Last time we met up, I mentioned in passing that Billy Graham had helped create the broken system that is modern American Evangelical Christianity. I wanted to expand on that statement a bit here because it’s an important concept to understand. Billy Graham’s work both created a juggernaut of coercive power for his religion–and in turn helped damn it. Here’s how he helped to doom the faith he claimed to love.
Billy Graham came of age when his religion was still a dominant force in American culture. The post-World War II America he strode into was one ruled simultaneously by greed and fear–the two ingredients most often found in a fundagelical–and one that was still completely fired up about American exceptionalism thanks to the recent war.
He introduced a couple of slightly new elements into American evangelicalism to take advantage of these slight cultural shifts. To be sure, he stoked and ginned up his adherents’ terror. Billy Graham’s world was one haunted by demons and filled with wickedness. Compliance with his demands would provide, if not a cure for earthly problems, then at least an eternity in Heaven.
Most of all, though, Billy Graham sold his Christian flocks the notion that America was a Christian nation, and that its political system had been not only ordained by his god but also blessed by the same–but could only maintain that blessing through continued compliance. As Lyz Lenz put it,
[T]he toxic brand of evangelicalism that has kneecapped American politics, the full merging of patriotism and Christianity, would not have been possible without Graham’s relentless pursuit of civil religion.
I mean, oh, sure, yeah, of course politicians have always tried to sidle up to religion to get votes. Sure, there has always been a certain amount of pandering to Christians on political issues of various kinds. Billy Graham, though, went to the next level. He created a sort of American Christianism, similar to the Middle Eastern Islamism that is so plaguing that part of the world. The way he saw it, America would be totally safe, prosperous, happy, and harmonious only when his preferred brand of Christianity had been slathered all up and down the rod of American governance.
Billy Graham, in service to both his vision and his ambitions, began holding what he called “crusades” in 1947 (he was about 30 years old at the time). These were in reality revivals, meaning they were massive super-spectacle church services with a heavy emphasis on converting people to his group and getting existing group members to rededicate themselves more firmly to fulfilling the group’s demands. Since most of the people he was preaching at were already Christians, just from other, less hardcore groups, of necessity his revivals were more like poaching opportunities.
If the militaristic and disturbingly theocratic term “crusade” bothered anyone, Graham didn’t let that disapproval stop him from using it–until the 9/11 terrorist attacks upon America, at which point he began calling them “missions,” very likely because continued use of the term might have cut into his bottom line. 1
Many Christians regard Billy Graham as the world’s greatest evangelist. But his power and influence had a staggering human cost–notably in how he responded to the racist attitudes of the people who paid his bills and let him into the offices of the most powerful men in the country, and in how he transformed modern American fundagelicalism into a religion of control-lust, fear, and rage.
In service to his vast vision of a deeply-politicized Christianity, Graham cozied up to Richard Nixon and became his willing stooge. He regretted it later, he said in an interview in 2011, but by then the damage was done. At the time, he’d known well that Nixon was his ticket to real power.2 In his dealings with Christians, he found that power in the same way that Nixon had, through allowing racists to run roughshod over his groups. By defining racism as “a heart problem” rather than an entrenched and systemic issue, he could position it as something that conversion and sincere repentance would fix–and why just lookie there, that was another problem he had a fix for in his Santa’s sack of toys!
With the growing rise of racism in the Deep South in particular, Graham appears to have known at a very deep level that if he confronted it too strongly he’d lose a lot of supporters–and he’d alienate a lot of Republicans who were already toying with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, including Nixon himself. So he made a few halfhearted attempts to criticize it, but generally refused to do what would have been necessary to reject it entirely. And when Martin Luther King Jr. specifically asked him in 1957 not to allow a segregationist politician (Texas governor Price Daniel, a vile human if there ever was one) to open one of Graham’s crusade rallies, Graham didn’t even respond to his letter. One of his advisors wrote back instead–and told King that no, Daniel was Graham’s choice and that was who was going to speak.
Certainly Graham suffered from all the other usual bigotries of Christians at the time–he is on record as talking to Richard Nixon extensively about their shared anti-Semitic opinions, for one, and he was one of those tiresome fellows who think that the solution to the temptation of off-limits sex is never to be alone with any woman they aren’t married to.
That said, he never appears to have been credibly accused of any kind of scandal. Though he was one of the richest American pastors/preachers who’s ever lived and certainly compensated himself and his family members in his ministry lavishly, he appears to have stayed largely free of major financial scandals as well.
