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On the left: Billy Graham, really?
Tuesday, 03 December 2013 15:24

By CECIL BOTHWELL

Following Billy Graham’s 95th birthday bash at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn, many observers deemed the guest list unfortunate, perhaps unrepresentative, of Graham’s career. Donald Trump? Sarah Palin?

Some blamed son Franklin for the rightwing/corporate tilt among invited guests, accusing the son of tainting Dad’s image.

Such criticism is unfounded. In Graham’s myriad authorized biographies, one can’t miss endless photo-ops with the rich and powerful. Graham was ever eager to shake hands of presidents and despots, movie stars and industrial kingpins, and to offer grandiose approval of their greatness. 

Obsequy more than money seemed to drive the man — though his pockets were never empty. If he primly abjured the criminal greed of revivalists like the Bakkers, the flamboyance of Ernest Angsley or Oral Roberts and the corporeal temptations that snared Jimmy Swaggart, he was never in want. Those who travel regularly on presidential yachts and sleep at night in official mansions need not purchase their own to savor luxury. 

Moreover, his paycheck from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association for the latest year I documented in my 2007 biography, “The Prince of War,” was $500,000. Not bad for a fellow who bragged that he “never paid for a suit or a hotel room in my life.”

Those gathered at the Grove Park Inn were Billy’s crowd. BGEA is heavily invested in petrochemical and defense companies, and it has benefited for decades from the support of media giants. William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce were big-time boosters. No one has graced the front cover of Time magazine more often than Graham.

Today’s deep religious involvement in U.S. politics is a direct outgrowth of Graham’s work. Separation of church and state implemented by our Founders remained strong until Graham inveigled supporters in Congress to permit prayer services on the Capital steps, followed by Official Prayer Breakfasts. He formed, joined or endorsed organizations that opposed civil rights, aided CIA interventions and facilitated genocide, then used his religious network to sway electoral politics. Over and over again he placed himself on the conservative, right-wing side of issues ranging from women’s rights, to gay rights, to war. 

He decried unions as un-American, and spoke loudly and often decrying efforts by workers to improve their lot. He explicitly endorsed every American invasion from Korea to Iraq, operating from the stance that American armies would Christianize the world. 

The political work Graham began in the 1950s has grown into powerful religionist lobbying organizations which succeed over and over again in bending elected officials to their bidding. We see creationism inserted into public school textbooks, pharmacists permitted to reject prescriptions based on faith, parochial schools permitted to use corporal punishment, faith-healing parents denying medical care to children, foreign aid dollars directed to abstinence-only efforts instead of sex education or AIDs prevention,  religious hazing in the U.S. military, and much else.

More than any other public figure in our history, Graham undermined the Founders’ skeptical deism, eager to rebrand the United States as a Christian nation, its armies the rightful instruments of Christian crusade and empire. He has lent the imprimatur of divine authority to the nation’s growing militarism.

In every way, Graham has been the spiritual father of today’s right-wing religious leaders who inject themselves into the realm of politics. If he cloaked his suasion in public neutrality, it was emblematic of an era in which such intrusion was deemed unseemly. If today’s practitioners are less abashed, it is in many ways reflective of the secure foundation Graham built within Republican and conservative circles.

The Founders understanding the dangers of state religion and the potential influence of men like Billy Graham, were concerned to defend both freedom of- and freedom from-religion. Separation was championed, when our Constitution was being framed, by southern Baptists afraid of New England Episcopals who might favor another form of Protestantism.

Billy Graham was in his element at the GPI, amidst corporate and political power-mongers eager to use his endorsement to burnish their own credentials. After all, if you kiss the ring of “America’s Pope,” you just might find yourself blessed with future success.

Cecil Bothwell, author of nine books, including “She Walks On Water: A novel” (Brave Ulysses Books, 2013), is a member of Asheville City Council.


 



 


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