American Culture

What a weird way to rhapsodize about Billy Graham

800px-Billy_Graham_bw_photo,_April_11,_1966I know I come across as a ginormous butthole sometimes when religion is the issue. I can’t really make excuses. There’s reasons, but no excuses. My reasons go back to the early 80’s, a Southern Baptist church in the NOLA burbs with lots of mixed and bad messages, a minister that couldn’t explain the simplest of things without getting stumped by a literate 14 year old, and, by contrast, people I saw as good guys like Rev. Billy Graham.

I’m reminded of Rev. Billy Graham today because of an article from Snopes that I encountered wherein the Rev. Graham is quoted, shall we say, rather liberally:

I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.

And,

I told him to preach the Gospel. That’s our calling. I want to preserve the purity of the Gospel and the freedom of religion in America. I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. Liberals organized in the ’60s, and conservatives certainly have a right to organize in the ’80s, but it would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.

And,

It would be unfortunate if people got the impression all evangelists belong to that group. The majority do not. I don’t wish to be identified with them. I’m for morality. But morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak out with such authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists can’t be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.


Even when I left the church as an angry, angsty teen, I might no longer have agreed with some of what Rev. Graham had to say, but he always came across as authentic. And he was consistent. And he was coherent. I started waking to the political world at about the same time as my crisis of faith, and served during Reagan’s middle years, right down to doing jungle training at Ft. Sherman, Panama. It was just good fortune that Grenada was just before I joined and we invaded Panama the year after my ETS date.

So I was pretty familiar with what was going on in some of the churches (which does not necessarily mean all, this is anecdotal, after all) that were lacking in credibility and authenticity. On the other hand, I’d also been to enough black Southern Baptist churches to know they had a whole other thing going on, spirit filled in a way ours hadn’t been, every bit authentic (and more) in experience as far as I could tell, and nonetheless tainted with prosperity gospel. Is it heresy? You decide. Back then more churches generally seemed to know it was a problem.

At the same time, we were still in the heydey of televangelists before today’s megachurches were a thing, and about the only folks who trafficked in them were the ones who watched them. None of the churches I knew connected with them noticeably. Even the JW’s I knew (some of the mildest-mannered yet extreme friends I had) had no truck with them. Granted, none of that speaks about what people thought more broadly, just in my weirdly conservative NOLA suburban experience. I hadn’t yet bothered with the Catholics, since I still harbored some of the biases I’d learned in that problematic Southern Baptist church where they were reviled (in absentia) as idolaters at best and ostentatiously materialistic about it while they were at it.

As to the megachurches, when I see what they’re up to, I have a hard time seeing anything other than Mammon worship. Old learning dies hard. As for the televangelist crowd, at my age we had to deal with the steep falls from grace of the likes of Oral Roberts in all his vanity and his blasphemies like God told him he’d die by such and such a time if he didn’t raise THIS much money. Or Jim Bakker, the alleged rapist and convicted accounting fraudster, with his Vaudeville act of a wife, Cryin’ Tammy who could cry crocodile tears of watercolor over spackling on demand like no other. And let’s not forget Jimmy Swaggart, who’s no-tell motel stomping grounds I passed with regularity on my bicycle.

And with the same sense a kid brings to sensing creepy strangers because they just LOOK off, like Robert Tilton, who threw your prayer requests in the trash once the money was hoovered out of the envelope…

…and who I always thought looked like Shakespeare’s idea of Mephistopholes. If there’s every a biopic of this soul-grifter, I hope Danny Elfman plays the part.

danny_elfman_forbidden_zone_1050_591_81_s_c1

From The Forbidden Zone. Fair use, I hope. If not, C&D me and down it goes.

True to character, both journalistic and police investigations kept turning up dirty looking deals, but he was just slick enough to avoid conviction. Not slick enough to prevail in a libel suit, however. And greasy enough to appeal and win against an award to a person who’d won over a million bucks because he’d defrauded her out of funds donated for something that was never actually built or even planned to be built. He used the courts to try (and fail) to silence critics. And here’s the thing…even if he were technically innocent of criminal wrongdoing, none of that was Christian by any stretch of the imagination. He was just another wolf in sheep’s clothing, and the easiest way to tell was to see how his life squared with Jesus’ teaching about not suing people, and not even defending oneself against suits, but to give more than was demanded to begin with.

Matthew 5 New American Standard Bible
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ 39 “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 “Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.”

I’ve always believed Jesus had a sense of humor. He had to have been the life of the party at the wedding in Cana, after all. But I’ve never thought he was joking wherever he’s quoted in the red letters. Whatever else I’ve come to learn over the years that’s hardly worthy of debate here, I’ll always go with that. The red letters. If there’s a true yardstick and litmus test for Christianity, it’s to be found in the red letters, for one finds not only the law, but the spirit of the law, the law greater than the law, the utter fulfillment of the law insofar as the intentions, the part that matters most about a law, are concerned.

It’s one thing for his sheep (note: obviously I don’t mean sheeple here) to fall short. That’s human nature and the very essence of every three point sermon on backsliding Israel you’ll ever hear. We’ve always got the chance of repentance, and when it happens, it’s in private. Who are we for the media limelight? But when it happens at the top, and that’s the message from his behavior, contrary to red letter Gospel, and there’s no sign of changing his evil ways? His ilk makes one extremely skeptical of anyone following in their footsteps, especially when you’ve got the likes of Benny Hinn and his magic jacket,

and prosperity gospel heretics like Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar (really? Dollar?). A hostile, cynical fiction writer couldn’t invent more obvious bad guys.

