Billy Club

A simple, happy message helped him become the nation's favorite preacher. Thanks to a Popsicle-slick PR machine and a talent for dodging tough questions, we've forgotten what Billy Graham is really all about.

In an Oct. 24 commentary, Bearden wrote about how graciously Graham treated each one of her questions, how "his eyes shone as he spoke." His marriage, she insisted, was "a match made in heaven." She asked him to sign his autobiography for her, saying later, "He won't remember our time together. But I will never forget it." Bearden wrote thousands of words about Graham before and during the Tampa Crusade, including a chronology of his life that appeared in a special 16-page section of the Tribune, "Billy Graham's Lifelong Crusade." "All he did," she ended one feature, "was let God use him."

Coverage of Billy Graham expands like cotton candy. Here in St. Louis, 30 radio and TV spots aired from Sept. 15-29, packed with such hard news as the choir-rehearsal schedule; Crusade staff's prediction of a crowd; Graham's grandson's being upset about violence. The topic is self- justifying, the audience eager, the content overwhelmingly positive. After all, Billy Graham is almost 80, with Parkinson's disease, so each Crusade could be his last. "Our publisher mandated overwhelming coverage," recalls a non-Christian journalist from one of the recent Crusade cities. "But you do essentially have someone — I mean, his view is that, if you do not accept Jesus Christ, you are condemned to eternal damnation. Are we supposed to just blithely ignore that?" Sighing, she answers her own question: "We don't challenge beliefs anymore. We are not allowed."

His Catch-22

A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
Archive Photos
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s

Billy Graham doesn't challenge beliefs either, not anymore. Long gone is the preacher who vilified communists, who urged a buildup of armaments, who said in a radio broadcast of 1953, "I thank God for men who, in the face of public denouncement and ridicule, go loyally on in their work of exposing the pinks, the lavenders and the reds who have sought refuge beneath the wings of the American eagle." Today, Graham says things like, "The church needs to be very wary about becoming deeply involved in political and social issues.... There are many very, very difficult and complex issues in this world, and we do not necessarily know the answer to them just because we are preachers or Christians."

This is his Catch-22: He is criticized for not taking a strong moral stand on virtually any complex secular issue — yet if he did take such stands, he would not be Billy Graham. More to the point, he would cease to enjoy the approval ratings that make people yearn for him to take a stand.

So he dances. Takes the Fifth. Plays it safe. And ends up conveying his inadvertent blessing on wars, bigots, greedy politicians and fools. In 1963, for example, Graham refused to join Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington, saying the civil-rights movement was going "too far, too fast." Four years later, when King cried out against the Vietnam War in his famous sermon at New York's Riverside Church, Graham labeled the criticism "an affront to the thousands of loyal Negro troops who are in Vietnam." King said things like, "If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read, Vietnam." Graham, returning from a 1966 trip to Vietnam at the invitation of Gen. William Westmoreland, assured Americans that the troops were "extremely religious" and later spoke of "the victory they are almost certainly winning there." To this day, analysts wonder how far the tide of public opinion would have been diverted had Graham spoken out the way King did. Instead, in 1970, he mounted a rah-rah, Christians-proud-of-their-government Fourth of July celebration in Washington, D.C.

Two months earlier, when President Richard Nixon joined Graham on his Crusade stage at the University of Tennessee, about 300 students screamed protests against the bombing of Cambodia. Many were arrested, a few actually convicted of disrupting a religious service. (One man reportedly blurted, during the melee, "Let's get out of here before these Christians kill us!")

Graham never could keep religion and politics separate. Maybe you can't. Maybe he's had too much fun golfing with presidents; chatting, towel-draped, in a locker room with Eisenhower. Or maybe he can't forget his deep yearning for "a theocracy, with Christ on the throne and the nations of the world confessing him." Graham eventually blamed all the anti-war demonstrations on "a Satanic spiritual power of evil ... stirring up all the hatred and dissent." He also tried to minimize the war's toll, saying: "I deplore the suffering and the killing ... but we also have to realize that there are hundreds of thousands of deaths attributed to smoking."

Did he ever reevaluate? Well, in Graham's 1997 autobiography, the chapter on Nixon is titled "My Quaker Friend" and describes "a modest and moral man with spiritual sensitivity." (The admiration was mutual: When Nixon worried about IRS audits of his supporters, he mentioned Billy Graham and John Wayne by name.) The Watergate tapes came as a rude shock to Graham — but not because of all the spying, hatred, stealing, lying and vicious anti-Semitism. "The thing that surprised and shook me the most was the vulgar language he used," Graham wrote. "Inwardly, I felt torn apart."

Later in the autobiography, he calls Ronald Reagan "one of the most winsome men I have ever known"; Ross Perot "one of the smartest men I had ever met"; and Paul Harvey his "best friend in the American media." Last year, he said of Clinton's sexual exploits, "He has such a tremendous personality that I think the ladies just go wild over him." Graham may condemn non-Christians for the unforgivable sin of rejecting Jesus, but he sure does look on the bright side for Christian celebrities.

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