When I covered Billy Graham’s Crusade in Flushing Meadows, Queens, back in 2005, I did not realize that I was reporting on the end of an era for the man dubbed “America’s pastor.” Still, given his frail health at that time, I was not surprised when the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) announced that Graham’s health would prevent him from continuing in his public ministry. He remained in his North Carolina mountain home, where he continued his tradition of greeting U.S. political leaders by hosting President Barack Obama in 2010 and lending his support to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012.
At the press conference prior to his Flushing Meadows Crusade, Graham alluded to regrets for his earlier involvement in sixties-era politics, though he never delved into the specifics. There were many he might have touched on—for instance, his lifelong friendship with Richard M. Nixon led to a few glaring public mistakes. Most notable, perhaps, was Graham’s role in marshaling evangelical anti-Catholic sentiment against John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign (his opponent was Nixon). Also, Graham’s voice can be heard on the infamous Nixon White House tapes of the early seventies, both men making anti-Semitic remarks.
Nor did Graham use that press conference to address his son’s post 9/11 vitriol. Shortly after the Twin Towers fell, Franklin Graham—an evangelist in his own right and Billy’s anointed successor—called Islam “a very wicked and evil religion.” On subsequent occasions, he continued to make comments disparaging to Muslims. This press conference marked the elder Graham’s first appearance in New York City since Franklin’s remarks, so one hoped that he might want to clear up any misconceptions during his stay in the media capital of the United States. Of course, if Billy Graham had truly abhorred his son’s comments, he would have taken him to the woodshed for spewing hatred and found someone else to lead the BGEA. Instead, he handed over the reins of his ministry to Franklin in 2005. Franklin Graham now serves as president and CEO of the BGEA.
Following the Flushing Meadows event, Graham could have faded away as a lionized figure with his legacy intact. Few in the mainstream media would be likely to delve into Graham’s history and trace the covert wars he waged in defense of American exceptionalism, using the Bible as his sword to defeat godless communists and other foreign-policy demons.*
Given his age and evangelical affiliation, coupled with the evangelical community’s overall lack of support for civil rights for African Americans and women during the 1960s, as the battle for the civil rights of LGBT people gained energy in recent years one would not have expected Billy Graham to support it. Yet for many years, he was silent on the issue. Even when other evangelicals surged into the political arena, starting with the rise of the Moral Majority in 1979, Graham chose to disengage from direct involvement in political causes, though he continued to meet with presidents and other political leaders.
So it seems odd that Graham came forward in 2012 to support Amendment One, a proposed change to North Carolina’s constitution that would make marriage between a man and woman the only legal union recognized by the state. Same-sex marriage was already illegal under North Carolina law, but Amendment One would make any other civil union or domestic partnership in the state illegal, placing the legal status of children raised in nontraditional households in sharp jeopardy. The battle over Amendment One seemed evenly divided until May 3, 2012, when the BGEA ran a full-page ad in fourteen North Carolina newspapers announcing Billy’s endorsement. Probably as a result, the amendment passed five days later.
Along the same lines, why did A. Larry Ross, Billy Graham’s personal spokesman for more than thirty years, release a statement highlighting Graham’s appreciation for the Cathy family, the founders of Chick-fil-A? This was done despite revelations of Cathy-family donations to groups like the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which has been identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Why would his organization pen a prayer letter (read: fund-raising appeal) titled “My Heart Aches for America,” in which Graham decried America’s declining morality, then asked for financial help for a new initiative called “My Hope With Billy Graham” that would be led by his son Franklin? The impression created is that in his last years, Billy Graham is, uncharacteristically openly, lurching toward the hard Right.
What should observers conclude from this? One theory is that Franklin Graham is now speaking on behalf of his ailing father and lending his father’s name to his own right-wing agenda. Since assuming control of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 2005, Franklin moved its headquarters from Minneapolis to Charlotte, North Carolina, and made an announcement about the place where his mother, Ruth Graham, would be interred. The decision announced went against Ruth’s explicit instructions, which she had discussed at length with Billy. In The Prince of War, Bothwell describes how Franklin overrode his parents’ wishes in order to have Ruth buried at a more visible location that he hoped would become a tourist destination for Graham’s countless fans around the world:
Another prospective memorial to Graham—with an even taller cross—caused a dust-up between family members when Franklin announced that Billy and Ruth would be laid to rest at the new $26 million, forty-thousand-square-foot Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. Unobligingly, Ruth said she had exacted a written agreement from Billy to be buried in The Cove, site of the Billy Graham Training Center, in Asheville. The family split on interment plans, with Billy finally announcing that he and Ruth “would decide.” Ultimately, Ruth lapsed into what would be a terminal coma in June, 2007, and Billy announced that “we” have decided to be buried at the library. She was in no position to contradict him, though she had insisted on The Cove in her last public communication.
But in an e-mail interview, Ross affirmed to me that Graham remains in charge. “Despite physical limitations that come with his life stage—such as macular degeneration, hearing loss, and limited mobility that preclude him from speaking publicly or on the phone—evangelist Billy Graham is a productive ninety-three-year-old with an active mind who continues to enjoy good general health and remain engaged in the overall ministry that bears his name,” Ross stated. “He is working on another book that will likely come out next spring and is still involved with his syndicated newspaper column, ‘My Answer.’”
When asked why Graham would take such politically charged stances at this late juncture in his career, Ross noted: “Mr. Graham’s message hasn’t changed, but obviously our society and culture have, which is his concern. He expressed support of the traditional family stemming from a moral perspective, which became political the following week after President Obama made his views known the day after the primary.” Ross also added that he serves only as spokesperson for Billy Graham and does not represent the BGEA or Franklin Graham.
