My less-than-hagiographic profile of Billy Graham was published in American Monsters (2004) edited by Jack Newfield and Mark Jacobson
Like many of the great American performers of his generation, Billy Graham got his start in vaudeville. Chicago’s Youth for Christ was designed to appeal to GIs back from World War II and kids just off the farm. They put on quite a show, featuring flashing electric bowties and neon “glo-sox,” a praying horse that knelt at the cross, trombones, and even a “consecrated saxophone.”
The handsome young Southerner was a hit. “The preaching windmill” was just off the farm himself (or talked like it) and he was selling prime real estate: Paradise. Soon he had his own radio show, and was touring with the Crusade for Christ, saving souls by the dozens, or at least entertaining them, and collecting their coins. He was doing the Lord’s work.
He had always had big plans. They were about to get bigger. Billy Graham had come to the Lord via Mordecai Ham, a preacher on the Southern revivalist “sawdust circuit.” Ham was all fire and brimstone. He would set up his tent on the carnival grounds at the edge of town, attack the “devil’s instruments” (local bootleggers and, of course, the Jews), and then call the sinners forward to be saved. Graham leapt out of his seat, into the light.
He had found his vocation. Having little desire to be a small town tent preacher, Billy enrolled in the Florida Bible Institute, where he rubbed shoulders with an older generation of more respectable revivalists. “Billy would do anything for them,” his wife recalls; “literally shine their shoes.” This devotion paid off, and with the right connections he made his way to Wheaton College in the Chicago suburbs. Up North, he brushed the sawdust off his knees, and started looking around for finer shoes to shine.
Billy Graham was touched by destiny three times: first by the bony finger of Ham, summoning him to the front of the tent. Secondly by the aurora borealis in Illinois, where he fell to his knees under a “Second Coming” sky, relieved at last of his lingering doubts. And thirdly by the hand of the Maker himself—William Randolph Hearst.
It was Hearst who gave him his true calling. The Crusade for Christ opened in Los Angeles the same week that the Russians tested their first atomic bomb. This fresh menace gave Graham his text: “Communism is inspired and directed by the Devil himself, who has declared war against Almighty God. Did you know that the Communists are more rampant in Los Angeles than any other city in America?”
When Hearst heard these words (through his maid, the story goes), his heart was made glad. And so, verily, he dispatched the famous two-word memo to his newspaper empire: “Puff Graham.”
Puff they did. Billy Graham departed Los Angeles a national celebrity, with a holy mission: Promote the American Way of Life. It was a good fit. From the beginning he’d had a greater interest than the mere saving of individual souls. He wanted to restore fundamentalism to its rightful place in American life. The religious fervor that had illuminated (some would say darkened) the American landscape in the glory days of D. L. Moody and Billy Sunday had dimmed. A questioning, secular mood had come with the depression and war. The fires of revivalism were banked except in the South, the historic heartland of Protestant Christianity. Graham’s intention was to restart that fire, and if that meant sucking up to America’s rulers, well, that was right and proper too.
Render unto Caesar. Graham was henceforth Caesar’s.
Hearst’s tabloids lofted him like wings to Washington, D.C., the very seat of power, and Strom Thurmond introduced him to Henry Luce, who saw in this young striver what America needed, and prepared him a place on the cover of Time. The flashy ties were soon gone. The countrified bigotry of his forebears was set aside (it was never a good fit with the eagerly cosmopolitan Graham). Soon he was speaking to packed stadiums, and his message was Caesar’s: In Paradise there are “no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease.”
But here, below: “Christianity needs a show of strength and force; we must maintain the strongest military establishment on Earth.”
None of that other cheek stuff. Jesus came “not to send peace but a swordl” The military-industrial complex liked that one.
The dangers were at home as well as abroad.
