The American evangelical preacher and publicity hound Billy Graham died last week age 99. Yesterday, the Chicago Tribune reported, people were lining up to ‘pay their final respects to a man who reached millions with his message of salvation thorough Jesus Christ.’ A secular reader might wonder what ‘his message of salvation thorough Jesus Christ’ is supposed to mean and why a newspaper refers to it as matter-of-factly as it might to the weather forecast.
But it gets worse.
The Rev Billy Graham, the evangelist and presidential pastor who died this week, will become the fourth private citizen to lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda, lawmakers announced Thursday.
The fourth? Why? Why him? Why a god-botherer?
The gesture, which is reserved for the country’s “most eminent citizens,” is authorized by a congressional resolution or approved by congressional leadership once permission is given by the person’s family, according to the Architect of the Capitol. It is generally reserved for presidents, lawmakers and soldiers, who lie in state.
Speaker Paul D Ryan of Wisconsin and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, wrote a letter to Mr Graham’s son, the Rev Franklin Graham, on Thursday asking that “Americans have this opportunity to pay their respects to Rev. Graham” for his “long and distinguished service to the nation.”
Well, that’s why, I guess – part of the Trumpist coup. No more separation of church and state, folks! Compulsory state religion will be the new normal.
Mr Graham will lie in honor for two days, Wednesday and Thursday, Mr Ryan said in a news release. His pine plywood coffin with a wooden cross was made by inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association said.
Ah slave labour; that’s a nice touch. So poetic, so American.
Mr Ryan and Mr McConnell will hold a bicameral service after the arrival of the coffin. Votes in the House were canceled for the two days Mr. Graham’s body will be in the rotunda, with final votes for the week being held Tuesday, the office of the House majority leader said.
So not just the corpse lying in state but also suspending legislation for two days, simply because a far-right homophobic racist preacher died at the age of 99. You couldn’t make it up.
Why Billy Graham? Why him more than any other Bible-basher?
Three words: William Randolph Hearst.
Graham was putting on a “crusade” in Los Angeles in 1949 but the crowds were thin and he was discouraged. One night a horde of reporters descended on him and he was afraid they had found some source of scandal. But no: it was the miracle of Publicity:
“You have just been kissed by William Randolph Hearst,” one reporter told the young preacher, showing Graham a two-word telegram sent by the newspaper magnate to his ink-stained scribes. It said, simply, “Puff Graham.”
Within days, headlines in Hearst papers, the country’s largest chain, trumpeted the “new tide of faith” turning under the big tent in Los Angeles.
Newspapers across the country ran front-page stories about the conversions of Hamblen, Olympic runner Louis Zamperini and former mobster J Arthur Vaus.
Other media soon joined the countrywide “amen corner.”
It’s all a big joke, because Hearst was neither goddy nor moral, but then neither is Donald Trump and that doesn’t stop him flinging around oily words about prayer and “faith.” After that Billy Graham never looked back.
He wasn’t one of your barefoot preacher types, either. He made friends with Richard Nixon, the communist-sniffing senator and then vice-president. He flattered and sucked up to Eisenhower and convinced him to institute the revolting “National Prayer Breakfast” we’re still cursed with every year.
Graham’s dealings with presidents mixed vanity and naivete. In 1952, he said he wanted to meet with all the candidates “to give them the moral side of the thing.” He was 33. He applied flattery with a trowel, comparing Dwight Eisenhower’s first foreign policy speech to the Sermon on the Mount and calling Richard Nixon “the most able and the best trained man for the job probably in American history.” He told Nixon that God had given him, Nixon, “supernatural wisdom.” Graham should have heeded the psalmist’s warning about putting one’s faith in princes.
On Feb 1, 1972, unaware of Nixon’s Oval Office taping system, when Nixon ranted about how Jews “totally dominated” the media, Graham said, “This stranglehold has got to be broken or this country is going down the drain.” He also told Nixon that Jews are the ones “putting out the pornographic stuff.” One can reasonably acquit Graham of anti-Semitism only by convicting him of toadying. When Graham read transcripts of Nixon conspiring to cover up crimes, Graham said that what “shook me most” was Nixon’s vulgar language.
Graham also poisoned the lives of many people who had the theological impudence to be attracted to their own sex. Bob Moser at Rolling Stone describes his experience of “conversion” and shame:
One morning in November, the local paper was open on the kitchen table when I went down to breakfast, turned to Graham’s syndicated column, “My Answer.” The headline was certainly eye-catching: “Homosexual Perversion a Sin That’s Never Right.” That day’s question had come from a budding lesbian: “I’m a girl, and I love another girl!” wrote “M.D.” “However, I am worried about my Christian life. My attention has been called to I Corinthians 6:9 [Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men … will inherit the kingdom of God] Please help.”
Graham was happy to help. “Let me say this loud and clear!” he wrote. “We traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare. Your affection for another of your own sex is misdirected, and you will be judged by God’s holy standards.” But there was hope! “You don’t have to succumb to this insidious temptation,” Graham wrote. “Reformation” is possible, he said. “Seize it while there’s still a chance.”
I have never known despair greater than I felt, reading those words. I had already tried to seize salvation, and it had eluded me. I would torment myself for another 20 years trying to find it, trying to “reform,” dating women, attempting suicide, never quite able to shake the voice of Billy Graham promising me eternal damnation, even after I knew it was all a lie. Graham wasn’t given to ranting about particular kinds of sins and sinners like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. So when he was quoted elsewhere calling homosexuality “perversion that leads to death,” it was no small thing for all of us confused kids out there.
This was the voice of God on Earth, America’s White Jesus, telling our parents that they were right to worry – and, if needed, to beat the gayness out of their child for the sake of his or her soul, or (worse) send them to “conversion therapy.” And the voice was telling us that our loves and desires would, if pursued, land us in hell for eternity.
Yet he’s being given the send-off of a national hero. I object.