Monday, April 16, 2018

The End of the ‘Consensus Churchman’: Billy Graham and the Evangelicalism He Left Behind

Recently, idly watching Chris Hayes’ “All In,” I was dumbstruck by a guest as startling in his inanity as in his moral obtuseness.

Amid credible claims about Donald Trump’s affairs with a porn star and a Playmate (not to mention more than a dozen women who had accused the President of inappropriate advances), David Brody, a Chief Political Correspondent for CBN News from the Christian Broadcasting Network and author of The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual Biography, told MSNBC viewers about the “spiritual journey” on which Trump had been engaged in the last dozen years.

I could hardly blame Hayes for grinning as he concluded the interview by observing that if Trump had been on a spiritual journey, then “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” 

The exchange made me wonder, as I have done increasingly in the weeks after the passing of the Rev. Billy Graham, at age 99, how the late televangelist would have responded to that moment of television and to the larger moment in which the evangelical movement he led now finds itself. For Trump’s “Christian Soldiers,” as Amy Sullivan called them in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, show every sign of following the President into a spiritual valley of death.

More responsible than perhaps any other religious figure of the past century for leading this movement away from cultural irrelevance and toward political engagement, Graham found his moral authority weakest when he came closest to the center of power, as what George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson has called “the uncritical priest to the powerful.” 

Luckily, when he sensed he had made a grave mistake, Graham’s tendency was to pull back and retrench. Without that same reflex, the evangelical movement risks losing the gains he spent years to achieve.

Graham’s death carried an echo of a far-off time and place often viewed with nostalgia: America in the early postwar period. For all the talk of a nuclear-generated “age of anxiety,” it was also a time when a broad swath of the nation’s intellectuals and politicians leaders united against the Soviet threat. 

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. hailed this ascendant “end of ideology,” and that political trend increasingly carried over into the religious sphere. The last honor accorded to Graham—i.e., being only the fourth civilian ever to lie in state in the Capitol—testifies not only to his being what longtime religious commentator Kenneth L. Woodward “America’s Preacher,” but also to his instinct to console rather than to confront, to wield his mighty ministry by the smooth handle.

It’s easy to understand Graham’s appeal. There were his good looks, with a sharp bone structure and piercing eyes that gave him the nobility of an eagle; a resonant voice that could reach every of a hall and every corner of a listener’s consciousness; and a vocabulary that could be understood by anybody.

Youthful work as a salesman prepared Graham for his calling in a way he could never imagine. Nothing else mattered if he could not even get through the door of a potential convert. Whether selling mops or Jesus, Graham wouldn’t stop until he’d ingratiated himself with virtually everyone.

Onstage, all of that made him a commanding figure. Offstage, in the 60 years of his active ministry, it was nearly impossible to find anyone who did not remark on his friendliness and humility. Not surprisingly, “America’s Pastor” came into his own in the administration of “America’s Grandfather,” Dwight Eisenhower. 

The Spiritual Trap of Accommodating and Obeying Authority

Garry Wills might have had that President in mind when he wrote, in Under God, of the “golf-course spirituality” that extended in the Fifties from the corporate boardroom to the White House. That instinct, the historian sensed nearly 40 years later, was “becoming restless and spiritually adventurous,” and Graham ended up giving it a channel and outlet, a quarter century after the Scopes Trial had confined evangelicalism into a narrow, precarious space.

The access to power needed to facilitate that reversal required Graham to accommodate authority and to overlook moral lapses he might not have done under normal circumstances. If the charge sounds familiar, it should: It is the same one that liberals have made, more loudly, bitterly, and with greater justification, about the Religious Right’s transactionally based embrace of Donald Trump.

You hear faint echoes of this liberal rage in the counter-image of Graham that has persisted since close to the start of his ministry. They might have been primed to do so when they saw one of his initial public supporters: publisher William Randolph Hearst, the arch-conservative aging Yellow Journalist who, after attending one of Graham’s early crusades incognito, reportedly wired his editor, “Puff Graham.” 

At that time, one very prominent liberal was disobliged to assist: In 1950, annoyed by the 32-year-old preacher’s intimation to reporters that he had spiritually counseled him, Harry Truman called Graham “counterfeit.” (The President and the preacher later reconciled.) 

In the immediate aftermath of Graham’s death, one of my Facebook friends likened him to Seth Pecksniff, the self-serving, sanctimonious hypocrite of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, who resembled “a direction-post, which is always telling the way to a place, and never goes there."

