On the last day of February and the first day of March, the corpse of evangelical Christian minister Billy Graham was presented for public viewing in the rotunda of the United States Capitol Building. Graham was only the fourth private citizen whose body was honored in a ritual normally reserved for presidents, elected officials, and military officers. The only other exceptions to the rule have been civil rights icon Rosa Parks and two Capitol Police officers who died in the line of duty, Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson.
Graham is the first religious leader to be awarded this honor by the government of the United States of America. The first clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Laying out a preacher’s dead body in the central building of the nation’s legislative branch does not establish his form of Christianity as an official federal religion, of course, but it is a bold break with 166 years of tradition at the Capitol, and it clearly gives an official stamp of approval to a man who made his living selling one branch of one faith.
The press office of House Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement on the presentation of Graham’s corpse, stating that the minister “forever chang[ed] the course of the world’s spiritual health” and that he had “served as an advisor to 12 consecutive U.S. presidents.” For those of us who do not practice the religion Graham so long and so aggressively promoted, are these things to celebrate? Is this religious leader deserving of this secular honor?
To answer these questions, we need an honest appraisal of the man himself. The mainstream media did not give us that, but instead presented whitewashed and laudatory reports on his passing that largely omitted, glossed over, or quickly passed by the darker aspects of his career.
“Synagogue of Satan”
When Richard Nixon’s infamous tape recordings of his conversations in the White House became public in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Graham notably appeared in two conversations with the former president.
A notorious passage from their discussion in the Oval Office on February 1, 1972, is transcribed in The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972 by Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter. Graham enthusiastically agrees with Nixon’s statements that Jews control Hollywood and the news media; that “most Jews are left-wing,” “way out,” and “radical”; and that “the best Jews, actually, are the Israeli Jews.” Graham himself states that American Jews control the media, and “they’re the ones putting out the pornographic stuff.”The truly chilling moment comes when Graham calls on Nixon to find a solution to what they both agree is the Jewish problem.
Graham: But this stranglehold has got to be broken or this country is going to go down the drain!
Nixon: Do you believe that?
Graham: Yes, sir.
Nixon: Boy! I can never say it though, but I believe –
Graham: But if you’ve been elected a second time, you might be able to do something.
During a recorded telephone conversation on February 21, 1973, Nixon brings up news of Israel. Graham directs the conversation to “the story that they’re talking about expelling all Christians.” After the president mentions growing anti-Semitism in the United States, Graham repeats his earlier slander about pornography.
Graham: Well, you know, I told you one time that the Bible talks about two kinds of Jews. One is called the synagogue of Satan. They’re the ones putting out the pornographic literature. They’re the ones putting out these obscene films.
Nixon: Like the thing in Time magazine.
Graham: It’s terrible.
Nixon: And then Newsweek.
Graham: Ruth canceled both of them.
Nixon: Good for her.
Graham: We won’t take Time or Newsweek.
Nixon: I’ll tell you, it’s a disgraceful thing, and I think, I think really they don’t deserve to live.
The kindest interpretation of the final statement is that it refers to the “life” of the magazines. Taken in context, it’s not clear that Nixon should be interpreted kindly.
The president goes on to blame Jews for anti-Semitism, and Graham agrees.
Nixon: Can’t figure it out. Can’t figure it out. Well, it may be they have a death wish. You know, that’s been the problem with our Jewish friends for centuries.
Graham: Well they’ve always been, through the Bible at least, God’s timepiece, and he has judged them from generation to generation.
Graham: And yet used them yet, and they’ve kept their identity.
In 1994, the diaries of Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman were published. They included discussion of the “satanic Jews” conversation in the Oval Office. “Those are not my words,” replied Graham in a public statement. “’I have never talked publicly or privately about the Jewish people, including conversations with President Nixon, except in the most positive terms.” The minister was lying, but the tapes revealing his anti-Semitism would not be released for another decade.
After the recordings were made public in 2002, Graham responded very much like a politician. “Although I have no memory of the occasion, I deeply regret comments I apparently made in an Oval Office conversation with President Nixon some 30 years ago,” he said via his public relations firm in Texas. “They do not reflect my views and I sincerely apologize for any offence caused by the remarks.”
After being caught in a blatant lie, Graham claimed to not remember the conversation, distanced himself from the obvious proof by saying he “apparently made” the comments on tape, acted as if 1972 was some far distant past, asserted that what he said to the president of the United States of America did not reflect his actual views, and – in a deflection typical of politicians caught dead to rights – apologized “for any offence caused.”
Should the federal government give the highest public honors to a religious leader who forwarded anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in the Oval Office and told a president his hopes that he “might be able to do something” about the far-right fever dream of a Jewish cabal that controlled the media?
