Billy Graham: An old soldier fades away

Billy Graham speaks with President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s. “I thank God for bringing Billy Graham into the lives of my family,” Bush once said. “He gave us great strength and through him we better know God’s Son, Jesus Christ.” Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

by Cecil Bothwell

Billy Graham was a preacher man equally intent on saving souls and soliciting financial support for his ministry. His success at the former is not subject to proof and his success at the latter is unrivaled.

When Graham succumbed to various ailments this week at the age of 99, he left behind an organization that reached more people than any other Christian ministry in history, with property, assets and a name-brand worth hundreds of millions. The address lists of contributors alone comprise a mother lode for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, now headed by his son and namesake, William Franklin Graham, III.

President Obama visits with Billy Graham and his son Franklin at Billy's home in North Carolina on April 25, 2010. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association
President Obama visits with Billy Graham and his son Franklin at Billy Graham’s home on April 25, 2010. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Graham also left behind a United States government in which religion plays a far greater role than before he intruded into politics in the 1950s. The shift from secular governance to “In God We Trust” can be laid squarely at this minister’s feet.

Graham’s message was principally one of fear: fear of a wrathful god; fear of temptation; fear of communists and socialists; fear of unions; fear of Catholics; fear of homosexuals; fear of racial integration and above all, fear of death. But as a balm for such fears, he promised listeners eternal life, which he said was readily claimed through acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s savior.

Furthermore, he assured listeners that God loved us so much that He created governments. To make this point, he frequently quoted Romans 13. “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.”

Almost perversely, he even endorsed the arrest of a woman who lofted a Christian banner during his Reagan-era visit to Moscow, opting for the crack-down of “divine” authority over the civil disobedience of a believer.

Billy Graham with Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago, 1952. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association
Billy Graham with Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago, 1952. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Based on that Biblical mandate, Graham stood in solid opposition to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” all but addressed to Graham, King noted, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ … If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s anti-religious laws.”

In light of the Biblical endorsement of rulers, Graham supported police repression of Vietnam war protesters and civil rights marchers, opposed King’s civil disobedience, supported South American despots, and publicly supported every war waged by the United States from Korea forward.

Graham gave his blessing to every conflict under every president from Truman to the second Bush, and most of the presidents, pleased to enjoy public assurance of God’s approval, made him welcome in the White House. Graham excoriated Truman for firing General Douglas MacArthur and supported the general’s plan to invade China. He urged Nixon to bomb dikes in Vietnam — knowing that it would kill millions of civilians — and he claimed to have sat on the sofa next to George H.W. Bush as the bombs began falling in the first Gulf War (though Bush’s diary version of the evening somehow excludes Graham, as does a White House video of Bush during the attack).

According to Bush’s account, in a phone call the preceding week, Graham quoted poetry that compared the President to a messiah destined to save the world, and in the next breath called Saddam the Antichrist.

Graham was a political operative, reporting to Kennedy on purported communist insurgencies in Latin America, turning over lists of activist Christians to the Republican party, conferring regularly with J. Edgar Hoover and networking with the CIA in South America and Vietnam. He was even assigned by Nixon’s operatives to talk George Wallace out of a second run for the White House.

In every way, Graham was the spiritual father of today’s right-wing religious leaders who so inhabit the national conversation.

Billy Graham prays at President Richard Nixon’s inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20, 1969. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association
Billy Graham prays at President Richard Nixon’s inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20, 1969. Photo courtesy of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Graham will be cordially remembered by those who found solace in his golden promises and happy homilies, but the worldly blowback from his ministry is playing out in Iraq and Afghanistan, Chechnya and Korea, the Philippines and Colombia — everywhere governments threaten human rights and pie in the sky is offered in lieu of daily bread.

In the words of Graham’s ministerial and secular adversary, Dr. King, “I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose, they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

Farewell Reverend Graham. Let justice roll.

Cecil Bothwell. File photo
Cecil Bothwell. File photo

Prize-winning investigative reporter Cecil Bothwell is author of The Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a wholly Christian empire (Brave Ulysses Books, 2007) and Whale Falls: An exploration of belief and its consequences (Brave Ulysses Books, 2010).

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16 thoughts on “Billy Graham: An old soldier fades away

  1. luther blissett

    “In every way, Graham was the spiritual father of today’s right-wing religious leaders who so inhabit the national conversation.”

