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In Billy We Trust? How "America's Pastor" Birthed Our New Theocratic Wave

On Monday, July 30, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law enshrining the words “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States. This Wednesday—the same day that “America’s pastor” Billy Graham died at 99—the Florida House of Representatives passed HB 839, a bill that would require all Florida public schools to display “In God We Trust,” also Florida’s state motto, “in a conspicuous place.” Similar efforts are afoot in southern states like Alabama. Just as Graham’s influence played a key role in the emergence of Cold War public religiosity, it’s also at work in the present-day efforts of America’s conservative evangelicals.

This is a group whose leaders, including Billy’s son Franklin, are gleefully aiding and abetting President Donald Trump in the dismantling of U.S. democracy and tearing down what’s left of the country’s paper-thin wall of separation between church and state. Even in a state that just experienced a horrific mass shooting, leaders proffer more God in schools, rather than demonstrably effective gun regulations, as the solution to the nation’s school shooting epidemic.

Indeed, the Florida bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Kimberly Daniels, commented explicitly in this vein, as her bill passed the House in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Daniels’ rhetoric of addressing America’s crises through focusing on “issues of the heart” rather than government regulation echoes Graham’s. To be sure, there are some bizarro “only in Florida” facets to the story of HB 839. Kim Daniels is an African-American Democrat who is virulently anti-gay and also a charismatic self-proclaimed “apostle” whose "testimony has been featured on The 700 Club." The finances of Daniels’ Spoken Word Ministries’ have raised eyebrows, and she once said in a sermon, “I thank God for slavery. If it wasn’t for slavery, I might be somewhere in Africa worshipping a tree.” 

Even so, the bill Daniels sponsored that passed 97-10 in the Republican-dominated Florida House, represents the poisonous fruit of Billy Graham’s approach to religion in public life and politics. So what if Daniels said, “He [God] is not a Republican or a Democrat. He is not black or white”? So what if Graham, who famously integrated his crusades at a time when segregation still prevailed, insisted that a preacher must remain above partisan politics? There is nothing apolitical about the position that only religious revival can solve social problems. And, given evangelicals’ embrace of this indeed conservative utopianism, there is nothing surprising about American evangelicalism’s culmination in partisan Christofascism. It is simply incoherent to claim that Graham, whose vaunted “nonpartisanship” turned out to be more rhetorical than real as Republicans became increasingly identified with his God and country vision, played no role in this.

In a famous 1958 sermon, “What’s Wrong with the World?”, Billy Graham lamented that America had “rejected God's simple program…We’re not really living for Christ.” He insisted that “The race problem is a symptom. War is a symptom. Crime is a symptom.” A symptom of what? “Sin,” according to Graham, the “disease” inherent in “man’s nature.” In the same sermon, Graham decried the United Nations for not opening its meetings in prayer. His actions in respect to race were also in line with this way of thinking. While Graham did indeed bail Martin Luther King, Jr. out of jail, he also opposed King’s calls for civil disobedience.

Billy Graham never moved past this ideology. In 2012, for example, he wrote, “the farther we get from God, the more the world spirals out of control.” And how exactly had America moved away from God? Broadly, by embracing “the idolatry of worshiping false gods such as technology and sex,” and more specifically by limiting the ability of police chaplains in some locales to pray in Jesus’s name. Oh and, of course, abortion. Since the late 1970s, it’s always abortion.

Billy Graham was in his 90s and increasingly frail by this time, so some may suspect that his public statements were heavily influenced for the worse by Franklin, who had taken the reins at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 2001. But there is nothing in Billy’s 2012 statement that is inconsistent with his life’s work, and Franklin, who in 2016 declared “Secularism and communism, you know, there’s no difference,” surely learned to think this way from his Cold Warrior father’s example. As Anthea Butler asserts at Religion Dispatches, “Franklin Graham simply represents a more strident version of 1950s Billy Graham.”

Meanwhile, megachurch pastor Rick Warren, whose virulent homophobia has contributed to attacks on human rights at home and abroad, has also made a plausible claim to represent the legacy of Billy Graham. And when it comes to matters of sex and sexuality, the “Billy Graham rule,” recently made famous by Vice President Mike Pence, should also be mentioned. Billy Graham gave misogynistic evangelical purity culture his considerably authoritative imprimatur, contributing to the psychological scars left on many ex-evangelicals who are now speaking out against the community we were raised in. If my anecdotal experience in the ex-evangelical community is representative, most ex-evangelicals are not going to mourn Billy Graham and are not inclined to praise him.

Radically conservative, mostly white evangelicals like Rick Warren and Franklin Graham are largely responsible for America being stuck with a thrice-married brash billionaire who brags about sexual assault as president. This reality-TV-star-in-chief has learned to parrot the right-wing evangelical talking point, “In America, we don’t worship government, we worship God,” and has given evangelicals a kind of exclusive access to the presidency beyond what they could previously have dreamed of, even under George W. Bush. And, make no mistake, this is Billy Graham’s America, Billy Graham’s legacy.

I cannot agree with Tara Isabella Burton’s assertion at Vox that “We need… another Billy Graham.” Despite warning us against lionizing the man, Burton does just that in her effusive, hyperbolic praise of Graham’s purported “ferocious independence from the American political arena.” To be sure, Graham did not sign on with Jerry Falwell, Sr.’s Moral Majority, but taking Graham’s rhetoric of nonpartisanship at face value—however sincere it may have been—results in a massive distortion of the man’s impact. No, we do not need a new Billy Graham. What we need instead, if America is going to survive as a functional 21st-century democracy that can effectively address issues ranging from gun violence to women’s rights to anti-LGBTQ discrimination, is to banish Graham’s approach to religion in public life to the political margins. Graham was at times better than his religious ideology. The theocratic evangelical movement he helped build and legitimize, however, is not.

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