At that height of the televangelist’s influence, that adaptability annoyed more than a few secular liberals, best exemplified by Philip Roth, who evoked him first as an unnamed “Spiritual Coach” and then as The “Reverend Billy Cupcake” in a bitter satire on the Nixon Administration, Our Gang

The name “Cupcake” signifies the suspicion that there was something soft and gooey about the preacher that manifested itself as an obsequiousness that encouraged Richard Nixon’s worst instincts. (“Mr. President, if I may, in your eagerness to do the right thing for the nation…”) It took the form of meaningless gush in the (barely) fictional minister’s sermon style: 

“I read a letter only three weeks ago Thursday that a radical young person wrote to his girlfriend disparaging and scoffing and laughing at the leaders of this world. Now he may laugh. They laughed at Jeremiah, you know. They laughed at Lot. They laughed at Amos. They laughed at the Apostles. In our own time they laughed at the Marx Brothers. They laughed at the Ritz Brothers. They laughed at the Three Stooges. Yet these people became our top entertainers and earned the love and affection of millions. There are always the laughers and the scoffers. You know there used to be a top tune in all the jukeboxes called ‘I'm Laughing on the Outside, Crying on the Inside.’ And I read an article in a news magazine only Sunday before last by one of our top psychologists which says that eighty-five percent— eighty-five percent!—of those of those who laugh on the outside cry on the inside because of their personal unhappiness.”

Roth was hardly through with Graham and the hypocritical politician he counseled. The quote above came from the Rev. Cupcake’s eulogy for “Trick E. Dixon.” A generation later, after the real Nixon passed away, in a case of real life imitating fiction, Graham did speak at the President’s funeral, and in I Married a Communist the novelist evoked a tableau of a half-century of political posturing and intellectual slumbering, witnessed by a morally blind preacher:

“[The] whole funeral of our thirty-seventh president was barely endurable. The Marine Band and Chorus performing all the songs designed to shut down people’s thinking and produce a trance state: ‘Hail to the Chief’, ‘America’, ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’, ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, and, to be sure, that most rousing of all those drugs that make everybody momentarily forget everything, the national narcotic, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Nothing like the elevating remarks of Billy Graham, a flag-draped casket, and a team of interracial pallbearing servicemen – and the whole thing topped off by ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, followed hard on by a twenty-one gun salute and ‘Taps’ – to induce catatonia in the multitude.”

At the time he wrote these books, Roth did not realize exactly how close Graham was to Nixon, but even the public record existing to that time was enough. The novelist’s satire on this subject was already Swiftian; it is impossible to imagine what he might have done once other facts came to light.

For instance, Graham had nearly gotten called out in 1960 for secretly organizing a group of Protestant leaders in Houston to get out the vote for Nixon (in the name of “religious liberty,” or thinly veiled code for traditional Protestant suspicions of Catholicism in power), after having assured reporters that he’d be on the sidelines in the Nixon-Kennedy contest. Only his absence in Switzerland led the press from laying principal responsibility at the feet of Graham rather than the on-the-scene scapegoat, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale.

Yet Graham was hardly done with Nixon, and the latter’s Presidency led the minister to the lowest moments in his career. Watergate mortified Graham almost as much as Nixon. Though the minister seemed more shocked by the profanity expressed on the tapes than the crimes authorized, he realized that his naivete had led to him being used, and he drew back thereafter from anything that could be regarded as frank support for one candidate or party. 

(The essential wisdom of his concern for how closeness to Nixon could harm his reputation was confirmed in 2002, when the National Archives released non-Watergate audiotapes revealing Graham remarks that encouraged rather than challenged Nixon’s anti-Semitism. “They don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country,” Graham said in criticizing what he saw as excessive Jewish influence on the media. When the remarks saw the light of day, Graham immediately—and correctly—apologized.)

Why had Graham come continually to grief over Nixon? It wasn’t simply that he shared elements of the President’s conservatism—Graham’s wife Ruth was as conservative, if not more so, than her husband, but she had displayed remarkable foresight in warning him about being perceived as too close to any one party. 

I don’t think it was just, as Graham thought, a matter of his naivete overthrowing his caution, nor even desire for access where he could preach his vision of salvation. I think it was Graham’s own narrow notion of the Christian relation to authority.

“I'm for change,” Graham said in introducing Nixon to a congregation of 88,000 in Knoxville at a 1970 “Crusade,” “but the Bible teaches us to obey authority.” 

Graham may have had in mind Romans 13 (“All of you must obey those who rule over you. There are no authorities except the ones God has chosen”). Yet this invocation not only ignored the origins of the Protestant revolt against the papacy, but also far more extensive biblical documentation about men of the Bible who spoke out against authority, often at enormous danger to themselves, such as the prophets Jeremiah, Daniel, Amos, and Joel.

