I grew up thinking Billy Graham was a hero. My family was Baptist; my dad, a Baptist preacher. I was an adult before I realized Graham wasn't exclusively Baptist though by then he might as well have been because conservative Christians seemed, largely, to have let go of doctrinal differences in favor of ideological absolutes.
I remember hearing Graham speak at a Southern Baptist Convention. He was so warm and welcoming; I felt like I knew him, and that made me proud. In those "good ol' days," the convention denied Jerry Falwell an audience. Carter and Ford addressed the crowd. Though it was blind in many ways, that group was less partisan and more interesting, then. Regardless, my parents attended regularly, and we got a family vacation out of it. So my nostalgia is informed by gratitude for great family travels.
Fast forward forty years, and the exit I take to work in Swannanoa, North Carolina, is also the exit for "The Cove," Billy Graham's training camp. It has become a joke for me. My work is to the left. His training camp is to the right. But beneath the joke is a fairly tender point. Almost every day, I grapple with the legacy Graham is leaving, one that is, from my perspective, now distorted and toxic, thanks to Billy's son, Franklin.
Franklin is always in our local news for something, and more often than not lately it is to remind us that lgbt people are evil. Yesterday, in fact, Franklin made a major point of announcing that he was moving all of the Billy Graham Ministry funds from a gay-friendly bank. . . to, as it turns out, another gay-friendly bank. Before that, he was praising Putin's anti-gay policies in the days leading up to the Olympics. Before that, he claimed that he could never change his views on lgbt people because that would require God to change, and, he said, "God doesn't change." Worse still, for me, in the debate in our state over gay marriage, Franklin ran a full-page ad attributing to his father an admonition to vote for the biblical definition of marriage as one man and one woman.
I realize that Franklin is not his father, and I know that few childhood heroes stand up under later, adult scrutiny. When I heard Graham's antisemitism on Nixon tapes, I was embarrassed by my earlier, narrower sense of him. But even that could be tempered both by his direct apology and by some of his work in the civil rights movement. In 1956, in a letter to Eisenhower, for example, Graham said, "I feel with you that the church must take a place of spiritual leadership in this crucial matter that confronts not only the South but the entire Nation." Graham then outlined how he would urge religious leaders to deal with race as a spiritual issue and, in doing so, to urge these leaders to accept the Supreme Court ruling on desegregation.
Why, then, is there no willingness by Graham ministries now to look at lgbt issues as spiritual issues in the same spirit as above, rather that with the absolute certainty that Franklin is right and lgbt people, even those professing Christianity, are doomed to hell? According to Franklin, he shouldn't even bank with us, let alone worship with us.
It's hard, having grown up in a tradition that was so committed to the 70s social gospel, to cede control of that tradition now to those who are so partisan, so judgmental, so absolute. I want to have conversations about why we use the words Ruth spoke to Naomi, "whither though goest I will go" (Ruth 1:16) in contemporary heterosexual marriage ceremonies. Can't we at least see the irony? And I want to know what we really think it means that David loved Jonathan with a love "surpassing the love of a woman" (2 Samuel 1:27). These are important questions for me if I am to reconcile two parts of my identity: lesbian and person of faith. Where a minister banks isn't important to me, except in so much as I wonder which biblical admonition calls for a "ministry" to have much in the bank at all.
This week, Robbie Kaplan, the attorney for Edie Windsor in the DOMA case at SCOTUS, was given an honorary degree by a seminary in her faith tradition. In her speech at the seminary, Kaplan quoted her rabbi, whose op-Ed in The Washington Post, supports lgbt equality: "my support of (lgbt) equality is an expression of my faith. It arises from fundamental principals found in the Hebrew Bible, and the rabbinic tradition, among them, that each human being is made in the divine image. That affording full dignity to each person is a religious obligation."
What a powerful, painful counterpoint to the barrage of indignities from the younger Graham and, we're told, supported by the elder Graham. Nothing coming from that ministry tells me and others like me that we are made in the divine image.
I'm not the first to observe that mainstream Christianity is shrinking in this country and that, perhaps, the absolutism on homosexuality is at least one of the reasons the church seems less and less relevant. But it's hard to sit back and watch good, well-meaning Christians acquiesce to such a departure from the seventies gospel of my childhood. And it's hard to sit back and watch a son dismantle the considerable goodwill a father had with the masses of the less (self)righteous who respected him.
I guess it's hard to lose my hero. Even harder to lose my religion.
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