    Up to a point, though perhaps “grandfather” is a better way to think about it. During the 80s, Graham put some distance between himself and Jerry Falwell when the latter was assembling the Moral Majority and (at least publicly) suggested that any partisan alliance between evangelicals and the Republican right would lead to evangelical values taking a back seat. That seems prescient.

    https://www.snopes.com/did-billy-graham-warn-against-mixing-religion-and-politics/

    Junior Graham (who must be rubbing his hands at the thought of Billy joining Ruth at the Charlotte theme park instead of the Cove) and Junior Falwell are appropriate figureheads for the early 21st century. (Matthew 23:27)

    • NFB

      The Sr. Graham also refused to preach to segregated audiences in the south during Jim Crow and would not go to South Africa until the government allowed for integrated audiences during apartheid.

      Franklin, I suspect, will have a difficult time deciding where he wants to be during the funeral on Friday — in the church with the service or outside joining in with the Westboro protesters.

      • luther blissett

        Oh, Franklin knows where he’ll be: he’s been waiting to complete Six Flags Over His Parents’ Graves for a while.

        https://www.huffingtonpost.com/frank-schaeffer/franklin-graham-is-big-ti_b_854758.html

        When you have “Christian” leaders like David Brody talking about how the White House incumbent is the “most evangelical-friendly United States president ever”, and Franklin and Li’l Jerry openly defending a moral cesspit, it’s a reminder that in later life, before his faculties failed him, Graham Sr. regretted many of his political entanglements. Franklin embraces them, and that’ll be his undoing.

        • NFB

          Which is why I find the black and white tone this article presents a bit simplistic. Billy Graham, like the vast majority of humanity, was more complicated than either his blind disciples or his blind adversaries made him out to be. But then again, nuance has never been the forte of either. People often change and mellow over time.

          Still, I am rather surprised that Franklin even allowed his father’s passing to be announced. I figured he’d do everything he could to prop him up to hide behind like another sequel to “Weekend at Bernie’s.”

      • cecil bothwell

        NFB, Not true. Billy Graham routinely preached to segregated audiences, including at Asheville’s Civic Center, until well after Brown vs. Board of Education. He claimed to have torn down ropes between whites and blacks at one event, but apparently couldn’t remember which event. He wobbled between two cities, and I couldn’t find any contemporaneous report in either. I interviewed elderly African Americans in Asheville who are still peeved about his segregated events here. And about his father-in-law who was a John Bircher and alleged KKK member here. Meanwhile, something I find compelling, is that when MLK was murdered and his Atlanta funeral drew the largest attendance of any funeral in American history … Billy Graham skipped it. He was golfing.

          • Curious

            From Wikipedia:
            There were concerns that U.S. president Lyndon Johnson might be the subject of protests, over the conduct of the war in Vietnam, which would disrupt the funeral. Vice President Hubert Humphrey attended on his behalf.

  2. James Sheeler

    I feel Cecil Bothwell is an excellent prototype and model for an investigative reporter. He senses community issues, is compelled to investigate and analyze, and very articulately comments. His Prince of War book is compelling.

  3. Curious

    ” . . . . he left behind an organization that reached more people than any other Christian ministry in history . . .”

    Doesn’t the Catholic Church hold the record for “an organization that reached more people than any other Christian ministry in history?”

  4. Enlightened Enigma

    It was certainly an inspirational funeral service in CLT on Friday…amazing really…loved Billy Park from S. Korea owner of the Far East Broadcasting Company ….Graham daughter called him Billy’s favorite Korean preacher ! it was humorous.

    Hopefully President Trump and wife got some life lessons.

  5. James L. Smith

    My mother and Ruth Bell were at Meredith together and knew each other well, and my grandparents were missionaries in China who knew and were close friends of Dr. Bell. Even as a child I was always skeptical of all that wild John Birch literature my mother and my grandparents received and read relgiously because of their close association with Dr. L. Nelson Bell.

    And then besides that I didn’t like him because I got sent up to the hospital when I was just 5, and against my will, to have this doctor commit MGM on me and my little 3-year-old brother. So I was also always skeptical of Billy, and especially after I saw him on the TV exchanging unctuous compliments with scoundrel Jim Bakker. Of course that was before Bakker was indicted and convicted as a felon for his pyramid thievery; and if you’ll recall Billy, like Simon Peter denying Christ, disclaimed knowing Jim Bakker after Bakker had been exposed for his felonies.

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