BY BILL BRANYON
It’s either a horrendous twist of fate or long-deferred justice that some of Billy Graham’s last major acts put him glaringly on the wrong side of history. In 2012, Graham took out full-page ads in 14 North Carolina newspapers calling for passage of a law banning same-sex marriage. That same year, just before the presidential election, he also took out ads in dozens of newspapers in battleground states, as well as USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, counseling readers to “Vote for those who protect the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman.”
Visitors approaching Asheville from the east on Interstate 240 see a quiet green sign displaying the dignified name Billy Graham Freeway. But these days, it might as well be garish red neon blaring Homophobe Highway. Our very LGBTQ-friendly city, whose official motto is “Any way you like it,” now also declares our hostility to LGBTQ rights in the most brazen way. Tourists might wonder if they’ve landed in one of the most bigoted cities of the South instead of the most progressive.
Should you decide to give Graham the benefit of the doubt and conclude that he really wasn’t a homophobe — that he was merely protecting biblically sanctioned marriage — consider his 1973 My Answer column titled “Homosexual Perversion A Sin That’s Never Right,” which ran in over 100 newspapers. In the end, Graham’s usually heartwarming personal kindness and belief in a God of love were overwhelmed by his vision of a homophobic, angry God of judgment. Such incongruities have polarized much of America into those who can’t stand to hear anything negative about Graham — and those who can’t stand to hear anything positive.
The world’s greatest showman
I was raised in a genteel Presbyterian family in a conservative town in Alabama, and our TV was often tuned to Graham’s crusades. I thought the reverend was impressive in his dynamism and speaking ability, if repetitive in his message. But I’d also been taught in church that Jesus was the Prince of Peace, the turner of cheeks, the blesser of peacemakers, and I concluded that Christians should oppose most wars — especially elective ones. So when Graham spent the evening with George H.W. Bush the night before that president began bombing Iraq, I was confused and intrigued by the contradiction. Then there are Graham and Nixon’s now famous anti-Semitic remarks.
But putting aside all questions of Graham’s purity or corruption, there is one indisputable fact: His evangelical ministry was one of the greatest shows on Earth, and perhaps in planetary history. According to a special supplement in the Asheville Citizen Times, Graham personally entertained more than 84 million people during 415 multiday crusades and generated untold millions of dollars, little of which he kept for himself.
Just consider his 1957 New York crusade, where an average of 17,000 people crowded into Madison Square Garden 96 days in a row, with the exception of Mondays. Could the Beatles, Michael Jackson or even Taylor Swift approach that? Then there’s his considerable influence with 13 — 13! — presidents, from Truman to Trump, covering an unbroken span of about 70 years of American history. Only J. Edgar Hoover approached such powerful longevity, and he worked with only eight presidents.
That’s all mind-blowingly true, but I’ve since concluded that Graham’s most important characteristic was his relative disdain for earthly life. This view is dramatized by the Asheville Citizen Times’ Feb. 25 Graham epitaph edition, in which Paramount Kia, Ingles and the newspaper itself took out full-page announcements highlighting Graham’s quote: “My home is in Heaven. I’m just traveling through this world.” Largely unconcerned about the furors that roiled about his elegant blond mane, Graham served what he deemed a higher calling: God and heaven.
The four horsemen highway
This concentration on a possible afterlife, combined with Graham’s apocalyptic vision, should make Asheville even more leery of keeping I-240 named after him. According to respected Graham biographer William Martin in A Prophet With Honor, Graham believed in the doctrine of dispensational premillennialism. It includes the view that the rapture will rocket all true Christians — in Asheville and worldwide — to heaven just before the war of Armageddon that will kill billions. And since a healthy percentage of Ashevilleans subscribe to different religions, spiritualities or nonbelief, these two events would clearly decimate Asheville’s population, central business district and neighborhoods. Graham believed that this might happen today, or maybe hundreds of years from now.
So we might as well nickname the Billy Graham Freeway something like Armageddon Avenue, Damnation Road or the Eternal Torture Turnpike. Do we really want to feel the wrath of a fundamentalist God and the imminence of Armageddon during every morning and evening commute?
Many of Graham’s values and beliefs are being massively challenged these days, and the hope is that Trump represents the last global gasp of Graham’s heterosexual, fundamentalist Christian, American-dominated patriarchy. However, Donald did attend Billy’s 95th birthday party at the Grove Park Inn. Hillary didn’t. That, as much as the Russian tampering, Hillary’s supposed transgressions and a lackluster voter turnout may have determined the 2016 election. Trumpism is far from dead.
Then again, Trump could launch a nuclear war if his massive ego feels too threatened, thereby making Graham’s Armageddon predictions come true in a way. The 2018 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock now reads two minutes to the midnight of nuclear holocaust. That’s the nearest the terrible timepiece has been since 1953, when both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. exploded hydrogen bombs. Will the rapture occur before Trump pushes the button? Let’s hope we never find out. Or will we survive Trump and Graham to live in a post-patriarchal, post-homophobic, postwar world that will embody fewer of Graham’s basic values, but much more of his basic civility and kindness.
Bill Branyon is a freelance historian living in Asheville. His sci-fi biography, Billy Graham’s Glorious Jam, tells what the reverend is up to now that he’s in heaven. See free chapters of it and other books at www.BranyonsUltimateFreethinking.com