No, he was a true-blue believer, it seems. And yet he still doomed Christianity–perhaps more effectively than any number of hypocrites caught with their pants down and their grabby little hands in any number of cookie jars.
Twisting to Fear.
By stoking his audiences’ fears to 11 in his crusades and outright assigning the cause of all bad events ever anywhere forever to noncompliance with his religion’s demands,3 Billy Graham gained for his religion Christians who responded beautifully to threats and guilting attempts. If you’ve ever wondered why Christians seem to be so gullible and so easy to manipulate and push around by their leaders, we can look straight to the recruitment methods used to capture their allegiance. People won by fear are then ruled by fear. A theocracy-minded dictator-in-the-making could ask for no better sheep in the fold.
And then by insisting that Christians should feel entitled to dominate the political sphere of a secular nation, Graham helped facilitate the takeover of his religion by political forces. He shamelessly courted political leaders–and became known as “America’s Pastor” as he became the advisor of every sitting President from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. Certainly a man loudly proclaiming his lack of interest in politics shouldn’t have been trawling the White House and building up a massive lobbying presence there, but that’s what he was very studiously doing. His involvement in politics became yet another regret of his, but weirdly, Jesus didn’t tell him not to do it at the time.
Ironically, Graham tried to distance himself from terms like Dominionism, with his spokesperson A. Larry Ross loudly complaining about any association of his master’s name with that term. But as that AlterNet article makes clear, Graham not only closely associated with Dominionists, but spouted the same debunked talking points they do. His motivation for spouting those talking points was quite transparent: any Christian who loudly insists that there’s no such thing as the separation of church and state is saying that for a very specific purpose, and that’s to facilitate culture wars.
It gets worse, though. In The Prince of War, Cecil Bothwell makes the links between Graham’s crusades and his politicization of Christianity even more clear, making an extremely good case for Graham’s ultimate goal being the creation of “a wholly Christian empire.” Bill Moyers summed him up thusly in a quote from the book:
Billy Graham represents a basic kind of patriotism in this country–an unquestioning, obeying patriotism, a loyalty to the authority of the president. Billy was always uncritical, unchallenging, unquestioning.
Indeed, Graham had always linked the correct flavor of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ with fervent patriotism. One of his first stunts was to hold a revival on the steps of the Capitol Building in 1952–a stunt that required Congress to allow him to do it. That’s when he demanded that Congress create a National Day of Prayer, which itself is nothing more than a baldfaced attempt to normalize the intrusion of religion into American politics. Just take a look at his Labor Day 1957 crusade in Times Square–this dude’s sermons were shot through with patriotism and a merging of religion and politics. He’s always been this way. It’s not like a big secret or anything.
The Culture-War Model of Christianity.
Culture wars are now quite possibly the real face of modern American Christianity. Whether a particular Christian loves ’em or hates ’em, they’re part of the swamp now.
A culture war is a social squabble that Christians fight in order to gain (or regain) their onetime power over American culture. Often the culture war centers around some human right or dignity that Christians think they should have the ability to police (women’s rights, legalization of marijuana, LGBTQIA equality, the right to die), or it focuses upon a style of government or Christian practice that the culture-warriors don’t like (especially Communism and progressive Christianity), or it simply seeks to drown out evidence that Christians’ time as a dominant force is fast fading (growing numbers of atheists; plain red coffee cups; multicolored corn chips).
Christians go to the wall to vilify and demonize their opponents–and seek to create and pass laws that will give them the outcome they desire: the very real legal power they crave.
Culture wars never die, either. The anti-Communism culture war that Billy Graham started in the 1950s never actually faded away. There are still Christians freaking out about Communism and holding up American-style democracy (well, it’s a democratic republic, I reckon) as the only properly TRUE CHRISTIAN™ kind of government.
Instead of resolving one war and moving on to another, Christian culture warriors only add to their list of enemies as time goes on. After deciding that their tribe’s most dread enemy was Communism, successive new generations of leaders added drug use and free sex, feminism, Satanism/Wicca, Eastern mysticism of all kinds, and now the three-headed beast of atheism, Islam, and progressive Christianity. The current two major culture wars are the ones being waged against abortion rights and LGBTQIA equality, but in another generation, Christians will have found another enemy to add to that overflowing list. Meanwhile, they entrench themselves ever more firmly into ever-more-rigid groups designed around the keeping and growing of unilateral power at others’ expense.
