The Exploitation of Billy Graham

My previous blog was a warning against mixing pulpits and politics. I feel even more strongly so this week. A few days ago an aged Billy Graham allegedly came out in support of (Mormon) presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, calling all Christians (read evangelicals) to vote for him in the upcoming election. There are so many things wrong about this. Frankly, it just doesn’t sound like something the Billy Graham we have come to know and admire would do or say, especially in this final season of his very long life. I’m guessing that the 93-year old evangelist and his reputation are being exploited by right-wing politicos and certain key family members. Whatever is really going on in the backrooms, it is further proof of the Republican captivity of the contemporary evangelical church.

For decades Billy Graham has been the quintessential hero of a trans-partisan evangelicalism. He has stood on an ecumenical platform to proclaim a biblically-faithful and Christ-centered Gospel worldwide, and backed up his message with a life of exemplary morality and gracious statesmanship. In recognition of his achievements and personal charisma, he has been catapulted up into the role of spiritual confidante to numerous United States presidents since the 1940s.

For the most part he has conducted himself as a religious statesman through these years, lending a spiritual tone to many American administrations. His one horrible stumble was to be discovered on tape affirming some of the anti-Semitic prejudices of then-president Richard Nixon. Duly chastened by this egregious gaffe and the lack of moral courage it seemed to display, Graham distanced himself thereafter from alignment with politicians and their agendas. This is the image of a chastened Graham that emerges in his official biography, Just as I Am (1997). In his latest and possibly last book, Nearing Home (2011), which won the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association 2012 Book of the Year award, we discover an irenic spiritual giant at peace with his own soul and looking forward to eternity.

That’s why this alleged Billy Graham announcement in support of Mitt Romney and his values feels so dissonant. To “use” Graham at his stage in his life, permanently recused from public ministry, now widowed and alone, and suffering from Parkinson’s, is to my mind a possible form of elder abuse. When others take into their own hands the reputation of a great person during their final days, and willfully tarnish that reputation for short-term political gain, can it be labeled anything less severe?

I grew up admiring Billy Graham. As a family we listened to many of his crusades on our radio, and tears would well up in our eyes as Cliff Barrows would lead the mass choir in another verse of “Just As I Am” while Billy reiterated the altar call and assured those wavering in the audience that “the buses will wait.” Members of our own extended family responded to those calls and were forever changed. I’ve been to Forest Home, up in the mountains east of Los Angeles, where a much younger Billy knelt with his doubts about the veracity of Scripture and resolved to preach “The Bible says . . .” The rest, as they say, is history. There’s a plaque to mark the spot up there at Forest Lawn. Billy Graham had an important hand in the establishment of Christianity Today and numerous initiatives that moved conservative Protestant Christians out of Fundamentalism and back into a viable brand of faith with a future. Years ago I attended Wheaton College, where they named the building that housed the graduate school as the Billy Graham Center. It’s always risky conferring honors on someone whose journey is not yet over. Ever since I have hoped and prayed that he would finish well. For these and other reasons, I am not only sad but really mad about what conservatives are willing to do to try to win an election in America.

The day after Mitt Romney met with Billy Graham and his heir-apparent son Franklin Graham, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association website airbrushed out its assessment that Mormonism was a cult. Hmm. For some conservative evangelicals the offensive thing is that Billy Graham is being made out not to care about the serious doctrinal deficiencies of the quirky Mormon faith. They sense that Billy Graham with his full wits about him would never have fallen into that trap, and they are probably right.

But the thing that I am most unsettled about is the willingness of so many conservative Christians to use the Christian faith to promote a partisan political agenda. The full-page ad in our local San Diego Union-Tribune, paid for by Shadow Mountain [Southern Baptist] Community Church, is a case in point. With a magisterial Billy Graham visage in the background, looking like a candidate for Mount Rushmore, it reads in part: “I [Billy Graham] strongly urge you to vote for candidates who support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and woman, protect the sanctity of life, and defend our religious freedoms. The Bible speaks clearly on these crucial issues.” Indeed it does, but the Bible also speaks about a host of moral issues not included in this transparent summary of Republican themes. And while religious leaders do have the freedom to meddle in politics, is it really their role? Please let the church be the church.

If these sorts of partisan shenanigans indicate what it means to be an evangelical nowadays, it is little wonder that so many young people are declining to identify with the label anymore. And even some aging professors are being to reassess their self-identification. Be it hereby known that I strongly oppose this exploitation of Billy Graham, and I have reason to believe that I am not alone.

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