Billy Graham, You Complicated Man.

I’ve got a little fire in my belly about a couple things.

Having reflected a bit on the death of Billy Graham, I’m observing the polarization his legacy has renewed within our culture. There will be lots of other events that have the same net effect, but presently his death is an excellent case study.

I note two distinct perceived legacies [the way people posthumously see Graham]:

1. He was a perfect man who led thousands/millions to a meaningful, life changing, salvific relationship with Jesus. 

2. He used the power he had to destroy countless lives, harming Jews, the LGBTQ+ community, and set up a political/religious framework that set up the rise of the religious right. 

There does not seem to be much ground in between these two poles. Part of the polarization has much to do with Billy’s son, Franklin, and his unwavering support of president Trump. I’ve been quite bothered about the influence of folks like Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell. These men are enjoying the sway they have in high political places, and in my little opinion an American theocracy is not the goal. Actually, it is absolutely nowhere near the interest of faithful Christians. Christians have no business whatsoever becoming enmeshed with the power of empire. Instead, we simply follow Jesus’s instruction: we render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.

Another significant critique is Billy Graham’s legacy is his condemnation of same sex unions. This is a big one. And there are number of ways to approach the topic. From my standpoint, I’d say if we’re going to lambast Graham for his approach to LGBTQ+ topics, we should also consider influence of the vast array of scientists, politicians, and philosophers who, over centuries, either explicitly or tacitly posited the same message. The guy died at age 99, and came into consciousness at a totally different historical moment.

The political fight for single sex unions was a long and painful one, finally concluding in 2015 in the Obergefell v. Hodges case that, after several aching decades [depending how we measure it] secured the right for gay marriage. Interestingly, that’s the same year Robert Spitzer died, the key psychiatrist in the American Psychiatric Association support changes to no longer classify same-sex attraction as a disorder in the seventh printing of the DSM II, published in 1973.

If that’s where the APA was in the journey, imagine the American public at the time. It was a different era entirely and it’s both unfair and simply unhelpful to foist current perspectives into history, right or wrong. Interestingly, 1973 was the same year we now remember Graham making comments that today strike us as cutting against the grain of contemporary culture:

[homosexuality is an] “ungodly spirit of self-gratification” …“we traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare. Your affection for another of your own sex is misdirected and will be judged by God’s holy standards.” 

That is strong language, to be sure. I don’t feel any need to pronounce my own commentary on the subject, aside from noting it is lacking in love and grace. Yet, at the same time, homosexuality had that same year just been reclassified within the APA, so it is prudent to remember this was a different era altogether.

I certainly think wherever we stand ethically or religiously, kindness and grace should color our language whether it is supportive or not, for it is not us but God does the judging. And what if we were wrong about our own ethical vantage point? I’ll allow that one to rest and give Graham a final word on the topic, since I brought up the lack of grace he displayed regarding same-sex attraction:

“It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge and my job to love.” 

He was certainly inconsistent, especially when looking at his words 45 years later, with leaving God to both convict and judge. But it’s wise to remember the era he lived in, as difficult as that is. That, I think, is the only way for those of us who may perceive sexual ethics differently, to foster true empathy for a man such as Graham.

There is some excellent critique of Graham’s influence on Richard Nixon that is of important note.* Graham, in conversation with the incumbent president, was recorded saying about Jewish media leaders in 1972,

”They’re the ones putting out the pornographic stuff,” [Graham to Nixon] …“the Jewish stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain…”

Yes. It’s really bad.

Graham backpedaled when caught after the tapes’ release in 2002:

“If it wasn’t on tape, I would not have believed it,” [Graham told Newsweek] “I guess I was trying to please. I felt so badly about myself – I couldn’t believe it. I went to a meeting with Jewish leaders and I told them I would crawl to them to ask their forgiveness.”

Like many Evangelicals, Graham was supportive of Israel as a state. But he was clearly beyond skeptical of Jewish folks within the world of media, who he considered liberal and went on to verbally lambast.

Graham seems to have broken his own ideal. From Parade in 1981, just a few years later:

“I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”

Unfortunately, quotes and ideals aside, there is a case to be made about how Graham’s influence on several presidents has laid the foundation for further inappropriate influence from other Christian leaders with big egos and agendas that don’t run the same course as public opinion. I won’t lay out that case here, but I will note the continuing influence of the Evangelical leaders I noted earlier.

One final, resounding criticism: Civil Rights. There is much to be said here, and I am not the historian, only the blogger who is taking a deeper look. I’ll let you peruse this helpful article from CNN for the mixed history of support for MLK and the Civil Rights movement-and lack thereof. It is truly a mixed bag.

It would be difficult to quantify the positive influences Graham leaves as a legacy. He rejected the fundamentalist label, preferring evangelical, and offered the world hope through the message of Jesus and the forgiveness of sin. I don’t feel the need to take much time on the positive aspects of Graham’s legacy, though they are surely enormous.

In the same breath, I’d add that the lives changed for the positive have their own stories to tell, and I have no need to speak their testimony, for it is theirs to share.

image credit: Billy Graham library

My biggest point is not my own, but my wife Kaile’s insight. We spoke at length on the topic recently, and she noted this:

We criticize Graham because we want pastors and religious leaders to be perfect! We want them to be just like Jesus! 

She made the most important point of all. No human leader from any political or religious standpoint possesses a spotless private and public record. Neither should we expect them to. Yes, we should hold all leaders accountable for their actions, for our politicians, mayors, scientists, and pastors do a lot of influencing. But we cannot expect a record free of mistakes from anyone in any field.

Really, I consider it a good thing that we are taking note of the good and the bad that Graham’s legacy consists of, for it shows that we care about what kind of influence leaders and pastors have.

Well, I suppose I’ll let Graham have the last word, since this is primarily about him. To whatever extent he lived into this piece of his own preaching, I receive it wholeheartedly:

“It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge and my job to love.” 






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