Billy Graham was a larger than life figure in my childhood, and really, a larger than life figure for much of post-World War II America. While I left his religion long before I became a Pagan, I feel the need to reflect on his life and death. Even for a Pagan, there is much to admire in Billy Graham.
And there is much to condemn.
He was genuine
There were money-grabbing huckster evangelists before Billy Graham and there have been plenty after him. He wasn’t one of them. Oh, he made money – enough to live comfortably to age 99 with no worries. But passing the offering plate was part of his services, not its emphasis. He had one and only one mission: to win converts for his God and his religion.
There are those in every religion who think every penny should be “given to the poor” and will criticize clergy for any lifestyle above the poverty level. There is no satisfying them, so I don’t try – not in my own life and certainly not in the lives of others. But anyone who paid any attention to Billy Graham could see he was about spreading his faith. Everything else was secondary.
He put his faith first
As a famous evangelist, Graham had the ear of Presidents from Eisenhower through Obama. He made his feelings known on political issues. He was a strong anti-communist. He opposed segregation and supported Martin Luther King, Jr., but often differed with King on tactics and criticized King’s opposition to the Vietnam War.
But unlike King, Graham’s crusades were about changing religion, not changing politics. He was chasing “decisions for Christ,” not votes or laws or policies. He believed that had eternal consequences, and so that outweighed the temporal consequences of civil rights, foreign policy, or anything else. Politics were important, but his religion was religion. As someone who puts devotion first and whose politics flow from my religion and not vice versa, I respect that greatly.
I admire Billy Graham’s dedication and devotion. But I cannot minimize the problems of what he was dedicated and devoted to.
He avoided hard theological problems
There are numerous problems with the religion Billy Graham preached. It’s built on a literal interpretation of myths that are clearly not literally true. It values thinking the right things over doing the right things. And it worships a God who does monstrous things, including (according to Graham’s beliefs) sending millions of sentient beings into eternal torment for following the “wrong” religion.
I grew up in the same religious environment as Billy Graham. At an early age I knew something was wrong with what I was being taught. It took me a long time to fully articulate what was wrong and even longer to recover from it, but I escaped.
Early in his career, Billy Graham had some of the same misgivings I did. But he decided he “didn’t have a good enough mind to settle deep theological questions” and “decided to trust in the authority of the Bible, doubts be damned.”
What would have happened if he had engaged these questions with study, reflection, meditation, and prayer? It’s unlikely he would have found his way into Paganism the way I did (we come from similar environments but had very different paths, separated by over 40 years). But he could have easily become a Christian universalist. Imagine someone with the skill and fervor of Billy Graham preaching “not hell but hope and courage.”
Instead, Billy Graham ducked the most important questions of his religion.
He preached a harmful doctrine
Night after night, in city after city, Billy Graham stood in front of thousands of people and told them they were going to hell unless they adopted his religion. He used threats of eternal torment to coerce people into changing their religion, or into increasing their level of commitment to it.
He genuinely believed what he preached. He meant well. But as Graham himself would no doubt admit, good intentions are never enough.
His sermons sent people into a hell of fear over the fear of hell. His popularity inspired a generation of preachers who did the same Sunday after Sunday in churches all over the country. His closeness to power inspired those who tried and continue to try to write Evangelical doctrine into law.
Some people are well-suited for Graham’s fundamentalist Evangelical religion. He made their lives better. But many of us are not.
He made our lives worse.
My prayer for Billy Graham
Most of the social media comments I’m seeing talk about what a great man Billy Graham was. Some talk about how awful he was, referencing his bad theology, conservative politics, and insensitivity to the AIDS crisis. Both of these things are true. As with most complicated and flawed human beings, our attempts to play Osiris and weigh the hearts of the dead are a mistake.
So I will not declare Billy Graham either good or evil. Instead, I will pray for him. Though he would not agree, it is good to pray for the dead.
I will pray that Billy Graham is received into the presence of his God and ancestors.
I will pray that he understands the good he did in this life, and also the harm he caused. May he learn from both.
I will pray that in his next life, he find the courage to explore his doubts, and the confidence to accept where those explorations lead.
Perhaps next time he will do better.