Senator Joe McCarthy’s suggestion that the Fifth Amendment be suspended for leftists inspired Graham to new heights of boyish enthusiasm. “Then let’s do itl” he exclaimed. Especially since he knew, personally, of “over eleven hundred social-sounding organizations in this country that are Communist or Communist-inspired.”
Truman, that shifty little haberdasher, didn’t like him, but Eisenhower did. Graham made a special trip to Europe to encourage the General to run. And gave him a red [sic] Bible to cherish.
Failing to prevent Kennedy’s election, Graham cheerfully played golf with him. He had abandoned redneck anti-Catholicism publicly (not always privately), seeing it as inimical to America’s imperial destiny. He was not about to denounce the pope, who was after all a man of consequence.
Lyndon Johnson loved him, and why not? “Nobody could ever make Lyndon Johnson feel he was right quite like Billy Graham could,” says Bill Moyers; who also describes how “there’d come this light in Billy’s eyes” when Johnson discussed the bombing of North Vietnam.
As for those pesky protesters, Graham was always willing to cast the first stone. “The FBI and the president know who they are and what they are up to. Congress has no more urgent business than to pass laws with teeth in them.”
Billy Graham always remained true to his original vision, which was to restore religion to its rightful place as a pillar of American power. To do that, he recognized early on, one had to honor that power. Render to it. Become one with it.
No problem. He was with Lyndon Johnson on his last night in the White House, and he was waiting in the foyer the next morning when Nixon arrived. Lyndon was fun, but Billy Graham found his true soul mate in the gimlet-eyed little Quaker from California. “There is no American I admire more than Richard Nixon,” he said. He was steadfast in his sycophancy until the very end. Even when the tapes showed that Nixon had in fact been lying all along, Graham saw no defect in character. “It was all those sleeping pills, they just let a demon power come in and play over him.”
It would be wrong to suggest that Graham fell in step with the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s. He helped create it. It would be wrong to suggest that he went along with the atrocities of the Vietnam War. He helped sanctify them. He advised Nixon to bomb the dikes, and flew to Vietnam to encourage the troops to “skin” a Viet Cong. And in many cases, most of them undocumented, they did.
Even My Lai didn’t trouble him unduly. “We have all had our My Lais in one way or another … with a thoughtless word, an arrogant act, or a selfish deed.”
But wait. Weren’t these simply the normal, if appalling, attitudes of the Silent Majority? Absolutely. But Billy Graham was far from silent. He spoke directly to more people than any other man before or since, and always with the same theme: heaven or hell, America or Communism. Graham assembled, instructed, and emboldened this majority.
Graham has been criticized for anti-Semitism, after the release of the Nixon tapes revealed him and Nixon grumbling privately about the Jews and their “stranglehold” on America.
But this is off the mark. Some of Graham’s best friends were Jews. “They swarm about me. They don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country.” He had long ago shucked off, along with the sawdust, the strident anti-Semitism of his revivalist forebears. His was the private, mainstream, polite kind. He would never have said such things publicly.
The same with racism. He spoke out against segregation, understanding that Southern apartheid was an embarrassment to a nation that sought world hegemony. It was no longer Caesar’s plan.
He was even friendly with Martin Luther King, though he refused to attend or support the March on Washington and often criticized the civil rights movement for going “too far and too fast.” Petty bigotry was not his style. Imperial power was more to his taste.
He restored Protestant fundamentalism to its central place in American life when it was in danger of being overthrown by the restless secularism of the post-war era, and by the liberatory upheavals of the 1960s. He stood guard, reminding Americans that even though, individually, they were in peril of hell, as a nation they were beyond reproach, as long as they obeyed their betters, followed orders, and quit their God damned complaining.
Render unto Caesar.
Billy Graham prepared the way for the New Right, which was only sleeping, and is now in power. He was their John the Baptist. It was he, in fact, who saved George Bush Jr. from demon rum, beginning his transformation from a drunken vicious stumbling fratboy to a sober vicious stumbling president. For that alone, he deserves a place of honor in this book.
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