The fact that the preacher and the president so gleefully discussed their fantasies of “the synagogue of Satan” when at least one of them apparently believed the conversation was off the record is gross enough. The fact that Graham expressed his disdain for the LGBTQ+ community openly and publicly is beyond the pale.
“This Insidious Temptation”
In 1973, one of Graham’s nationally syndicated columns was titled “Homosexual Perversion is a Sin That’s Never Right.” A worried young Christian wrote to the minister, “I’m a girl, and I love another girl!” She cited I Corinthians 6:9 on “the sexually immoral” and “men who have sex with men,” and she asked for Graham’s guidance.
“Let me say this loud and clear!” replied the preacher. “We traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare. Your affection for another of your own sex is misdirected, and you will be judged by God’s holy standards.” He advised the young woman that she should resist “this insidious temptation” and seize the possibility of “reformation” immediately, “while there’s still a chance.”
I would like to emphasize that this was in the year 1973. The Stonewall uprising in Greenwich Village was already four years in the past, as was the founding of the Gay Liberation Front. In 1970, Black Panther Huey Newton had publicly taken a stand in support of gay liberation, and the lesbian group calling itself the Lavender Menace had been founded. In 1972, Libertarian John Hospers had been the first openly homosexual man to run for president.
Gay America was out and proud and fighting against discrimination, and Graham was yelling at young people to get back in the closet and pray to his god for forgiveness.
Twenty years later, Graham stood in front of a crowd of 44,300 at Cooper Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, to give a sermon during one of the innumerable preaching tours he called “crusades.” While speaking on what he considered sins of sexual immorality, he asked, “Is AIDS a judgment of God? I could not say for sure, but I think so.”
In 1993, the year the Graham made this statement, there were 41,920 known AIDS-related deaths in the United States – nearly enough people lost to make up the entire audience for his record-breaking stadium sermon. By that point, the total number of U.S. deaths due to the disease was over 144,000.This was the same year as the release of the film Philadelphia and the play Angels in America. Hundreds of members of the National Association of People with AIDS went to Congress to lobby for increased funding. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded their definition of AIDS and added new conditions as clinical indicators. President Clinton established the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. Given the cultural, medical, and political movement on AIDS in 1993, there was no excuse for Graham to still pretend this was some mysterious blast from the heavens that only targeted those who offended his deity’s sensibilities.
I have relatives who spent the 1980s and 1990s in hospital rooms, sitting with both friends and strangers as they wasted away unto death from this disease, abandoned by family because of exactly the hateful rhetoric that Graham and other dark hearts were selling to stadium crowds and television audiences to finance their evangelical empires.
Ever the businessman and politician, Graham immediately responded to the public backlash against his speech by contacting the media. “I remember saying it, and I immediately regretted it and almost went back and clarified the statement,” he told a Cleveland newspaper. “I don’t believe that, and I don’t know why I said it.”
Maybe the devil made him do it. If Graham’s god can blast individuals with complicated diseases, why can’t the deity’s counterpart whisper in the ear of a wealthy media personality? Pushing the responsibility onto a mythical figure seems no less reasonable than “almost” going back to “clarify the statement.” Pardon my French, but what a load of hooey.
This shameful episode occurred the year before Graham publicly lied about his anti-Semitic conversations with Nixon. He clearly had no qualms about lying to the public about his beliefs and documented statements. Asserting that AIDS is his god’s punishment for sexual sin jibes exactly with what he wrote in his column to the young lesbian. His homophobic theology was absolutely consistent.
Another twenty years later, Graham involved himself in anti-LGBTQ+ legislation directly. He came out strongly in support of a proposed amendment to the North Carolina state constitution that would ban same-sex marriage. Never short on funds, he took out full-page ads in fourteen newspapers around the state and issued a public statement calling on voters to support the amendment.
“Watching the moral decline of our country causes me great concern,” he wrote. “I believe that home and marriage is the foundation of our society and must be protected.” Directly urging Christians to vote for what he called “the marriage amendment,” he wrote, “The Bible is clear – God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Why should I care what he believed his deity’s definition of marriage to be? Did he care what I believe Freyja, Thor, and Odin think about coupling? Such theological theories have no bearing on the constitution of any state or of the United States. The fact that Graham so strongly asserted that they should – and was willing to spend large amounts of money in his attempt to sway a civic vote – is yet another pebble on the pile of reasons why we should revoke the tax-exempt status of all religions.
“The little white children of Alabama”
Graham was consistent across the decades in his hate speech against members of the LGBTQ+ community, despite the manufactured media quotes he provided after his statements were challenged. We don’t know yet if he was as consistent in his anti-Semitism. The fact that he brazenly lied about his conversations with Nixon more than two decades after they occurred and then made a waffling semi-apology when the tapes were made public three decades after being recorded suggests that his views on this issue may have also remained constant.
