Around 6 a.m. this morning. I was exchanging texts with my ex-wife on such logistics as which one of us would drop the kids off at school for the rest of the week. Then she texted a message that wasn't too surprising, given his advanced age of 99.
"Billy Graham is dead."
Maria and I used to have a tasteless game we'd played since we were married in which each of us would try to be the first to tell the other when a celebrity died. "David Bowie's dead." "Prince is dead." The texts from her had come in. "That's one more point for me," she'd say. "I'd already seen on Facebook that he died." "Well you didn't say anything so it doesn't count."
We've gradually dispensed with the contest element and now one of us tells the other when a famous person dies. No game. No points. It seemed more fitting to be somewhat reverential when talking about America's Pastor.
My earliest memories of Billy Graham date back to the '70s, seeing him on TV at my grandparents' house -- actually at both sets of grandparents. He preached epic sermons before enormous crowds packed into stadiums. I remember my grandma Mac saying "preach it," happy that the evangelist was bringing the good word to the masses. The man, who'd given his life to Jesus Christ at age 16, was a paragon of preachers. My grandma and grandpa Guy would always forgo watching Happy Days or whatever was on the other channel if a Billy Graham crusade (I'm a bit uneasy about that word) was on television.
Years later, (1995) after the Oklahoma City bombing that left 168 people dead, I watched the memorial service on TV and agreed with Pres. Clinton, who upon introducing Graham, described the preacher as the one man who could bring comfort to the grieving at such a time.
In his final years, I would still respect Billy Graham -- much more than I would, his virulent-right son. But I also realized he had flaws and his legacy was mixed.
I always feel ill at ease when I hear preachers pray to God for our country. "Why not the whole dang world?" I'll think to myself. I think it's a myth that the United States is more blessed and holy than any other nation on Earth. This notion that we're a Christian Nation and have to be the Biggest and Best, to me, smacks of Constantine-like jingoism. It's a view Graham promoted in his early youthful days as a fire-breathing, communist denouncing revivalist.
The United States is "the key nation in the world" and "truly the last bulwark of Christian civilization," Graham said in 1956. Young Billy Graham favored the McCarthy hearings. Soviet-style Communism was an evil godless religion straight from Satan.
Our sex-obsessed culture, "dirty movies" and legalized pornography were taking our country straight to hell. In his 1965 book World Aflame, Graham wrote: "One of the world's great historians told me: The moral deterioration in the West will destroy us by the year 2000 A.D. even if the Communists don't."
Graham was critical of the social gospel, just as he was of intellectual theologians. He didn't appear to be a fan of taking protests to the streets, writing of a "seething political cauldron" of "riots, demonstrations and revolution" occurring somewhere in the world every day.
"Even in Britain and America the people have become addicted to sitting, squatting, demonstrating and striking for what they want."
Graham's friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr. was strained when Graham suggested a cooling off period during the Birmingham sit-ins of 1963, calling for "a period of quietness in which moderation prevails."
King criticized "white moderates" in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", later published in his book, Why We Can't Wait. No doubt, King was thinking of Graham along with others. (On the good side, Graham had insisted that audiences for his crusades be integrated since 1953.)
Their friendship was further split by the things corrupt FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was telling Graham about King -- things which Graham would later say poisoned his mind. Their opposite stances on the Vietnam War drove the men further apart. King spoke out against the war; Graham was hawkish
Damning communications between Graham and Pres. Nixon have since been released. In a 1969 memo, the evangelist advised the Commander-in-Chief to step up the war in Vietnam and bomb dikes, which "could overnight destroy the economy of North Vietnam. A transcript of a 1972 phone call between Graham and Nixon revealed them both making antisemitic remarks. Graham said Jews' "stranglehold" (on the media and entertainment industries) had to be broken "or the country's going down the drain."
But Graham, like other Americans, would later question America's involvement in Vietnam. After the Watergate scandal, he talked of getting burned by Nixon. While he continued to be a spiritual adviser to Presidents, he vowed never to get too close to power again. He hung back from joining the Religious Right and was criticized for being tolerant of Islam.
In his later years, Graham regretted not joining MLK and the others in the march to Selma. He felt he could have done more. Decades earlier, after Graham invited King to join him on stage in 1957, King wrote to Graham, "You have courageously brought the Christian gospel to bear on the question of race."
Upon Graham's death today, the King Center tweeted, "Pray for his family as they mourn, while celebrating his transition into eternity bolstered by his message of hope and work on behalf of the community."
Suffice it to say, Graham was a good, but flawed man. I'm going to leave it right here with a video from a Woody Allen TV special in 1969 in which he chats with Graham. I love this. While the two men acknowledged they didn't agree with each other on everything, they nevertheless had an engaging civil exchange. You'd never see anything like this in today's media.