Here one must take into account Ross’s larger role in promoting a pro-family Christian agenda. In addition to his work for Graham, Ross carries on an extensive private public relations practice. Except for, say, emergent-church guru Pete Rollins, Ross’s present and past client list reads like a Who’s Who of conservative evangelicalism, including the Creation Museum/Answers in Genesis, Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions, and pastor and Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren. Furthermore, in his column for The Daily Beast, Ross once argued that journalists painting Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry as frightening Dominionists were engaging in scare tactics with little basis in the truth (“Christian Dominionism Is a Myth,” The Daily Beast, April, 21, 2011). So A. Larry Ross clearly has a vested interest in continuing to promote a belief system that discriminates against LGBT people.
Furthermore, if Graham is indeed as active in his ministry as Ross seems to indicate, why has Franklin refused to allow any reporters to interview his father, or at least to cover fully partisan political events such as Mitt Romney’s meeting with Graham and Franklin on October 11, 2012? At this event, at which Graham apparently reiterated his support for traditional marriage, select members of the media were permitted to capture photos and videos at the end of the meeting. But no reporters had been permitted during Romney’s actual meeting with the Grahams, nor were they any interviews subsequent to the conversation. Managed in this way, Billy Graham was able to insert his very public persona and influence into a highly charged presidential campaign without undergoing any media scrutiny whatever.
Following the meeting with Romney, the BGEA tried to scrub from its website all prior mentions of Mormonism as a cult. Franklin penned a piece in the BGEA magazine Decision (October 2012) outlining why evangelical Christians could abandon a long-held tenet of their faith and cast their vote for a Mormon. The next week, the BGEA placed ads in The Wall Street Journal and other newspapers featuring Billy Graham, urging readers to cast their vote for candidates who would support the biblical definition of marriage and uphold the sanctity of life. Then, just days before the 2012 election, Ross issued a statement on Billy Graham’s behalf endorsing Minnesota’s Amendment One, a measure that would define civil marriage as between a man and a woman. BGEA had been based in Minneapolis from 1995 until 2002, and Graham’s voice still carries considerable weight within more conservative Christian circles. Nonetheless, both the amendment and the presidential candidate Billy Graham had endorsed were rejected at the polls.
With his recent anti-gay pronouncements, Graham has made explicit his beliefs on “homosexuality” which he had expressed—at least in public—only implicitly before, according to Robert Hall, professor of philosophy at Fayetteville State University. Prior to voicing his support for the two Amendment Ones and Chick-fil-A, Graham had never joined fellow televangelists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in their crusades against the evils of homosexuality, abortion, and other sex-related sins. Aside from a few passing anti-pornography appeals, Graham had always focused on his role as an evangelist who encouraged the fallen to give their lives over to Jesus. Indeed, once people came to Christ through some Billy Graham Crusade, they would be encouraged to join a local church that would help them in their continued walk with the Lord. Given the theological and political leanings of most pastors who promoted Graham’s crusades, one can safely assume that these new Christians would be taught that any form of sex outside of a traditional marriage constituted a sin, without any need for Graham to address the subject directly from his own pulpit.
According to Ross, Graham’s stance on traditional marriage stems from his interpretation of “religious freedom.” Because he considers the institution of marriage as the cornerstone of society, he is opposed to any redefinition of marriage, which he sees not as a political issue but rather a matter of religious freedom and one of the foundational moral concerns of our time, about which God has clearly spoken in Scripture.
Understandably, Rob Boston, senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, refutes Graham’s definition of “religious liberty”: “In our current discourse, too many people define ‘religious liberty’ as the right to run someone else’s life and make decisions for them. Others assert that the government must ‘help’ religion by promulgating its doctrines, promoting its practice, displaying its symbols and awarding it tax support. If these things are not done, some argue, ‘religious liberty’ is not secure. This is a far cry from the ideal of religious liberty embraced by Roger Williams.”
One wonders how Williams—the founder of the Baptist Church in America and the first person in the Western world to craft legislation guaranteeing separation of church and state—would respond to Billy Graham’s seeming entry into the ranks of fellow Baptists who seem hell-bent on pressing their personal religious beliefs into civil law. At the very least, such a stance seems be oblivious to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bob Jones University v. United States (461 U.S. 574), which established that religious organizations that receive the benefits of the government, such as federal funding and tax-exempt status, are also required to follow civil law. Of course, ever since this court decision came down in 1983, religious Right leaders have tried (though without success) to interject their interpretation of God’s word into civil law. What is new is Billy Graham’s sudden presence among them.
John Becker, the former communications director of Truth Wins Out, a nonprofit organization that fights anti-gay religious extremism, reflected on Graham’s lasting legacy in these words: “It’s a shame that, when confronted with the choice between preserving his popular image as a venerable, unifying figure and mounting one last crusade against the LGBT community, Billy Graham chose the latter. It says a lot about the man’s true character, that he selected for what may be his final public gesture an act of malice, divisiveness, and discrimination. Supporters of Billy Graham like to call him the ‘pastor to presidents’ and ‘the world’s preacher,’ but now there’s one more title to add to the list: bigot.”
*Richard Hall’s review of Cecil Bothwell’s book Prince of War (“Evangelist Unmasked,” FREE INQUIRY, August/September 2011) offers an in-depth analysis of Graham’s covert actions in this regard.
Becky Garrison contributes to a wide range of media outlets, including The Washington Post’s “On Faith” column, The Guardian, The Revealer, Believe Out Loud, and American Atheist. Her seven books include Roger Williams’ Little Book of Virtues (forthcoming) and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (John Wiley & Sons, 2006).