And the more you pick at this scab, the more pus seeps out, the grosser it gets, and you just can’t stop. At some point you learn about dominionism, which is about as contrary to the red letter Gospel as one can get. You learn about the all-too-convenient bedfellows of Protestant political pulpit wolves adopting the “Catholic issue” abortion…for political gain because they were losing ground on race relations and the civil rights issues.

And you see guys like Jerry Falwell, front and center, who puts the abominable lie right in the name of his organization, the Moral Majority (disavowed by Rev. Graham above because most aren’t like what they were peddling). Majority of what? They never, at any time, represented a majority of Christians around the world, nor in America, nor among Protestants. The very name itself was a damned lie. That’s how brazen they are.

In the face of that, Rev. Graham, for his comparatively smaller faults, always rang true. Even true enough for a believer that had moved on. And why did this believer move on? That was the harm done by all of the above to the very value of Christian witness. Because all of this was also during or hot on the heels of the likes of Hal Lindsey and his Late, Great Planet Earth, who, contrary to NT scripture had some sense of end times approaching…as long as you forget that bit about nobody but God knowing and it coming like a thief in the night. Teachers like him subvert that Scripture by making it sound like if you, one of the very special and elect selected by God from among the billions of people who ever existed, if YOU can connect all the random dots just so, you can prove Scripture wrong by being awake enough and alert enough that you not only catch the thief in the night, you see him coming because your pride has been tempted and you’re special and even better, that somehow becomes license to *exactly* mix religion and politics to the point of, like Reagan, guiding foreign policy toward utterly outright bloodthirsty ends for the sake of speeding Armageddon along, and to hell with human suffering. For those who were expecting the rapture in 1988, I’ll say this. The LSD was good that year, and here we all are. That boat sailed.

Imagine the magnitude of Satanic pride it must take to think oneself so special as to get a pass for wanting to precipitate a global war centered on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for any reason. Jesus may have come to set brother against brother. If so, that’s HIS job.

I came up during the hysteria of the Satanic Panic wherein everything from rock and roll to Dungeons & Dragons was the work of the devil, and Chick made cartoons with a Jonathan Edwards fire and brimstone vibe, because Christian love is best sold with fear and horror, like believing the road to hell is paved with the skulls of unbaptized children.

I have a deep, deep revulsion for every kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing, but especially those of a religious nature. It’s one thing to stake one’s ideals on a political vote where we can hopefully mitigate the damage from one election to the next, but these people play on people’s least Christly sentiments to lead them toward teachings that run counter to the red letters in particular. Where Jesus teaches to feed, clothe, house, and care for “the least of these,” we’re given license by wolves to treat our neighbor as other, and this is in spite of it being one of our earliest lessons resolved. The conversation between Cain and God should have settled the issue that we are our brothers’ keepers after all, if after all the confusion about that throughout the OT, Jesus builds on that imperative again with his two Greatest Commandments.

And here’s a simple test of what I’m saying about these false teachers. Do attacks on them and their authenticity elicit a Christlike love in a person, or anger? And we look to the red letters (and Scripture more generally) to learn about anger (and boy howdy do I know a thing or two about how toxic my anger is…no, even from out here, it does not come from a good place).

Matthew 5:22 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be [a]guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘[b]You good-for-nothing,’ shall be [c]guilty before [d]the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be [e]guilty enough to go into the [f]fiery hell.

And I think it’s quite safe to say Jesus thought it enough of a problem that if one is feeling it, he’s not in there with a believer encouraging it. His would be the soft, still whisper bringing it down a notch. And that leaves only one other author of that feeling.

But, one might wonder, Geevil (for such is this bog monster named), doesn’t that mean you’re moved by that same diabolical spirit?

You discern. It’s a funny kind of diabolism I practice when ministering with the red letters. Like Satan would divide against his own ends by admonishing one to do as Jesus would have you do. What sense would that even make?

I’ve known really fine people, truly good, decent people to stake their very souls on these things. Flawed people, sure, because we all are (let’s compare warts sometime, no? I’ve got plenty). And when we’ve got Chicago-style murder rates, and serial child predators like Larry Nassar, and actual rapists walking away with 3 month sentences because being rich must be really, really nice to have on your side, I couldn’t give two flips about someone’s garden variety faults. Since those mid-teens I mentioned, I’ve watched good folks be swayed into a dark side that empowers more opposition to our fellow human  than it does unity with and unconditional compassion for them. All one needs is to look at the headlines and social media to see how hostile that divide can be. Out in the real world, I think most of us are fortunate enough to see that, where we are at least, it’s not like they tell us it is. But I’ve also been, and know people who still are, in places where it’s every bit as they say it is, and worse. Want stories? I’ve got stories.

And then I see Rev. Graham again.

People could do a whole lot worse than paying attention to what he had to say and see how it stacks up against what’s getting peddled today, even, perhaps especially, by his son.


Image credit: Ninian Reid, licensed under Creative Commons.

 

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