Now that the dust has settled on the news cycle around Billy Graham’s death, perhaps we can counter the hymn-like praise he received from every single major media outlet. They acted like accolades in his Chapel of Americana.
Since we don’t teach history anymore, did national talk heads not know 60 years ago when iconic columnist Murray Kempton covered Billy Graham’s first Madison Square Garden revival meetings in 1957, he wrote that if there are 4,000 religions on earth, “somebody’s got to be wrong”.
Upon his death detractors blasted Graham’s continued belief that homosexual behavior was a “sinister form of perversion,” and his intolerance against the very presence of gay and lesbian couples within Christianity.
“From Genesis on, the Bible praises the marriage of a man and a woman, but it speaks only negatively of homosexual behavior whenever it is mentioned,” Graham’s
Graham’s negativity isn’t lost on the LGBT community.
Pew researchers found that at least 41% could care less if evangelical churches welcome them. They’ve given up on religion. LGBT people exiting churches aligns closely with why millennials in general have abandoned pews nationwide. They believe churches are home to judgmental and hypocritical people.
Or how about Missouri state representative Rick Brattin who said: “When you look at the tenets of religion, of the Bible, of the Qur’an, of other religions there is a distinction between homosexuality and just being a human being.”
Is this the LGBT legacy, started by Graham, that will live after his death?
One observer I asked, Michael Long, advises gay folks to “avoid” reconciling their faith with Graham’s overall Christian beliefs.
An author and Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Peace and Conflict Studies at Elizabethtown College, Long has a different take on LGBTQ people and religion, especially those queers who are involved in faith communities. His books include First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson and The Legacy of Billy Graham: Critical Reflections on America's Great Evangelist.
“Religious LGBT individuals would do well to avoid trying to reconcile their faith commitments with Billy Graham's condemnation of homosexuality as a "sinister form of perversion,” Long recommends. If we consider Graham’s stance on LGBT folks, let alone his position on the black civil rights movement, “we will rightly see that Reverend Graham was not ‘America's pastor’”, Long says. “He was pastor primarily to white, heterosexual men and women with the means to support his ministry's expenses - and, of course, to the political class of US society.”
If there's one place in Graham's shallow theology that LGBT individuals might draw from, “it's his sense that God accepts us the individual ‘just as I am,’ as the evangelist's favorite call-to-conversion hymn puts it,” Long opines. Although Graham himself never accepted LGBT individuals just as they were, “his message, if interpreted without condition, can offer a balm to many a troubled soul,” Long says.
That said, Long hastens to add to his observations “that there are far better spiritual and theological resources for LGBT folks to turn to these days.” He notes Patrick Cheng's groundbreaking work in queer theology, for example, who he notes describes “a real God of love who loves not just evangelicals who follow Billy Graham's legalistic admonitions but everyone, especially those on the margins of our society.
Long notes that Graham did preached a muscular form of Christianity “that uncritically backed the United States as it batted the godless forces of communism during the Cold War. Graham was nothing if not a Cold Warrior.” He condemned the US, in one of his rare criticisms, for not taking military action to save Hungary when it was invaded. He called for a strong US military response during the Korean War. In fact, it was a meeting with President Harry S Truman at the White House that prompted “Give ‘em hell, Harry” to think of Graham as a self-promoter.
The next US war brought Graham another chance to praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.
“Early on, he envisioned the Vietnam War as a holy war that pitted the faithful vs. the godless communists. He offered his prayers to George H. W. Bush the eve of the Gulf War,” Long says. In short, “there was not a US war that Billy Graham did not like and bless. His Jesus was not so much the Prince of Peace but rather the Lamb of God that seeks to slaughter the unfaithful at the end of history.”
Graham's theology was indeed nationalistic and, in some ways, conflated US democracy and Christianity, seeing both as the will of God for humanity, Long believes.
Graham also believed that “US presidents held power and authority because of the will of God and that it was the responsibility of US citizens to obey their political leaders. ‘My country, right or wrong’ was his moto during the Vietnam, War, for example.
There is very little room for dissent in Graham's theology. “The one place where he does advocate disobedience is in the case of the infringement of religious liberty, that is, liberty to be and act like a Christian,” Long observes.
Graham and his team were brilliant in their use of media and in their grassroots organizing of white folks. But unlike Rolling Stone’s Moser, Long thinks “it's a mistake to see him as a hustler in the tradition of Elmer Gantry.” Graham eventually came around to insisting on the proper auditing of his ministry's books, and Long doesn’t know of any sexual scandals that might have plagued his ministry.
One scandal, however, Long underscores, relates to the credit that Billy Graham took for his evangelist sermons. “Graham conceded that others helped him with books, columns, and the Hour of Decision program. But he never admitted that a team of writers helped him through the years with his evangelistic sermons. It's a shame that these individuals - I think here of Robert Ferm - never received the credit due them. Graham kept them hidden, and that's a damn shame.”
Being fair minded, Long says “Graham no doubt helped countless individuals turn their lives around and become stronger in character and more loving in action. But it's important to remember that he also hurt countless others -- LGBT individuals, civil rights activists, and communist peasants are just a few that come to mind.”
He will lie in honor at the US Capitol Rotunda in the coming week because so many have seen him as "America's pastor." In that same rotunda is a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Juxtaposed to Graham's body,” Long says, “King's bust is a quiet reminder that while the civil rights leader died while working toward the beloved community he dreamed of - a place marked by racial reconciliation, economic justice, and peace -- Graham spent a great deal of his life, at least during the King years, trying to obstruct Dr. King's work.”
After King shared his Dream speech in 1963, “Graham stated that only when Jesus comes again would blacks boys and girls walk hand in hand with white boys and girls. That gives us some insight into Graham's take on the black civil rights movement,” Long thinks.
For Long, Reverend King, not Reverend Graham, is America's pastor. And Graham is certainly not queer America’s pastor.