“Tea Party Kills Billy Graham” — A True Headline You Won’t be Reading

Given his age — and most regrettably because he’s a nice man – you’ll soon read the headline: “Billy Graham Dead.” Fact is, his life’s work is already dead. It’s been killed by the Tea Party. All that remains is the funeral and the long term discrediting of Billy’s evangelical religion now under way because of the needless and ugly politicizing of the faith he became a symbol of.

Disclaimer: I knew Billy and met him as a child when he used to visit my evangelical-leader father, the late Francis Schaeffer. I also visited Billy several times as an adult when I was in the evangelical movement as my father’s nepotistic sidekick. I liked Billy then, and like him now. I’m sorry I helped hijack his movement for the far right. I long since left that movement and describe why in my new book And God Said, “Billy!And yes, the title is a not-so-subtle play on the Graham legacy of well-meant and finally, the disastrous religious delusion that opened the minds of many people to a split reality that was no longer fact-based. This prepared them to receive what I’ll call the “gospel” of Fox News, Limbaugh and the rest…

The biggest casualty of the Tea Party takeover of the GOP is not the Republican brand but the evangelical Billy Graham style brand. According to polls over 60 percent-plus of Tea Party members identify as evangelicals. The Tea Party is mostly the Franklin Graham/Sarah Palin born-again evangelical anti-abortion, anti-gay coalition renamed, with a handful of Ayn Rand libertarians thrown in. And in the public opinion polls most Americans blame the Republicans for the needless shutdown and the Tea Party for radicalizing the GOP. This is going to prove a toxic mix for the evangelical movement.

The media has concentrated on telling the story about the political fallout of the shutdown. What will happen in 2014 and 2016? How will the GOP’s brand destruction play in secure Southern gerrymandered districts? These are the topics that dominate the discussions in the newspapers, blogs and cable news shows. But there’s a bigger story here and one with far greater long term implications: the destruction of the Christian brand name and most specifically, the evangelical brand.

For years the evangelical brand has worn the soul-winning (no pun) smile of Billy Graham. Countless scandals about finance, sexuality, hypocrisy and the rest that overtook lesser lights than Graham haven’t derailed the brand. But recently other commentators besides me have been writing about the slow decline in the evangelical’s ability to bring the next generation with them into both the conservative fold and the political embrace of the GOP. Even their theology is wavering, a fact loudly lamented by conservative evangelicals.

Issues like poverty relief, human trafficking and the environment have begun to supplant abortion and stopping gay marriage as what the younger evangelical set care about. The ugly meanness of the religious right has done its negative PR work: the younger evangelicals have been turned off by their parent’s generation of religious right activity. The result is things like the emergent church movement, new theologies discounting the existence of a literal hell, while embracing the truth of evolution, and a generational divide over gay marriage.

Now, to the degree that the Tea Party and the evangelical brand are conflated in the public mind, the evangelical movement has just taken a potentially fatal body blow. When Billy dies he’ll receive a nostalgic outpouring of celebrity Princess Dianna-type media “love.” But it will be short lived. His hard right anti-gay son Franklin, will bury the old man in Franklin’s mausoleum/museum/fundraising hub (Franklin earns over $600,000 a year not counting the perks and private planes of his “non-profit” work and buried his mother Ruth in the Museum against her wishes) and the Graham name will almost instantly fade from the American mind.

What will live on is not the Billy Graham legacy of good humored albeit strict fundamentalist frontier-style 19th century revivalism, but the mean side of 21st century evangelical faith typified by Franklin’s off-the-wall attacks on President Obama, and his Tea Party-style lies and rants.

Therein lies the symbolic problem. It’s not just Franklin but the image of an entire movement. Franklin is a minor soon-to-be-forgotten bit player but the shape and style of American politics and politicized religion is changing. As long as it was “just those gays” taking it in the neck from the likes of Franklin, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, or the women seeking abortions who were condemned, the evangelical meanness that has dominated the GOP could be ignored by most Americans. They could still pretend that Billy was the norm, Palin, or a late (unlamented) Jerry Falwell, the aberration. But “these crazy people” – as most Americans now regard the Tea Party – risked, and will risk again, the faith and credit, good name and economy of all of us. This won’t be soon forgotten.

Put it this way: if the village idiot defecates on the sidewalk that’s regrettable but forgettable. If he breaks into your house and defecates in the master bedroom on your pillow, you call the cops.

When you risk the world economy for no good reason, you’ve got all of our attention! Tea Party/evangelical lies aren’t funny anymore. It’s not just “birthers” now and gay-haters, the crazy guy is in the bedroom making a big mess where you live!

