Rest, but Not in Peace

Billy Graham was many things to many people. To many, he was America’s moral leader, thundering his neo-Calvinist message to adoring and frenzied crowds, admonishing presidents and politicians of both parties to turn to his wrathful Old Testament God, repent and be “born again.” There is no question that he left an indelible mark on American politics and political discourse, culture and religion. “Called” at an early age, he believed, to be a preacher “on fire for the Lord,” a modern Savonarola but on a national — even international — stage. Graham’s distinctive style and apparent personal faith and zeal inspired millions, and influenced everything from children’s television programming to American foreign policy. Ignoring the transformative impact of the movements that he — whether or not he may have sought the role — spearheaded or inspired would be a grave mistake to the scholar of modern American history and culture studies.

To others, like myself, he was at best a carnival barker — a prudent and diplomatic would-be éminence grise, at home among presidents and bankers, pastors and skeptics, the powerful and the downtrodden, theologically every bit as venomous as his less reputable but equally dangerous fellow-traveler Jerry Falwell. Graham had the master politician’s — for, in the final analysis, he should be remembered first and foremost as a politician — gift for seeming all things to all people combined with the demagogue’s ability to move and manipulate a crowd. And he had crowds — his “revivals,” and the thousands that still plague towns and warp minds from Chillicothe, Illinois to the National Mall annually — were nothing if not pure spectacle. The hermeneutics of the conversion/revival experience I leave to sharper minds, but Graham was a maestro of its orchestration. His legacy is immense, but among the bastard children of his theology include such monstrosities as the “prosperity gospel” and its charlatans, the anti-choice, anti-feminist movement, homophobia, opposition on “Biblical grounds” to racial equality, xenophobia, white supremacy, scapegoating of the poor and the faux piety without which even in 2018 few politicians dare to conduct their political lives. Graham gave us the National Prayer Breakfast, the opening of public ceremonies with a prayer to one interpretation of the Christian religion’s deity, and the messianic and moralizing interpretation of American foreign policy, particularly with regard to foreign aid (though there are many other factors, granted).

Thankfully, the “Moral Majority” has learned that it never was a majority, and with each successive generation fades more into irrelevancy. America is moving indelibly toward becoming a society that is more tolerant, accepting and — hopefully — more equitable. I’m neither naïve nor optimistic enough to think that the politics of intolerance, patriarchy, xenophobia and raw power are going anywhere any time soon, or ever — look at the buffoon spouting pieties he does not understand who occupies the White House. But the times they seem to be a-changin’. I will never celebrate the passing of any human being, and my condolences to your family, friends and the millions whose lives you “touched” or found in you a beacon of hope in a “fallen” world; so may you rest, Rev. Graham, but not in peace. Your work, and the damage it’s done, is already fading.

(On a personal note, I was raised Baptist of a very Graham-influenced vintage, and know first-hand the damage politics masked as holy writ of intolerance can inflict. To anyone queer and or affected by this distorted worldview — have meaningful faith: it gets better.)

~ by Benji on February 21, 2018.

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