The tributes and retrospectives began more than two decades ago, when the Rev. Billy Graham was still in his 70s.
I’ve read dozens of such pieces over the years, including interview after interview with the prominent evangelist, who was the standard-bearer for his generation of white American evangelicals. The questions in those interviews were mostly all the same, and so were Graham’s answers.
“Looking back,” the interviewers would ask, “do you have any regrets?” And Graham consistently mentioned two. The great evangelist repeatedly said that he wished he had been more outspoken in support of civil rights, and that he should never have allowed himself to get sucked into trying to be a partisan political power-broker.
The former regret was a sin of omission. Graham — unlike most white Southern ministers of his generation — had not opposed the Civil Rights movement. He had upset some of those clergy with integrated audiences at some of his evangelistic “crusades” (a term that ought to have been a third regret for Graham). But he was mostly cautious and tepid in his support for integration, particularly in contrast to, say, the prophetic witness of someone like Frank Gabelein.
Graham’s Christianity Today magazine sent Gabelein to report on the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. He was sent there to be, like Graham and the magazine itself, an impartial observer on the sidelines. But when Gabelein saw what was going on, he left the sidelines and joined the march. Graham stayed on the sidelines, and looking back from the vantage point of the 1990s and the early 21st century, he regretted that.
Billy Graham’s other regret — his attempt to be a political kingmaker — was a sin of commission, and thus this regret was much more acute. He has spoken many times with genuine horror and remorse over the way he was seduced into partisan support for President Richard Nixon, expressing deep shame for the taped conversation in which he joined Nixon’s anti-Semitic rant against a supposed Jewish “stranglehold” on the media.
Graham has apologized for that lapse in judgment, and he has demonstrated the sincerity of that apology over the years that followed by never again allowing himself to be used as a political tool for one candidate’s partisan agenda, never again inserting himself into electoral politics, never again sanctioning one party and one politician as God’s annointed.
Never again. Until now.
Now, very suddenly, we are being asked to believe that the Rev. Billy Graham, at 93 years old, has completely changed his mind about both of the regrets he has repeatedly lamented over the past 20 years. We are asked to believe that Billy Graham has abruptly changed who he has been for many decades, casting aside everything he has been telling us he learned from his many years in ministry.
No one believes this.
Back in May, when Billy Graham supposedly first made this 180-turn into becoming a Pat Robertson wanna-be, I asked “Is Billy Graham being exploited for political gain?” citing several others who were raising that same question.
As more baldly partisan statements began appearing in Graham’s name — all without any public appearances by the ailing nonagenarian minister — more and more people began asking that same question, with all fingers pointing back to Graham’s partisan-hack son, Franklin.
Franklin Graham has always seemed to desire the respect and influence his father enjoys, but he has never been able to earn it on his own. Now his father almost never speaks publicly, communicating through press releases from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The BGEA is now led by Franklin Graham, and Billy’s statements from the BGEA all sound like Franklin Graham — like the sort of thing Franklin has always said and Billy has never said.
When a reporter from The New York Times asked Franklin Graham if his father would ever speak publicly to confirm his support for these recent statements released in his name, Franklin replied “That ain’t gonna happen.”
It seems all too clear that Franklin Graham is exploiting his father’s reputation and legacy in an effort to leverage his own career — not as an evangelist, but as a “player” in the partisan power politics of the religious right, something his father always avoided. Billy Graham believed that involving himself in the work of the religious right would harm his efforts to spread the gospel, and would tarnish his legacy as a servant of God.
Franklin Graham does not care about his father’s legacy, except insofar as it is useful to him. And he does not share his father’s notion that the spread of the gospel is more important than Republican electoral victory.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is buying ads in major newspapers encouraging voters to cast votes for those candidates that support “biblical values.” I don’t recall Billy Graham ever doing this before. Does anyone else get the idea Franklin Graham and Larry Ross are running the show now with no input from the patriarch? I wonder if he even knows this is going on.
I doubt he does. But we know this is going on. And it’s disgraceful.