Billy Graham

In last week’s blog, I ruminated about the TV series The Crown. One of the historical facts of which it reminded us was the fascination of young Queen Elizabeth with the American Evangelist Billy Graham during the early years of her reign that coincided with Graham’s first evangelical crusades in the UK. This was the first time British people had seen US-style mass evangelism in all its histrionic hokery. I remember it well. He styled himself Dr. Billy Graham, although like many other of his ilk (such as the appalling Dr Ian Paisley), his so-called doctorate was an honorary title bestowed by the Bob Jones University of South Carolina – an institution responsible for turning out more bigoted and racist religious extremists than Al Qaida and Isis put together. For some time, Graham had a close relationship with the older Jones but to the former’s credit, increasingly distanced himself from his mentor. Billy Graham died a few days ago and the eulogies have been pouring in from the great and good that have fawned over him for decades: it must be about the only occasion on which Obama and Trump have tweeted in tune with each other. And it must be admitted that compared with other American tele-evangelists, Graham was the best of a very bad bunch. His estate was worth $25m which is comparative poverty compared with, for example, the charismatic movement’s Kenneth Copeland, who is said to be worth $760m. And unlike many of the others, Graham seems to have practiced the sort of moral life that he preached.

Graham was driven by one simple idea – evangelism. As he got older, he seems to have gradually relinquished many of the extreme fundamentalist beliefs that characterise most of American evangelicalism, in favour of a simple monomania: believe in Jesus and be saved. Nothing else mattered anything like as much, and Graham was content to let any other doctrinal disagreements slip by, in case they were a stumbling block to salvation. The Bob Jones’s of this world did not approve, but Queens and Presidents loved it. But in the final analysis, Graham’s life work was founded on a lie and it led to his denunciation of homosexuality for which he was famous, and equivocation on other issues that really do matter - like racism for example. During the period in which Graham was most active, racism was the defining issue of American life. It was the period of Martin Luther King who dreamed a dream of whites and blacks hand in hand fulfilling America’s destiny. Graham did not share that dream. He never spoke out about racism; he never threw his weight behind King’s movement; and he allowed segregated seating when he preached in the American South. It was that characteristic unwillingness to let anything get in the way of salvation – even if that meant pandering to racists and homophobes. He called racism a ‘heart problem’ that could only be solved by personal experience of Jesus Christ. The millennium will only come when Jesus comes, and political action here and now is simply futile. And that is why Graham, and all those like him, whether relatively honest, or mired in greed and deceit, are a curse on human civilisation. Jewish and Christian and Muslim prophets have been proclaiming the Day of the Lord as the solution to social evils for more than three thousand years now. Isn’t it about time we gave up waiting and set about dealing with those evils ourselves, here and now?