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Billy Graham's Other Legacy

An honest look at the famous evangelist's views on war, Jews and homosexuality

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In the days following Billy Graham's death, there will be no shortage of obituaries and profiles in newspapers and TV news stations extolling the brighter and more positive portions of Graham's legacy. Indeed, in the minutes and hours after Graham's death was announced, reporters and journalists joined in the social media swirl — tweeting, posting and sharing overly generous words about the man and his work in the world. One early report said Graham eschewed fundamentalism for a more welcoming Gospel message — quite a stretch for those who were the targets of Graham's prejudice.

We should take a more complete and nuanced look at this famous preacher's legacy, taking the good with the bad, and wrestling with the reality of a complex man, not just the myth created by media hype.

Matt Comer
  • Matt Comer

As a gay man and, like Graham, a Baptist, the famous evangelist's religious views on homosexuality have often hit me the hardest. In 2012, as the anti-gay marriage amendment debate roiled in North Carolina, Graham and his association came out swinging in favor of the new constitutional provision. At the time, many were saddened that Graham would seek to tarnish his otherwise welcoming legacy by taking a position on such a divisive topic. But it wasn't the first time Graham had weighed in on LGBT issues, and his rhetoric in the past had been far more hateful.

Graham believed homosexuality to be a "a sinister form of perversion," a view he reiterated in 1973 to a young lesbian who wrote into his popular question-and-answer column.

Calling homosexuality an "ungodly spirit of self-gratification" and an "insidious temptation," Graham told the girl, "We traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare."

I wonder how many LGBT teenagers suffered more because of Graham's words, read by their parents, teachers, pastors and other adults in their lives?

Billy's own son, Franklin, was certainly listening to his father's lessons on human sexuality. Today, Franklin Graham — heir to his father's global non-profit and president of his own, Samaritan's Purse — routinely attacks LGBT people as perverts, child molesters and criminals. In 2014, Franklin even praised Russia's Vladimir Putin and his violent crackdown on LGBT people. Putin, Franklin said, had "taken a stand to protect his nation's children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda."

Much like his son's fixation on a dark and nefarious "gay agenda," Graham had conspiratorial fears of his own regarding the Jewish people. Graham's anti-Semitic beliefs had been revealed more than two decades ago, when Richard Nixon's chief of staff H.R. Haldeman said Graham had blamed "satanic Jews" for the nation's problems.

Graham denied those remarks in 1994.

"Those are not my words," Graham said at the time. "I have never talked publicly or privately about the Jewish people, including conversations with President Nixon, except in the most positive terms."

Billy Graham
  • Billy Graham

Graham's anti-Semitism was fully uncovered in 2002, when a secretly recorded conversation with Nixon was released. Meeting with Nixon, Graham agreed with the disgraced president that the nation's media was "totally dominated by the Jews."

Graham accused Jewish media owners of being responsible for the nation's pornography "problem."

"This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain," Graham said. "I can't ever say that but I believe it," Graham continued, encouraging Nixon to win re-election so that "then we might be able to do something."

Graham never sincerely apologized for those remarks, repeatedly claiming he never recalled making them to begin with.

But nothing in Graham's legacy, perhaps, compares to his support in 1969 of a military action that could have killed upwards of one million North Vietnamese.

After meeting with missionaries in Vietnam, Graham wrote to Nixon, encouraging the president to step up the war if peace talks were to fail. Graham suggested bombing dikes across North Vietnam, an act Graham said that "could overnight destroy" their economy.

That any man of God could suggest such a violent war crime boggles the mind.

Some in the media will highlight these parts of Graham's legacy, but many won't. We'll hear about his uplifting, encouraging words of faith, and not much about his words of condemnation, rejection and hate. We'll hear about his progressive works of peace and grace — his friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his tempered approach to Islamic relations — and rightfully so, but we'll hear little about his suggestions that would have made for a more violent world and sent millions to their graves.

For a better, more complete understanding of Graham, and of ourselves, we should be more honest in our reflections of a man whose decades-long work will, no doubt, be remembered for many lifetimes to come. As this history is written, let's leave the rose-colored myth out of it.

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