Future elections aside the Tea Party has so wrecked the religious right/evangelical brand name that they have managed to do to the evangelical brand what decades of child molestation and cover-ups did to the Roman Catholic brand. One good pope – and Francis is a good pope – isn’t going to restore the lost trust anytime soon. Most standup comic Catholic jokes still will involve buggered altar boys for decades to come. The long term decline of the Roman Catholic Church’s good name is irreversible. And so may be the evangelical brand.

Just as the decline in anti-communism spread out from the Joe McCarthy fiasco over time, so too will it take time for measurable declines in church attendance in evangelical churches to become apparent. But it’s going to happen. And so too is the sidelining of the evangelical voice in politics.

Evangelicals will be spending more and more time explaining who they are not rather than who they are. As every car company can tell you, if you’re spending time explaining your latest recall rather than what’s good about your product, trouble is on the way. So mark October 2013, as the beginning of the end of the evangelical dominance of the religious life of America.

Or put it this way: The Tea Party buried the life work of Billy Graham. The actual passing of Graham will just be a splashy footnote played for all its worth for fundraising purposes by his son who wants to keep pulling down that $600,000 pay check. But the party is over. Sure there’s still money for the God merchants to make but they clearly have no clothes and just about everyone who hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid now knows it.

Or to put this in a way that still comes naturally to this former evangelical– here’s what I’d have said in some sermon many years ago pronouncing this doom in the lingua franca of evangelical-speak: “Let me share this with you. Turn with me in your Bibles to the book of Daniel chapter 5, and read along with me. ‘God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.’

Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book — And God Said, “Billy!exploring the roots of American religious delusion, and offering another way to approach true spirituality, is on Kindle, iBook and NOOK for $3.99, and in paperback.

About Frank Schaeffer

Frank Schaeffer is an American author, film director, screenwriter and public speaker. He is the son of the late theologian and author Francis Schaeffer. He became a Hollywood film director and author, writing several internationally acclaimed novels including And God Said, "Billy!" as well as the Calvin Becker Trilogy depicting life in a fundamentalist mission home-- Portofino, Zermatt, and Saving Grandma.

  • bleuette

    Your headline really grabbed me, and the article is spot-on. I’m so grateful the young crop of Christians (my teen/young adult children among them) are moving past the pseudo-tenants of the last 30 years of evangelical/fundamentalism. I was part of that movement from the fringes, as I married into it. But I was never accepted by them and never managed to measure up to the right level of holiness. It hurt for a long time, but the past few years I’ve watched their faux-holiness turning into (honest to goodness) fear-driven hatefulness. What you say here, “the Tea Party is mostly the Franklin Graham/Sarah Palin born-again evangelical anti-abortion, anti-gay coalition renamed, with a handful of Ayn Rand libertarians thrown in” well describes my husband’s family, which is deeply intertwined in right wing politi-faith. My husband (who grew up in that but got out almost 20 years ago) has read all your books, and bought your new book, but he found it very painful to read. I think it hurts that he was once one of Billy’s Type, and that he really did buy all that the religious right was selling. He hates that he didn’t see through the lies. I keep encouraging him to embrace breaking free, and be glad that he now sees through it and now is growing spiritually. But he can’t get past the awful truth that he was once part of the religious right and it makes him sick. Do you have any words of advice on getting past the sting of how really stupid it was to be one of the rabid Right once a person sees the error of his ways?

    • frankschaeffer

      Hi Bluette, I think your husband and family would like my book And God Said, “Billy!” if they’d complete it without throwing it across the room. We share the journey, thanks for reading. Best, Frank

      • bleuette

        Yes, he did read it!!! :-) (Amazon kindle download) As I mentioned, he found it very very very *painful* to read.

        I think it’s because he was once one of Billy’s type? He fhates himself for not seeing through their lies and can’t get past the pain. It’s been almost 20 years since he left, but he can’t give himself the credit for having left – he just thinks he should never have been there in the first place and hates himself for it. (Not his parents, he fawns all over them and they have no idea how he feels.) How do I help him?

        • danaames

          Hi bleuette-

          I think the way to help is to keep doing what you’ve been doing – encouraging your husband and being positive. Your love is very evident.

          My associations weren’t as extreme, but I found it helpful to 1) grieve – it’s a real loss, including of one’s identity, and it takes time to work through all the feelings; 2) be grateful for the good things about the people (family) and certain situations in that milieu – in those situations, nothing is 100% “bad” – people are the way they are for reasons, some of which may not be apparent but are very real; 3) remember that at the time I simply didn’t know any better, and I was in a “place” where I didn’t know where to look for a different/better explanation of things. We can only know what we know, at any given moment. We have to forgive ourselves, too.

          Maybe a counselor could be of help? Especially for your husband sorting out his real love for his parents and finding ways to honor them without compromising who he is? This is very tricky, and also can take some time; an “outsider’s view” could be very valuable.