Always and above all, though, they hate anything that interferes with the vision of the Good Ole Days that politicized Christian leaders tell them that they can have if they can only win their culture wars. These warriors seek to suppress shakeups to institutionalized racism and sexism, any equalizing of power between the haves and have-nots, a closer end to the class warfare that Christians themselves love so much, and the ushering-in a world where everyone is free to choose whatever religion they’d like to pursue–and free to reject anything they don’t want to pursue.
That’s a world that absolutely terrifies toxic Christians, and it terrifies them thanks to decades of conditioning from leaders who stand to gain a great deal from that terror.
Why Culture Wars Aren’t Working Anymore.
Here’s the big problem with culture wars–for those Christians who like them, anyway.
Culture wars need coercive cultural power to survive. The culture war model requires three things to succeed:
- People outside of the tribe have to care what the tribe’s members think about things.
- Non-tribemates have to either agree with the culture warriors or else be okay with just standing by while the culture warriors do their thing.
- The culture warriors have to be able to translate that social/cultural clout to real power through the passing of laws that give their tribe more formal powers of coercion.
Formal coercive power is the ultimate goal. That power already allows (to greater or lesser degrees) Christians to discriminate against their tribal enemies, to open secular government meetings with prayers, to sneak indoctrination into public schools, and to blatantly use public funds and land for their religious grandstanding. But that’s only the very beginning of what I’ve heard Christians fantasizing about. At extremes, that power might allow culture warriors to deny the adoption of children to anyone they hate, to end public education entirely, to deport undocumented people who aren’t in the correct tribe of TRUE CHRISTIANS™, or even–as popular Christian pastor Joe Morecraft very famously fantasized about publicly–to physically enslave atheists.
If any of those three necessary elements are missing, though, then the culture war spins its wheels forever. Oh sure, there’ll always be Christians who latch onto whatever their particular generation’s culture-war boogeyman might be, and they’ll carry their terror forward through their whole lives. But there simply aren’t enough fundagelicals to carry the culture-war ball by themselves, not anymore. Without buy-in or at least complacency, they can’t do more than make a lot of noise.
And that noisemaking is starting to cost Christian groups and leaders all across the culture-war battlefield.
As Rachel Held Evans wrote back in 2012, before her tribe successfully chased her out of their ranks, “We [young Christians] are ready to stop waging war and start washing feet.” She got shouted down immediately by all kinds of fundagelicals who were outraged at the mere suggestion that they should drop what had become such a huge part of their self-image and their plans, but the message resonated all across the rest of the Christ-o-sphere.
Pew Research Center has been tracking younger folks’ feelings regarding culture-war topics for a while now–and they’ve been finding a steady theme in those studies. Millennials really don’t like the culture wars. They’re sick of them! Some of them are trying to reform evangelicalism from the inside—good luck with that!–while others are simply walking away from their groups to find more progressive ones, or leaving the religion altogether.
Of course, their elders can’t change course now. They can only drill down harder and hope that they gain formal coercive powers before they dissolve into total irrelevance. And as long as we keep pushing back, that isn’t going to happen.
Billy Graham wanted a this-or-that, black-or-white model of Christianity, one that presented a unified face to the whole world, and he got it. For better or for worse, fundagelicals are the face of Christianity, and the swivel-eyed culture warrior is the face of fundagelicalism. He wanted a nation full of culture warriors seeking political power, and he got that too. But hand-in-hand with that model of Christianity, he also got a tribe so completely untethered from reality, so eager for personal power, and so completely divorced from love and compassion that they are now fast losing not only their own members, but also all hope of making enough sales to offset those defections–and with those losses, a credibility rate that is tumbling even faster than their membership is.
And “Jesus” didn’t tell him when it mattered that what he was doing was eventually going to help destroy his religion. No, “Jesus” let that wait until Graham was almost dead and had done many decades of damage, leaving the old man to regret those missteps many years later. Isn’t that just the weirdest thing? (/s)
Join us next time as we examine the common Christian claim that evangelism is wildly successful in places-that-aren’t-here. See you then!
3 Or, oh, he didn’t know, maybe Satan did it sometimes. Or maybe his god hadn’t sent the disaster to make people convert or rededicate themselves to Christianity, but instead to learn to help each other, which they never would have figured out if their entire community hadn’t been wiped out by a storm. Billy Graham’s god was a monster, and the link I gave where he’s struggling to explain natural disasters is all anyone ought to need to know that he was no better.
If you like what you see, I would love to have your support. My PayPal is email@example.com (that’s an underscore in there) for one-time tips, and I also welcome monthly patrons via Patreon with Roll to Disbelieve. Thanks!