America's Pastor

Thoughts on the Gospel of Thomas, Vol 2, # 6

Billy Graham is gone.

I, for one, am numb. The moment has finally come, and now that it’s here, I feel the overwhelming urge to put something into words, to make some kind of comment, if only to explore my own mind on the subject, discover in the act of trying to express myself what I’m really able to let myself think, let myself say. From out of my stupefaction, out from under many mixed emotions, memories, convoluted philosophical reminiscences, come what may, here goes.

As I said, I’m numb.

I hardly know where to begin.

How big was this man? Is it too early to put him in perspective? How much did his career mean for us, for this land we call home, this troubled country called America? What’s his “legacy?”

A long time ago, when I was a young man growing up in Akron, Ohio, I got “saved.” Oh yes, I was a wicked rapscallion, jitterbugging away and smoking Old Golds, haunting murky midnight dance halls, clad in a powder blue zoot suit, holding scented young ladies close as the early dawn rose in the eastern sky. Ah but my saintly mother was praying for me, wouldn’t you know? There was this church she suddenly belonged to, across town, waiting for me, the Chapel at Brown and Vine, where the Reverend Carl Burnham held sway—a man who was hard to resist. He preached the Old Time Gospel all right, in the same old time-honored tradition of American fundamentalism, the one that led in a line from the early frontier Puritans through a few Great Awakenings straight up to Billy Sunday, D. L. Moody and yes, eventually such as Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts (remember him?) Pat Robertson et al, ending in our own time with the greatest of them all, Doctor Billy Graham.

Sitting there in the Chapel and watching Carl weep for our souls, begging us to come down the aisle and be saved, we couldn’t know that we were witnessing the birth of what was to become America’s Official Religion. In our own lifetimes…

No, it couldn’t be. Not in a million years. It’s all too cornball, too Mayberry, too minority, too cultish. It can never go mainstream. Just a fad of the Lunatic Fringe, a leftover hillbilly amusement, something from the past, from the ranks of the poor, the poorly-educated. After all, this is 1945. Franklin Roosevelt is in the White House, a godly man if there ever was one, and he goes to the Episcopal Church, like a real American. The acceptable churches are all around us, more respectable, much more money, more prestige: Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, well attended, in every neighborhood. You telling me that these nutjobs operating out of storefronts and revival tents are the Religion of the Future? No way. Not unless the hillbillies somehow win out, conquer the country… Not unless we suddenly get stupid. That might take some time. Fox News was not around yet.

I went down the aisle anyway, mostly to please my saintly mother. I know that now, though I couldn’t admit it at the time. The fact is, I liked Carl a lot. Unlike almost all of the other evangelicals, rising all around now in Akron and elsewhere, with increasing momentum and a certain burgeoning arrogance—Carl was compassionate, caring, a lot like I imagined Jesus would be. Carl was the real thing, no money-grubber, no charlatan, no lurking pervert, no hypocrite, no sir. And he never talked politics—that was beneath any genuine Christian… Back then in the Chapel, there was still such a thing as spirituality… Working on your inner life, your walk with the Lord, becoming a “mature Christian.” Come ye out from among them, and be ye separate, Carl used to tell us. Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life, the love of money… If you love the world, the love of the Father is not in you.

Excursus: was this indeed a saying of the original Jesus, recorded in the Gospel of Thomas? A prototype, a forecast of the quote above lifted from the canonical I John? Whoever has come to know the world has discovered a corpse, we read in the GT. If you cannot fast from the world, you will never know Reality...

Back in Carl’s day, we didn’t dance, couldn’t even go the movies… Vote for Donald Trump? Stop. Just stop. Fox News? Please… Guns: are you kidding? Seems we’ve come a long way.

I never liked Billy Graham’s preaching, hailed almost uniformly by evangelicals as the very greatest. He was widely admired for “keeping it simple,” “sticking to the gospel.” Like Carl from the Chapel of my boyhood, he avoided politics and seemed to be broadly ecumenical and tolerant, but I sensed early on that something was missing: Carl’s spirituality. Where was it? Graham’s message was just TOO simple. Looking back now at this tragic American phenomenon, and though it pains me to say it (because he was a beautiful man, wholly sincere, like nobody else before or since, if utterly deluded) I am forced to conclude that Billy Graham did more harm to America than any other single factor (with he possible exception of Ayn Rand), in his century, the twentieth. Fueled by an almost demonic energy he preached to more people than any other herald of the “gospel of Jesus Christ” in recorded history—and by failing to provide even the tiniest trace of instruction or explanation of what it might mean to be a Christian in an ailing world, he managed to create a huge sub-class of dangerous Americans, on their own now with no direction, empowered at last with the certitude of being an elite class endorsed by Almighty God himself and destined to rule the world, democracy be damned, equipped now with an absolutely authoritative Divine Book that most could not or would not bother to really read or try to understand, they would eventually, in their search for dominion and dominance find their way into and gain control of one of our major political parties and wreak the havoc that we now see around us.

Witness his son Franklin, a highly political Fox News Junkie who in effect cancels him out. I wonder if Franklin ever read his father’s remarks in a 1981 Parade Magazine article: “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.”

Billy was a Pastor with nothing to say, apart from how to get saved. Our new national religion, like our government is irrelevant, shallow, heap big thunder and much wind, no rain. Doctor Graham's favorite sheep seemed to be a line of mostly Republican presidents, chief among which appeared to be Richard Nixon, his apparent favorite. After a while, after Billy had become an icon, a tradition, like Martin Luther King, someone to tolerate and then mostly ignore, he even dropped in on a few Democrats, if only to look non-partisan, wish them well, say a prayer or two and then go vote Republican. (He must have, else how did Franklin get that way?)

Absolutism is never a happy development, even in a “republic.” Especially one that claims to be democratic. In the “Old Testament,” yes, though it didn’t work even there… Witness the undoing of historic Israel’s Kingdom. But is that OT God the same as the Father of Jesus as seen in the GT, in the “Sermon on the Mount?” Why are today’s evangelicals stuck in the Old Testament? Go figure. It’s no secret that many of today’s Christian Dominionists want to restore Levitical Law to govern our land, and that their new Moses has orange hair. Guns would have been just fine with old Jehovah, arm every teacher, gunfight today in classroom 102. Shoot it out. Joshua fighting the Battle of Jericho. Kill them all!

There is a straight line from Billy Graham to Donald Trump… He paved the way, made it all possible.

But rest in peace, Billy. You now belong to the Ages. We love you, but we tremble in the wake of what you left us.

Like all things American, indeed like all that is human, you were a mixed bag, caught up in the ambiguity of life, like all the rest of us.

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