Op-Ed: Death of a Salesman – Billy Graham (1918-2018)
Billy Graham was our grand uncle in the “thoughts and prayers” business. Christianity was open for business. From stadium Christianity to television evangelism, after Billy Graham the numbers were staggering, growth in the industry exponential. While the jury may still be out on the overall global trends in religiosity, the shift towards evangelical Christianity, at least in the US has happened. Billy Graham was its greatest proponent. By PATRICK PILLAY.
On hearing of the death of any fellow human the emotions which flood the mind, even for a long lapsed altar boy, mix sorrow and mercy with a sense of compassion for the grieving family for their dearly departed. This is no different in the case of the world renowned Baptist minister and evangelist Billy Graham; a father, a deeply committed family man, a personal friend to many, a husband to his dear wife Ruth (m. 1943-2007), a confidant to presidents, and a man who permanently changed the face of Christianity globally since the 1950s. Perhaps the last word in the face of death should be “mercy”, for what we dish out we shalt receive, if not in life, then certainly over our dead bodies.
But then, there’s that slightly tricky matter of what history records under our names.
Watch: Billy Graham preaches at Wembley Stadium in 1955
As an occasional scribbler on matters religion one cannot think of any person who had influenced the spread of evangelical Christianity through the 20th century to the present more than Billy Graham – the Apostle Paul of modern times. When it came to the intersections between religion and politics, Billy Graham was shape-shifting to almost Constantinian proportions. Even if some may argue that he never intended it himself, after Billy Graham, Jefferson’s ‘wall of separation’ between church and state, conceived also in a Baptist setting in Danbury, Connecticut (1802), was permanently ruined.
For much of the 20th century, Billy Graham was the Padre-in-Chief at the crossroads between religion and politics; too close to the politics of power to not know of his impact. Doubting Thomas’s need only look at the trend of evangelical Christianity in recent decades and consider how a chap called Donald Trump came to power.
Watch: Billy Graham – Timeless Truth – Happiness
Christianity in the 20th century needed a power-broker, a salesman of sorts, to tactfully manoeuvre around that double-edged sword of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, its Establishment Clause:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Billy Graham was the man for the job, taking the church from the chapel, into the stadium and into the White House.
There would be no US President after and including Harry Truman who would not look to Pastor Graham to bring divine sanction on their respective presidencies and, in direct effect, on their policies, although he was known not to openly endorse any presidential candidate in any election. A sign of neutrality and/or bi-partisanship? If one buys into the myth that the Democrats are different from the Republicans, perhaps.
While one may be hard-pressed to find any outright pronouncements of a political nature made by Billy Graham, there can be no mistaking that he was an establishment man. To remain effectively silent or neutral on matters such as the Vietnam War (a.k.a the “American War” from the perspective of the Vietnamese), or the Cold War (Yet calling for the downfall of “Godless Communism”), or in later years Liberation Theology (Is Liberation Theology a contradiction in terms, I always wondered?), is to take sides.
Watch: Billy Graham How to live the Christian Life-Full (Madison Square Garden, 1957)
Billy Graham took sides, the side that was prepared to go into illegitimate wars, from the Vietnam War to the Iraq War (the sequel). Billy Graham was called to pray with George Bush (the lesser) before the invasion of Iraq, Post 9/11. The Christian “crusade” into the Middle East had literally gone ballistic with full blessings from Pastor Graham. The truly Streetwise-Combo of the Commander-in-Chief and Christianity’s Crusader-in-Chief shifted global geo-politics, the effects of which we continue to experience to this very day.
In the Presidents and Prayers Department, how can one forget Billy Graham’s siding with that serial abuser of women, Bill Clinton? Pastor Graham went public in his public support for Bill Clinton, without even the slightest thought for Monica Lewinsky through the whole saga. Billy Graham might have washed away the sins of Bill Clinton in the public’s eye and cleared his path to the Pearly Gates, but the stench of the blue dress still lingers. No outburst of presidential libido is bad enough that it cannot be masked or laid to rest by evangelical Christianity; think Jennifer Flowers, think Stormy Daniels, think Donald Trump, then think Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo and our very own Pastor Jacob Zuma.
In an age without the internet, Billy Graham was the master at his mission, going global without social- or new-media. He launched stadium Christianity and Christian television evangelism. We’re not talking the BBC’s Songs of Praise here, we are talking about the industry of religion globally being changed forever. If one buys into the Gospels of The Bible, this was akin to Christendom on Easter morn, being resurrected to be a new world force that would shape not just religion but global politics.
To the world of evangelical Christianity Pastor Graham was a true man of God, in no lesser measure than the Pope as Christ’s vicar on earth. To the sober-minded sociologists of religion looking at us from the proverbial Planet Xenu, Billy Graham was Salesman-of-the-Month for Christianity. From then on, the tills never stopped.
Anybody with any one of the hundreds of different versions of The Bible, the supposed unalterable word of God, could want to become a Billy Graham 2.0 simply because they claimed to be “called” into the ministry, and they came in their thousands. The Gospel went cable. From Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) to Inspiration TV, and everything betwixt, every pastor and his wife and son could buy airtime on television to propagate this industry of faith (Brace yourself for Pastor Franklin Graham Jr who worships not only his God but also the person of Donald Trump).
Watch: Pastor Franklin Graham defends Trump amid affair allegations
From Joyce Meyer, to Benny Hinn, to Joel Osteen, to Jentezen Franklin, to John Hagee, the list is endless. (Watch out for NKoTB Pastor Steven Furtick who calls his franchise “Elevation Church” – think church gone Super Bowl). In the “sow your seed” business for a “not now harvest”, Billy Graham created this industry.
One of the most controversial episodes of Pastor Graham’s ministry to presidents was captured on the now infamous Nixon tapes. During the 1990s word did the rounds that Billy Graham was disparaging towards the American Jewry. Pastor Graham denied holding such views, until 2002 after the Nixon tapes and their transcripts were released by the US National Archives. Put plainly, Pastor Graham lied and continued the lie for many years. It was only after the release of the tapes that he apologised publicly. To his credit he did so without trying to justify his comments and he expressed deep regret over his utterances.
Closer to home, despite his public pronouncements not to visit apartheid/segregated South Africa, Billy Graham did visit the country in 1973 for crusades in Durban and Johannesburg (Perhaps he shared similar views of irredeemable Cape Town as Angus Buchan did in recent weeks? One never knows.)
Billy Graham was our grand uncle in the “thoughts and prayers” business. Christianity was open for business. From stadium Christianity to television evangelism, after Billy Graham the numbers were staggering, growth in the industry was exponential. While the jury may still be out on the overall global trends in religiosity, the shift towards evangelical Christianity, at least in the US, has happened. Billy Graham was its greatest proponent.
Even in death a true account must apply, particularly in the case of a national and international figure such as Billy Graham. In any assessment of this great American life one would be on point to think that Pastor Billy Graham was so natured that he would be more appreciative of such a fair account than one which isn’t. After all, the public record should be allowed to speak for itself. Why shouldn’t it?
Billy Graham touched and changed the lives of millions of people around the world, like very few others have, and that should be understood and respected for what it was and remains today. Besides, one does not have to be of any religious disposition to know that in death, perhaps the last word must be “mercy”. DM
Photo: Evangelist Billy Graham speaks on the third and final day of the Greater New York Billy Graham Crusade, at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, New York, Sunday 26 June 2005. EPA/PETER FOLEY