          May God help both of you.

          Dana

  • Steve Lee, Sr.

    Frank, did you know Franklin when he was younger? He didn’t always have a stick up his butt. I met him once in the early 80s. He was decent. He was human. I don’t know what’s happened to him, but he’s changed; and not for the better.

    • frankschaeffer

      Hi Steve, I did know him. I remember him as a nice eleven year old. At one point he had the integrity to leave the fold but came back for the money, could not figure out how to earn a living. Then the penny dropped — help the poor and get paid $600,000 a year for your “sacrifice.” Nice work if you can get it. Bottom line he lent the Samaritans Purse plane to Sarah Palin for her Tea Party book tour.

      • Steve Lee, Sr.

        “Nice work if you van get it…”

        If memory serves, there was another young man, son of a famous evangelical leader, who had a shot at a similar gig and ultimately turned it down, in spite of the fame, fortune, and adulation that was there for the taking.

        You, my friend, are a picture of God’s grace. May Franklin, may all of us, encounter the gracious God of wonder.

    • http://jeffbrockmeier.com/ Jeff Brockmeier

      Dehumanization, yay!

  • Maya Valladao Jeffery

    Bluette, I can tell you what my experience has been. I used to call myself a recovering fundamentalist.. That helped because it indicated that that I didn’t hate fundamentalists or the culture, but was simply recovering from my association with them. It gave me room for a lot of feelings, both positive and negative. Also, coming from a fundamentalist culture that values being labeled and pigeon-holed, it gave me a label I could live with for as long as I needed it. With my new label, I didn’t feel quite so much like I was floating in outer space, untethered to my past and everything I had loved. It gave me a positive goal. I wasn’t just LEAVING , I was RECOVERING. I wanted to see more clearly, not be mired in negativity or regret. I wanted recovery…….and as far as feeling stupid is concerned, he has a lot of company, lol. We see more clearly now, and that’s what matters.

  • kHZG

    I’m curious what you think will be the next manifestation of Christianity in the US…or will there even be one, what with the decline of Roman Catholic, mainline, and evangelical churches?

  • Joe

    Loved the article and the supporting references. While leaders of the religious right may indeed fade in influence what is your take on the money people behind them? I am originally from Muskegon, (home of the now defunct Gospel Films the one referred to in Crazy for God).
    Anyway, Michigan Republican politics has been for the most part financed by the religiously conservative DeVos/Prince families. Nationally, their influence goes back into the Bush 2 administration where a little company called Blackwater got its start. We know what happened there.
    I could go on with examples of influence but suffice to say they ain’t broke yet and they still appear to want both Jesus and a conservative Republican addenda into our American lives. Its sickening to me. Even as an agnostic I want to know how can we wrestle Jesus back?

  • Rusty Horn

    Very nicely done. As usual…

  • Michelle

    Absolutely ridiculous article. It’s sad to see that you have been so brainwashed by the liberal media and its demonization of the Tea Party. The Tea Party is a group of Americans asking the government to be fiscally responsible and yes, it is made up of many social conservatives as well….how radical that The Tea Party wants our elected officials to stop spending more than they take in. I stopped by a Tea Party rally in DC a few years ago and it was the most respectful and friendly group I’ve ever seen and after they left, you could not find one piece of garbage on the Mall….I’ve never seen this in my ten years of living in DC.

    What people don’t understand is that Obama and the liberal media have to demonize the tea party in order to try and retain their power because the Tea Party was gaining so much influence and popularity and as we’ve seen play out…if you say something enough to people they believe it.

    I’m an Evangelical Christian and I’ve never witnessed “hate speech” in any church I’ve ever attended. Yes, they defend marriage between a man and a woman and yes, they believe in protecting the unborn – what is hateful about that? Why is it if someone believes that traditional marriage and family are best for society this is hate speech? This country has gone completely mad in that differences of opinion are no longer tolerated. It’s a sad sad day for our Republic.

    Research has shown that the liberal churches are the ones losing members because they have embraced a “truth is relative” stance and have lost their ability to be salt and light to the world.

    • Joe

      Michelle – You write well and sound like someone who knows what they want. Also, I’m sure there’s nothing I can say that will change your mind on the matter Schaeffer writes about. . Nonetheless, may I refer you to an excellent book called Founding Faith by Steven Waldman. It gives a fairly good critique of America’s early religious practices that are somewhat similar to that of today.

    • Eric Boersma

      The Tea Party is a group of Americans asking the government to be fiscally responsible

      Trying to make the government fail to pay back loans that they have taken is not fiscally responsible.

      how radical that The Tea Party wants our elected officials to stop spending more than they take in

      The US Government prints its own money. Spending more or less than we take in via taxes has zero effect on the health of our economy or our government. What you’re asking is the equivalent of asking “How radical is it that the Tea Party wants our elected officials to stop taking a bath more than they take out the trash?” It’s nonsense.

