It may seem unkind to criticize a beloved preacher who is about to turn 94 -- unless that preacher is an uncharitable Rev. Billy Graham spending his last years trying to defeat the movement for same-sex marriage.
Graham has a reputation as a diplomatic evangelist who has largely sought to avoid the scorched path of fundamentalists preaching fire and brimstone. But the evangelist's near-endorsement of Gov. Mitt Romney, which included an affirmation of "the biblical definition of marriage," should serve as a revelation that for all his moderate ways Graham is just another anti-gay fundamentalist who cannot tolerate the presence of gay and lesbian couples within Christianity.
Graham has long considered homosexual behavior to be a "sinister form of perversion," a lifestyle choice that will lead gays to personal ruin. When a young woman wrote him about her sexual love for another woman in 1974, the evangelist replied with a threat: homosexual perverts will not inherit the kingdom of heaven. "Your affection for another of your own sex is misdirected and will be judged by God's holy standards," he answered.
For the content of God's holy standards, the evangelist has typically turned to the Bible, concluding without reservation that the Word of God "praises the marriage of a man and a woman" but "speaks only negatively of homosexual behavior when it is mentioned."
Driving this conclusion is Graham's fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture, one that seeks to understand biblical passages just as they are, without subjecting them to the tools of criticism employed by credible biblical scholars.
As a biblical fundamentalist, Graham has refused to acknowledge what scholar Sherman Bailey argued way back in 1955: that because biblical authors knew nothing about homosexuality as "an inherited trait, or an inherent condition due to psychological or glandular causes," biblical words about homosexuality have limited value when we seek to apply them to what we now know about homosexuality.
This is not to say that Graham is unaware of arguments that homosexual inclinations may have some genetic roots. In fact, his current website makes the peculiar argument that "in a broken world, the discovery of a genetic link would not prove that such a condition was God's intent. It must be emphasized that even if a biological predisposition to homosexuality in some people exists, it would not change God's opposition to that behavior." (Of course, Graham himself did not write that; he has long employed ghostwriters for his website, advice column, books and, yes, even his sermons.)
Convinced by the Bible's fierce condemnation of homosexual acts, Graham has long counseled those who engage in gay sex to repent of their sin and return to he welcoming arms of Jesus Christ. "Such reformation is possible for you," Graham wrote his lesbian follower in 1974. "Seize it while there's still a chance."
Graham has also consistently maintained this latter position -- that gays and lesbians, with the transforming power of Jesus Christ, can liberate themselves from the perversion of homosexuality -- though more recently he has sounded more pastoral than he did toward the lesbian in 1974.
The evangelist now tends to offer the following counsel to those struggling with their homosexuality: Be assured that God loves you, seek forgiveness from Christ and rely on his healing power, separate from people and surroundings that encourage your same-sex feelings and get help from a Christian counselor who practices reparative therapy. For Graham, "any willing person can be liberated from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ."
Make no mistake about it: However warmly pastoral he sounds in his elderly years, however much he has played the role of healer and reconciler at various points in his lifetime, Rev. Billy Graham is yet another bigoted preacher spouting anti-gay theology grounded in outdated biblical interpretation -- a parochial preacher who cannot even begin to conceive of the possibility that a God of love would make a place for gay and lesbian lovers.
May God have mercy -- and heal Billy Graham.
Just as he is.