Billy Graham Is Dead
BILLY GRAHAM iS DEAD
Evangelist Billy Graham died last week. Once upon a time Rev. Graham was a beacon and a role model to me. As a born-again child and teen in the 1950’s and 60’s, he had an impact on my life. My feelings about him changed, correlating with my shifting worldview. The news of his passage brought with it a flood of memories.
It was 1957. I was ten, and he was preaching in Madison Square Garden. There was a feeling of exultation. A Christian preacher was on prime time TV! As a solemn hymn played in the background, hundreds, maybe thousand, of people responded to his invitation to “come forward and commit your life to Christ.” Tears came to my eyes. I asked the Lord to use me as he was using Billy Graham. Surely, it seemed, God had great plans for my life, too.
Segue to a morning in 1963. I sat in Sunday School, bouffant coif stiffly sprayed in place. The church pastor was coming to visit my class. That had never happened before. He entered the small room where we were meeting. His face was relaxed and his smile cordial, but not overbearing. Rev. Shrout was a nondescript man in an unremarkable suit, exactly the person you would expect to find as the spiritual shepherd of the Fresno, California Church of God.
I eyed him warily. He was not only a grown up, but the authority figure in that place. If he had been more flamboyant, like Billy Graham, I might have been a fan, but he wasn’t. It would be a few years before my generation declared that people over 30 were not to be trusted, but I had already figured that out. Adults fell into two categories, cool and not cool. Coolness had to be earned, and Rev. Shrout hadn’t done that yet. He sat on a folding chair and began to speak. His tone was conversational, not at all like when he was in the pulpit, and he talked to us the way you would speak to someone who had the brains to understand what you were saying.
“I wanted to meet with you,” he began, “to talk about the decision of the Supreme Court regarding prayer in schools. As Christian youth, you’re probably talking about this with your friends and in your classrooms, so I wanted to share my thoughts about it.”
In June of 1962 the Court had ruled in Engel v. Vitale that the prayer approved by the New York Board of Regents for use in schools violated the First Amendment. Like most evangelical teens, I was disdainful of the decision.
“You can’t tell me I can’t pray in school,” I would say any time I got the chance. “I can pray anywhere I like!”
His voice remained calm as he explained why he believed the ruling to be correct. “The ability to practice our Christian faith as we see fit,” he said, “depends on keeping church and state separate. School districts are public agencies. If they have the right to ask students to say a prayer, and that prayer isn’t one you agree with, then your rights have been violated. If you value religious freedom, then you don’t want governmental groups writing your prayers for you to.”
I was shocked. I expected the preacher to mirror my own indignation over this assault on faith. But what he said made sense. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.
Rev. Shrout’s visit to my high school Sunday school class represented a turning point in my thinking. I still appreciate him for showing us that we could remain true to our faith and engage in critical thought . Wouldn’t it be wonderful if such voices of reason were predominant in fundamentalist circles today? Would I contradict myself, though, to wonder if that conversation opened the door to the mental prison of evangelical Christianity for me? Although the good pastor was able to maintain his belief in Biblical doctrine, there would come a day when I could not.
Billy Graham’s passing is a sign of the times. He represented the fundamentalist movement of the 1950’s, before conservative Christians courted evangelical votes. Yet he played a role. He served as a bridge from an era when born-again thinking had little cultural relevance to our current reality, where the votes of Bible thumpers often drown out voices of reason. He was the first evangelist to amass the kind of wealth and notoriety only available through mass media. He veiled himself in a cloak of progressivism by outwardly supporting racial equality and sometimes, but not always, integrating his massive crusade meetings. He tried to appear bipartisan as he sought and received audiences with presidents from Truman to Obama, but behind the scenes, he sometimes expressed more extreme views.
His remarks about the Engel v. Vitale decision on school prayer were quite measured when compared to the rhetoric coming from the religious right today. Still, Graham’s remarks were closer to my initial adolescent reaction than to my pastor’s. In a Saturday Evening Post article published prior to the decision he wrote:
“The issue of prayers in public schools is now before the Supreme Court and, if the Court decrees negatively, another victory will be gained by those forces which conspire to remove faith in God from the public conscience.
“American democracy rests on the belief in the reality of God and His respect for the individual. Ours is a freedom under law. But it is also a freedom that will evaporate if the religious foundations upon which it has been built are taken away.”
The quote from Graham mirrors the thinking of the time. The vast majority of Americans thought that the only “God” was the Judeo-Christian one. He was a god who turned a blind eye, as did the vast majority of Americans, to the lack of respect for individuals of color. Freedom under law was most available to White males of means and diminished with race, gender, and class. There was also an assumption among members of the general public that all people of good will believed in that deity, and that a non-denominational prayer asking for his blessing would not offend any decent person.
Today’s culture wars represent an expression of the longing to return to that brand of thinking. It excludes many “people of good will:” animists, polytheists, pantheists, Buddhists, agnostics, Hindus, atheists, and neo Pagans like myself. This worldview values as good only those who worship Jehovah. It divides the world in the same way as the Christian Old Testament. All others are not only bad, they’re expendable. The Bible glorifies genocide and was used to justify slavery.
The expansion of White culture throughout the North American continent relied on Old Testament morality. The commands to destroy the Canaanites and other surrounding cultures came straight from “God,” so the slaughter of the First Nations People here was, by extension, fine and dandy.
European immigrants and their descendants believed that there was a divinely prescribed “natural order,” a hierarchy with rich white men at the top. Maleness trumped femaleness, wealth trumped poverty, and lighter skin trumped darker. Based in a worldview that believed the USA was divinely ordained to rule the world, most of our foreign policy and global military ventures have been driven by a belief in “American exceptionalism” shared by administrations of both parties.
Is it any wonder that this land, once seen throughout the world as the shining hope of humanity, is now in chaos? Our history is based on a twisted view of whoever or whatever is the source of the universe. It’s built on the slaughter of natives and the stolen lives of black Africans. Jesus told a parable about a foolish man who built his house on the sand. When the storms came, his house fell.
Billy Graham spread the truth he believed in. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” He also believed that this self-same god willed and blessed the White conquest of North America. Hid carefully cultivated moderation evaporates In a statement he issued following Watergate:
"Every type of government has been permeated with corruption, evil, and greed," he proclaimed in the wake of Watergate. "But there's one type we have not tried. That is a theocracy, with Christ on the throne and the nations of the world confessing him. Someday His flag will wave over every nation in the world."
The critical thinking that opened my mind one Sunday morning in the fall of 1963 eventually lead me to see the inconsistencies in Evangelical doctrine.
To paraphrase Jesus, may we know the truth, and may the truth set us free.