      I stopped by a Tea Party rally in DC a few years ago and it was the most respectful and friendly group

      I’m shocked that a white protestant conservative was treated well in a group of people that was comprised entirely of white protestant conservatives.

      What people don’t understand is that Obama and the liberal media have to demonize the tea party

      There’s no such thing as a liberal media in the United States. Not in the mainstream, anyway; I’ll give you moveon.org and DailyKos, but the Tea Party (a) demonizes significantly more than their fair share of US Citizens and (b) does a great job demonizing themselves.

      they defend marriage between a man and a woman and yes, they believe in protecting the unborn – what is hateful about that?

      About those general ideas? Nothing. About their implementation by social conservatives in the United States? Everything. Opposing abortion is not a hateful position. Opposing abortion and contraception and sex education means that what you really want is just to punish people for having sex. That’s hateful. Believing that marriage is between a straight man and a straight woman? It’s not great, but it’s your right as an American citizen. Celebrating with the NOM and FRC when you watch gay people get carted off to jail in Russia? That’s hateful.

      Research has shown that the liberal churches are the ones losing members because they have embraced a “truth is relative” stance and have lost their ability to be salt and light to the world.

      Participation in churches of all stripes (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Conservative and Liberal Protestant) is falling at roughly the same pace. It has nothing to do “being the salt and light to the world”. As a practicing Christian, I’m pretty OK with it; most Christians are pretty terrible to be around.

    • reynard61

      “Research has shown that the liberal churches are the ones losing members because they have embraced a ‘truth is relative’ stance and have lost their ability to be salt and light to the world.”

      [citation needed]

  • Kay

    I didn’t see the effects of this in me or my church until my own real life experience of having a gay child hit home. The tone turned judgmental instead of loving after I told my pastor, then all but 3 sermons that year had a dig against gays (also was election year escalating that bigotry) but I no longer felt at home or at peace in my spirit with them after this so I left. I read Jack Rogers & Jeff Chu’s books & viewed Matthew Vines & Dr Cynthia Chappell’s presentations on youtube about sexual orientation, & learned about harm done to LGBT youth by the religious in teach-ministries.org & the Trevor project (disowned kids).
    I don’t want to be disrespectful to anyone & I have liked the Reverends Graham & went to see Billy in the past, but when they changed their statement on Mormonism (to endorse Mitt Romney family values for political reasons) that turned me off of them. People hear anti-gay instead of Jesus loves you as the Christian message.
    And I am not against the church family I’ve loved for years, but see that a family like mine simply does not fit. I have found a couple pastors and churches that are not into conservative fundamentalism, but have a balance of cooperative political views represented in their faith communities. They are not putting up barriers or stumbling blocks to keep any away. I myself am working on growing & recovering from harsh legalistic teaching.

  • seba

    ” The long term decline of the Roman Catholic Church’s good name is irreversible.”

    Like they care, as long as most europe is baptizing kids as pure family, social ceremony which still gives +1 to church, catholicism won’t bother to change anything. They are under the line for more than thousand years, they still get money so it’s fine for them :)

    • Ygorbla

      To be totally fair, while they still have a long way to go, the new Pope seems to be focused on moving on and at least rehabilitating their image by shifting the focus more towards social justice causes and away from talking about The Gays.

      • Lee

        I just wish that the Pope would change his mind about birth control. The poverty cause by this policy is tremendous, and I blame the influx of illegal immigrants squarely on the Catholic Church’s doorstep.

        Still they are making a bit of progress..

  • stardreamer42

    My dear, this is what’s generally known as the chickens coming home to roost. Right-wing evangelicals (including yourself, by your own statement above) have made their bed and now must lie in it. Your best option now is to cut them loose and start over again from scratch, with the things that were Good about the Old Days.

    • Ygorbla

      Did you read what he wrote? He’s no longer a right-wing Evangelical; he says he left that movement. He did cut them loose.

  • reynard61

    “When you risk the world economy for no good reason, you’ve got all of our attention! Tea Party/evangelical lies aren’t funny anymore. It’s not just “birthers” now and gay-haters, the crazy guy is in the bedroom making a big mess where you live!”

    Or, as I like to put it, “Conspiracy theories (and religion-based persecution complexes) are fun…until they become the basis for laws and policy. (And political strategy.)”

  • Elizabeth 44

    Very interesting article. I think the 95th birthday party demonstrates what you are talking about. Franklin will keep him as a prop for as long as possible and then make him a statue, but really isn’t “listening” anymore. It is very sad.


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