God is love, and God does not belong to Graham
by Robin Happel
Billy Graham passed away peacefully last Wednesday. In his almost century of life, his charisma had taken him across countless continents and cultures. His role as spiritual advisor to Ronald Reagan was so subtly seismic that we will likely feel the ripples of his preaching in American politics for decades to come.
Everyone deserves to pass on peacefully as Graham did, at an old age, celebrated by those they love. But this is a belief he did not share. Both Graham and Pat Robertson praised Rios Montt, the Guatemalan dictator who ordered the genocide of the Maya. Graham later fanned the flames of hysteria as countless gay men were thrown out of their homes, turned away from hospitals, and left to waste away on the streets. The god Billy Graham believed in was a god of love, but also one of wrath, who used AIDS to smite his enemies, and supported war crimes in Vietnam. At his best, Billy Graham saw the beauty in all of us. At his worst, his words still thrum through so much of the South, the sermons that see other faiths as fearsome, that see different as dangerous. The god of Billy Graham is one of both beauty and brutality, both fear and freedom. I know it well, for it is the god of the town I lived in as a little girl.
Before my parents moved back to Tennessee, we lived in Montreat, the resort town built on Graham’s wealth. I drive home along a highway that bears his name. His voice still crackles through the stereos of countless gas stations and cafés. In parts of the South, he is almost an institution. Even those who’ve never met him or sat through his sermons pay a sort of homage to him. Especially towards the end of his life, he seemed a sort of silent, grandfatherly figure, withdrawn to the hills of western North Carolina, having already passed on the torch to his more fundamentalist son, Franklin. And, if you weren’t one of the people he saw as sinister or sinful, I suppose it would be easy to never stop seeing him that way.
Billy Graham was one of the last of the old guard of the first National Prayer Breakfasts, the men of god who weren’t too godly to judge. He was a man of many contradictions, as quick to change as the weather in the Carolina mountains he loved so much. In a 1981 speech, he warned that religion had no place in politics, yet served as a spiritual advisor to twelve presidents. He thought JFK was a worse candidate for being Catholic, yet was instrumental in building bridges between American Evangelicals and the Church. He once claimed that Jewish people controlled the media, yet is remembered for his relative tolerance in later life, and interest in interfaith solidarity. He apologized for saying AIDS was a punishment from God, yet also demanded that gay men be tortured through electroshock or even castration. He supported Dr. King, but only before King began praying for peace in Vietnam. He preached love at times, but also fear, a fear so fundamental that it has echoed in pastors’ polemics for generations. He helped popularize such pageantry as tent revivals and Judgment Houses, morality plays that still spring up in churches throughout the South, a godly alternative to haunted houses for those who see Halloween as sinful. While their plots differ, the message is essentially the same – if you’re not exactly the right strain of Southern Baptist (and straight, it goes without saying) you will suffer, either now or in the hereafter. And so, supposedly, it should be. Whatever charm or warmth emanated from him was wrapped around this polemical pearl. Even within his pleas for tolerance, such prejudice was still the pole star of his preaching.
Within many of his sermons was the near Neo-platonic sense that we are drifting ever away from some true America, an Elysian world of drive-in diners and churches on every corner that never really existed. And he was polemical, yes – but also profoundly hopeful. At his greatest, Billy Graham appealed to the best in all of us. His legacy is one of profound pain for many, yet he also inspired millions more. The god of Billy Graham is one of anger, but also one of beauty, of the swans at the center of Montreat circling slowly on a summer lake. He will undoubtedly be remembered as a profound influence on American life. Perhaps he has found peace. Perhaps it is not our place to say. And I pray for the ghosts of Guatemala, the spirits of the sick and suffering he swept aside, the many children of God he never learned to love – may they have peace as well, and may we honor their memory.