to death. Franklin even says this is God’s will.
Billy Graham’s veneer of pious civility is long gone from the white evangelical movement. It’s been replaced by Billy Graham’s own worst inner demons that he repented of after he’d become Nixon’s confidant. As he sat by Dad’s bedside Billy told Dad and me how he lamented supporting Nixon and never would “be political” again. The context of this conversation was when Billy was explaining to my father why he would not support Dad’s anti-abortion efforts.
Franklin never got the memo. The image of the white evangelicals these days is not of sinners repenting as they surge forward to the altar call while the hymn “Just as I Am” wafts over them, but rather of Nixon-type online trolls supporting gun rights by spreading vile lies about grieving high school students.
If Trump remains the defining bookend bracketing the Billy Graham era of white evangelical empowerment historians may judge Graham’s stated purpose to reach “the lost” for Christ as failed. His lasting significance may rather be understood as having contributed to the creation of a power-crazed movement that enabled an American tragedy.
Want to learn more about where we go from here as we right the ship of state and return to sanity? Discover my new book Letter to Lucy: A Manifesto of Creative Redemption—In the Age of Trump, Fascism and Lies, a multi-touch book about art, love and parenting, from the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the prophetic music of Green Day and everything in between. Read the first chapter for free on your kindle fire or iOS device. Available now on iBooks and Amazon.
Want more political videos and commentary? Show your support.