Opportunities that Billy Graham missed and the ones Franklin made sure he didn’t

Growing up in an evangelical family that greatly benefited from explicit (and illegal, presumably) evangelism in Egypt many, many generations ago, Billy Graham was a household name and one of our heroes. We revered him.

Even today, after moving to Philadelphia, starting my adult life which is philosophically distinct from my parents, I still have a great deal of respect for Billy Graham. Admittedly, he doesn’t up show up much on my Twitter feed or in my face-to-face conversations, so I have a kind of quiet and memorable respect for him.

Since he turned 95 earlier this month, I’ve been reading more about him and his story. I like Donna Shaper’s reflection on him. Though she disagrees with him on many issues (in fact more issues than I do), she still honors him. Calling him a great preacher, his simplicity, his energy, his straight-forwardness.

She honors him for advising presidents across the aisle. For him persistence that people were good and his ability to see God in others.

He lacked vitriol, she says. Faithful to God, but not an isolating jerk. She states that Rev. Graham would have very little in common with the Religious Right today (or what is left of it).

The man is not without his faults, however. Especially when it comes to his record on Civil Rights. Madison T. Shockley II articulates  his greatest missed opportunity in this post. Like many Christians watching atrocities happen in front of them, Graham apparently just observed the civil rights movement happening and encouraged “caution, patience, non-intervention, and voluntary change.”

Graham’s record on speaking to segregated audiences was inconsistent. He triumphantly tore down ropes that were erected to segregate blacks and whites in 1953, but still preached to some segregated audiences. He did stop preaching to segregated audiences in 1954 after the Brown v. Board decision (which repudiated the Plessy v. Ferguson notion of “separate but equal”). Shockley mainly argues that a King/Graham crusade might have changed the face of the United States, and for good reason. It’s a shame that it didn’t happen.

Graham also stood against King on the issue of Vietnam—after his Beyond Vietnam speech, Graham came out and criticized those who opposed U.S. foreign policy.

Graham missed opportunities. And I hope it is a lesson to us today, to not miss opportunities that are laid before us. God can still work despite our inaction, but it is better if we do something.

Graham’s missed opportunities, however, are nothing compared to his son’s opportunism. Franklin is making sure that the Tea Party never misses the opportunity that his evangelist father provides them. Franklin is using Billy as a prop. Whereas Billy wasn’t involved in conservative politics, his son is a Fox News frequent and a bona fide Tea Partier. Last year during the presidential election, it was probably Franklin who placed this ad in newspapers trying to use his father’s influence to solicit support from Christians for the Mormon candidate (ironic, I know).

But Franklin’s latest grievance has to do with this photograph taken at the party that Franklin threw for his dad on his 95th birthday. Used as a political prop, Billy is seating among Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Rupert Murdoch, and others. Now, those people are certain analogs to tax-collectors of Jesus’ day, but something tells me Franklin isn’t trying to convert them.

It’s embarrassing when the most earnest effort from the Religious Right is still conflating Christianity with conservative politics. The nation and world have moved on. And as conservatives in Washington continue to struggle to gain any sort of political momentum, the cost of yoking American Christianity to their sinking ship may also plunge us.

Franklin’s record on opportunistically using his father’s legacy is well-documented. But it is still distressing to me primarily because the U.S. and this generation becomes more nihilistic, most postmodern, and certainly less Christian. And I truly can’t blame them. If the most profound examples of Christians are being tied up with the likes of Palin, Murdoch, and Trump—I’d run the other way too. The Religious Right is killing us—and its losing its political power, too.

To me, this is clearly the reason why we cannot miss opportunities to declare who Jesus really is and what he’s doing in the world. We can’t miss opportunities like Graham did, and then be subject to the political maneuvering of opportunistic conservatives. The Church needs to divorce itself from the Republican Party, and any other party for that matter. This is obvious to many of us, but it just bore repeating after I gazed into the eyes of Donald Trump so closely to a childhood hero of mine.

5 Replies to “Opportunities that Billy Graham missed and the ones Franklin made sure he didn’t

  1. Jonny,

    I read your article with interest. You’re clearly a smart young man so I’m going to present some thoughts of my own as one adult to another. I must agree that I’m concerned that the Christian message is sometimes diluted by the culture. In recent years Christians have done a poor job of separating themselves from the selfish, immoral, hedonistic culture in which we live. I think that Christians today want to mirror the culture far too much. As Christians we should never be associated with ulterior motives, dishonesty or any other kind of behavior that would cause unbelievers to see us as hypocrites. I’m also concerned that this dear 95 year old man would be used by any group to further any cause other than to clearly point the lost toward Jesus Christ. Concerning the photograph you speak of, do you know that it was the intent of Franklin Graham to use this photograph as “a political prop” or is that just your judgment? Could it have been just a few famous people who got together for a photo? I’d love to see your evidence of such intent on Franklin’s part. Jesus spoke in Mathew 7:1-3 about judging people. Although we can and should judge behavior in the light of biblical standards, we cannot and should not judge the intents of anyone’s heart other than our own. Can you really make a judgment on the intentions of Franklin Graham in this case or should you perhaps give him the benefit of the doubt. Could it be that you associate him with people you don’t like anyway and therefore making an unfair stretch? Have you researched Graham they younger? Do you know his testimony, his history, what he’s done with his life for the last 40 years? Have you judged your own intentions as you make these accusations?

    I’m also curious as to what your issues are with the “religious right” because I think I would count myself among their number in that I love Jesus, believe in personal responsibility when it comes to biblical morality, honesty, a good work ethic, and various other qualities espoused by those in politics who also hold those views. I’m not a member of the Tea Party but can’t really argue with their principles of a Constitutionally limited government, free market economics, and fiscal responsibility. Are they doing something unethical? Is there real evidence that they are racist? I’ve seen interviews with their members who are minorities who say they are not. I’ve seen photoshopped signs at their rallies that try to make them look like they are. Again, I don’t know much about them other than their core values but I’d love to know what your problems are with them.

    Please don’t take any of my comments as criticism. I’ve always thought the world of you and have great respect for your entire family. You are a fine young man and I believe your heart is in the right place.

    1. Hey George:

      Thanks for writing. I appreciate your kind words. I want to briefly address some of the points you made.

      1) I am uncertain that Franklin definitely used his dad as a political prop, but considering the company in the photo and Franklin’s record, I think it’s a safe bet. Franklin needs conscious that even if his intentions are pure, he’s also responsible for how he might be perceived. Obviously you can’t do this all the time, but he should use his better judgment if his intentions are objectifying his father. He’s not all bad, and I don’t judge him as such. I’m also not above reproach, but I’m just calling it as I see it. Billy Graham is important to me, so I am protective.

      2) The Religious Right’s conflation with U.S. military might and the carte blanche its offered to the one percent with Jesus and the Bible is distressing to me.

      3) The Tea Party’s hysteria surrounding inflation and U.S. debt is also a problem for me. I’m more in favor of jobs and caring for the poor, and I don’t think that U.S. spending threatens this (why the Tea Party doesn’t seriously oppose U.S. military expenditures, I am unsure). I’m not a big fan of austerity (the European precedent is indicative of its lack of success) and usually find agreement with neo-Keynesians.

      There’s more I could say, but let’s leave it at that for now.

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