That path was seldom Graham’s. Hotel magnate J. Willard Marriott, a Mormon multimillionaire, regarded Graham as “the leading religious man of our time”—especially, Marriott explained, “because he is non-controversial.”

The limits of that approach could be found in Graham’s attitude toward the civil-rights movement. For his own crusades, Graham insisted on nonsegregated seating and on hiring more African-American staffers—and, most dramatically, publicly welcoming Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to his 1957 “crusade.”

Yet he found it enormously difficult to push toward anything further that might anger sizable portions of his congregation. In 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, the protests King organized unnerved Graham, leading him to urge the civil-rights leader to "put the brakes on." 

King’s response, Letter From a Birmingham Jail, rained its rhetorical thunderbolts not so much at recalcitrant racists such as Sheriff “Bull” Connor but at well-meaning white minister friends such as Graham who urged a restraint on the movement not being exercised by the other side. 

Replacing a Fallible Giant

After the turn of the millennium, Graham’s increasing absence from the public sphere, hastened by the infirmities of old age, allowed other ministers to step forward—including his son Franklin—who lacked his tendency toward consensus. 

At times, that penchant left Graham unable or unwilling to push his broad audience much beyond where he thought it would go, subverting his prophetic witness. But that same instinct restrained him from the worst excesses of the evangelical movement in the last few decades.

Many of those who followed him into this ministry wandered off his well-worn pathways, plunging the movement into darkness. In the immediate postwar period, the evangelical movement could have done far worse than Graham—and, as time has worn on, that is precisely what has happened, again and again.

In 1973, the same year that Graham, profoundly uneasy over the Watergate crimes of the President he had most befriended, Richard Nixon, began to pull back from overt partisanship, a new generation of evangelical preachers—dismayed by a Supreme Court ruling against a segregationist religious educational institution, Bob Jones University—rushed to fill the vacuum by becoming the vanguard of the “New Right.”

Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and their ilk exerted their new-found political strength on the broadest possible front—not just “culture war” issues such as abortion but also matters with far less of a clear moral component, such as the Panama Canal Treaty—matters that Graham would have been far more reluctant to weigh in on, even before he had not been burned by his association with Nixon. In the past year, evangelical conservatives have not only become soiled by backing Trump--who has not even met the character tests they applied so rigorously (and yes, rightly) to Bill Clinton--but by supporting Judge Roy Moore for the Senate.

In the end, Graham may have been more important for what he was not—what other evangelicals all too easily became—than for what he actually represented:

*He was not Elmer Gantry, all too readily addicted to the flesh. The “Graham Rule”—i.e. not to be alone in a room with a woman not one’s wife—has been given additional currency in the past few years by one of its professed adherents, Vice-President Mike Pence. But Graham’s zeal to avoid even the appearance of temptation did not stop there. According to Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy’s 2007 biography, The Preacher and the Presidents, Graham had other associates traveling with him on the road case his room first, to ensure that “no overeager fan or tabloid bait” was there already.

*He did not lay his hands on donor contributions. Not only immune to the sexual temptations that might have led him to succumb to blackmail attempts, but also personally frugal, Graham was doubly armed against living high off the donations that came his way. But a newspaper article rich in innuendo led him to require all his employees--and him—to publicly disguise their salaries. 

*He did not incite hatred against minorities. The same could not be said about son Franklin, who, after 9/11, darkly warned about the “wicked” religion of Islam, and then, two years later, as the U.S. plunged into its Iraq quagmire, said bluntly that “the God of Islam is not the same God” worshiped by Christians and Jews.

The skills and failings that Graham displayed as he ascended to a wider stage can best be appreciated by setting him against two other preachers who vaulted to a position of prominence in the Fifties: Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

While Graham helped found one of the principal intellectual forums for evangelicalism, Christianity Today, his own preaching was not designed to reach listeners at an intellectual level. In contrast, Sheen frequently referred to philosophers in his talks, so that audiences had the various sense, through him, that they had wrestled with serious critiques of their faith before embracing it again.

As for King, he was “able to maintain his distance, his prophetic distance, from power and from the lures of power,” noted Rev. Randall Balmer, a historian of American religion, on the PBS documentary series God in America. His willingness to cooperate with the White House on civil-rights legislation had its limits; but his unwillingness to simply go along with whatever it asked actually increased his leverage, as both Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson knew they had to come through for him.

The loneliest position he may ever have taken might have been his full-throated, uncompromising opposition to the Vietnam War—a move that not only earned LBJ’s wrath but split the civil-rights movement. 

It is inconceivable that the Rev. Graham would have risked anything of similarly high import. He aimed for the broad middle of American spiritual life, a ground that shifted and split due to the culture wars even before he retired.

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