Yesterday, Billy Graham, who was once considered the spiritual leader of the Protestant church in America, shredded his place in history by endorsing Amendment 1, a ballot initiative in his home state of North Carolina that would ban gay marriage. The amendment is redundant because marriage equality is already illegal in the state, but it would also outlaw civil unions and domestic partnerships.
The ad was released by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association on the same day that North Carolina’s African-American voters were expressing outrage over an assertion by Jodie Brunstett, the wife of a state legislator who supported the amendment, that its purpose was to perpetuate the Caucasian race. Brunstett later admitted that while she had used the word “Caucasian,” she was not referring to race — and that she may have been experiencing heat stroke when she made the statement.
Another controversy erupted on Sunday, when a hate-based preacher in the military enclave of Fayetteville was recorded during a sermon exhorting his followers to beat their children for what they perceive as gay behavior. Sean Harris, the preacher, later apologized, saying beating children is bad, even if they are exhibiting “effeminacy and sexual immorality of all types.”
Billy Graham got his first national exposure in the 1940s at a tent revival in Los Angeles that was promoted by the Hearst newspaper chain at the personal behest of William Randolph Hearst. Over the decades, Graham carved a niche for himself and his ministry that was separate from the evangelical hucksters who made their fortunes promoting hatred of racial, sexual and religious minorities.
Graham found financial success by staying above the fray. Like other teevee preachers, his sermons were laced with dire warnings about the consequences for those who did not follow Christ, but he also consistently stressed the positive values in Christian teaching. He also avoided the constant begging for tithes that is the hallmark of televangelism.
And yet Graham’s endorsement of Amendment 1 is not the first time his image as a righteous and loving disciple of Christ has been tarnished by revelations of bigotry.
In a release of tapes by the Nixon Presidential Library in 2009, Billy Graham was heard in conversations with Pres. Nixon in the Oval Office, in 1973, heaping praise on Nixon, an infamous anti-Semite and the most corrupt president of the 20th century. During a discussion of Israel and the American Jewish Committee, Graham is also heard referring to a verse in Revelation which castigates people who pretend to be Jewish as liars who belong to a “synagogue of Satan.”
In response to the release of the Nixon tapes, a director of the Anti-Defamation League said that “while never expressing these views in public, Rev. Graham unabashedly held forth with the president with age-old classical anti-Semitic canards.”
In a previous release of Nixon tapes, after Nixon was heard railing against American Jews for their purported control of the media, Billy Graham said to Nixon that Jews want to befriend him but, “They don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country.”
During the Jim Crow era and the subsequent fight for African-American Civil Rights, Graham has a more positive and yet still mixed record. When he barnstormed the South with his evangelical crusades he refused to allow the crowds to be segregated. And yet, on the major issues related to the civil rights movement — equal access to voting, employment, schooling for blacks — he was silent.
He also aligned himself with Nixon in the president’s “Southern Stragey,” which successfully attracted conservative Southern Democrats into the Republican Party by using the “dog whistle” racist fear-mongering that has become the trademark of today’s teavangelical GOP.
So why would Billy Graham allow his image, real or not, as a principled Christian to be shredded by endorsing a hate-group amendment in his native state? It may well be the handiwork of his children, Franklin Graham, 59, and Anne, 64, who are both evangelical preachers, and both have taken the same low road as most of their colleagues, spreading hatred and fear about religious, racial and sexual minorities, all the while trading on their father’s once-good name, and thereby tarnishing it by association.
Both Franklin and Anne, as well as Franklin’s son, Will, and Anne’s husband, Denton Lotz, are on the board of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which sponsored the ad. The BGEA website devotes much of its bandwidth to begging for tithes and and spreading right-wing political dogma.
On the issue of gay civil rights, the trend line is clear. By the time people who are in the twenties today are Billy Graham’s age, being gay — as the conservative columnist George Will once put it — will be no more controversial than being left-handed.
For the generations that follow, the endorsement by Billy Graham of this hate-group amendment this week — which could be his final public act — may well become the headline of his legacy, negating decades of good works and his promotion of Jesus’ admonitions not to judge others but to treat them as you’d have them treat you.
If that happens, it will be what Billy Graham, his children and their followers deserve.