His apologists amplify his “evolving” views, but – in addition to his shifting comments on “the synagogue of Satan” and AIDS victims – he vacillated on race issues. His decision in 1953 to insist on unsegregated audiences at his “crusades” is now rightfully lauded, but the fact remains that his decision swelled the crowds at his events while leaving the horrifying racism faced daily by African-Americans untouched and unaddressed.
In the late 1950s, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gaining national attention for his strong stance against racism, Graham began to speak against segregation outside of his revival tent. This good work as an ally took a turn after the 1965 riots in Watts and the other African-American uprisings that followed.“Over the next few years,” writes Stephen L. Carter, “as further riots erupted, Graham increasingly preached the importance of law and order, even as those became code words during Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign for slowing the pace of racial change.” Graham’s support for the establishment over emancipation also came to the fore after King’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, when the white minister openly excoriated the black minister for daring to criticize government policy.
Graham had already been critical of the methods of African-American protest before the 1965 riots. Almost immediately after King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” became public in April 1963, Graham told journalists that his fellow preacher should “put the brakes on a little bit.”
In August of the same year, after King gave his rightfully remembered and celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Graham sneered at the idea that African-Americans could lead social change and pave the way to a truly integrated society. “Only when Christ comes again,” Graham responded, “will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.”
Throughout the key years of the civil rights movement, Graham resolutely stuck to the idea that the simple solution to American racism was to convert more people to Christianity. The love of Christ would open their hearts and – hey, presto! – we would all get along. This was seen as hopelessly naïve by the ministers involved in the movement, focused as they were on direct challenges to legal and institutional racism. Given Graham’s decades of canoodling with politics and politicians, his insistence that African-American ministers stick to preaching was deeply hypocritical.
The idea that racism was a theological and not a social problem can be found already in a 1958 speech Graham gave to a mostly white audience in Charlotte. Prefiguring the notorious “very fine people on both sides” statements of President Trump on the Nazi rally in Charlottesville, the white preacher refused to denounce white racism. Instead, he focused on “racial tensions all over America” and insisted that they had been stirred up by “the forces of evil.”
Like Trump, Graham seemed to turn to a direct criticism of anti-racist protestors when he said that “it seems as if the whole world is a pot and the devil has a big stick stirring everybody up. Why, he has even got the church stirred up.” The beating heart of the civil rights movement was, of course, the African-American church. Graham clearly would have preferred King and his colleagues to “put the brakes on a little bit.”
In the same year, Graham was scheduled to be introduced by the segregationist Texas governor Price Daniel at one of his “crusades” in San Antonio. King asked him to remove Daniel from the program, stating that appearing with him would be an “endorsement of racial segregation and discrimination.” Graham didn’t respond directly, but instead had his advisor Grady Wilson tell King that “even though we do not see eye to eye with [Daniel] on every issue, we still love him in Christ.”
Maybe Graham’s views “evolved” in later years. According to my own theology, what matters is what we do when it matters. Throughout the most turbulent and meaningful years of the struggle for civil rights, Graham acted as an unreliable ally who did exactly what King famously denounced in his Birmingham letter:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
King’s letter was dedicated to “My Dear Fellow Clergymen,” and it could not have been more on the nose in describing Graham’s “moderate” position.
This is the first religious leader to be honored with a postmortem display in the nation’s Capitol Building. This is the citizen chosen to follow Rosa Parks in this exclusive club of four. This is the anti-Semitic homophobe who regularly smacked down Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for asking too much of white people.
He is not “America’s pastor.” He is not my pastor, nor is he the pastor of anyone I know, love, and care about. As a child, I found his ranting television sermons frightening, and I was unnerved by the enormous crowds that seemed hypnotized by his rhetoric. As an adult, he no longer frightens me, but I still find the unfettered adulation of this deeply unpleasant man to be overly gross.
If we believe in the spirit of the First Amendment, and if we believe in equality before the law, the Republican officials who made the display of Graham’s corpse happen must now make plans to offer the same honor to deceased leaders from Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Pagan, Heathen, and all the other religious communities in the United States.
But they won’t. This was about shoring up the evangelical vote for themselves and their party comrades. There are still those who believe that this is a Christian nation, and politicians will continue to cater to that belief as long as the believers cast votes for them. The politicians and practitioners who speak loudest about religious freedom are also the most likely to promote Christianity above all other religions and to squash any attempt at equal treatment.
The Graham era is now officially over. How long will his hateful attitudes prevail?
* * *
The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.