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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.