When I became a Christian as a teen in the ’70s, Billy Graham was the guy I looked to. I read Decision Magazine avidly every month. I like to tell people that “I was a teenage Evangelical.”
But when I went to college, I began to fall away from my early evangelical roots. Then, too, I discovered a soulmate and guide in Billy Graham, whose post-Nixon soul-searching led him to question some of the assumptions that had driven his early ministry–assumptions about God’s anointment of leaders, the unblemished blessedness of the American Way, and the necessity of nuclear weapons. He was a harbinger of a new, broader-minded evangelicalism, and you see his spiritual children in the likes of Rob Bell. And, I hope, in me. Graham’s humble, honest search for a broader way to represent Biblical truth in a political setting helped me return to my own evangelical roots.
I’m remembering Billy Graham because of Gov. Perry’s proclamation of a Texas day of prayer and fasting. I’m hardly against such an event. The National Day of Prayer established by President Eisenhower has often proved to be an event that unified people across the religious spectrum and given moral direction to the nation.
But Gov. Perry has unfortunately aligned this event with The American Family Association. The AFA has been called a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, especially because of their anti-Gay focus. Beyond that, however, is their distinctly exclusive view of what makes a person a Christian.
The prayer event has unwisely adopted the AFA’s statement of faith, which asserts, for instance, “the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” That statement excludes any thoughtful member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), whose Book of Order calls the Bible “unique and authoritative,” but doesn’t assert its “infallibility,” which means something entirely different.
The AFA also asserts its belief in the Holy Trinity. I certainly agree with that. But my friend Rabbi Mecklenberger doesn’t, and neither do the Unitarians down the street, or the Muslims who are trying so hard to assimilate into Texas despite adversity. Despite the governor’s welcoming words, clearly none of us are going to feel welcome at this event.
Likely the prayers will be made in the name of Jesus Christ. I’ve participated in ecumenical faith/political meetings in the past where prayers are made to God in the most generic sense. There are sometimes those present who might not affirm God in a monotheistic way, but they accept the prayers because they appreciate the intent. But that’s not what one should expect from this event.
By aligning with the AFA, the governor subverts his stated purpose to unify the state.
Which brings me the long way around back to Billy Graham. Graham had an instinctive understanding of the unique role of religion in American political life–that religion in public and political life should unify, not divide. Long before the soul-searching he did in the post-Watergate era, Graham was acting on this instinct. (My source for the next couple of stories is The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House, by Washington Post reporters Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy (Center Street Publishers, 2007).)
Crusading in the Deep South, Graham refused to preach in any venue where whites and blacks were segregated. As early as 1952, Graham, in a fury, tore down barriers separating blacks and whites at a crusade in Chatanooga, TN. He told distraught convention organizers that “either these ropes stay down or you can go and have this revival without me.”
In the 1960 election, where JFK’s Catholicism could have been a terribly contentious issue (and where Graham’s good friend, Richard Nixon, was Kennedy’s opponent), Graham resisted the temptation to use religion as a wedge issue in his candidate’s favor and, following the election told reporters “exactly the words of reconciliation that the Kennedy team was eager to hear him say. The election, Graham said, had produced a better understanding between Protestants and Catholics, and proved that ‘there was not as much religious prejudice in the United States as many people had feared.’ As for future elections, he predicted, ever wishful, that never again would religion be so divisive. ‘I think that is a hurdle that has been permanently passed'” (Preacher and the Presidents, p. 110).
Graham lived into the best tradition of religion’s role in the United States. Religion can serve as a unifier, not a divider; as a force for moral clarity; as a way of reminding all Americans that we have responsibility for more than just ourselves and our own backyard; a call, as Lincoln said, to “the angels of our better nature.”
We have a tradition of separation of church and state, which means that any political use of religion needs to be carefully scrutinized; but it can be, and has sometimes been, a good thing. When the founders talked about separation of church and state, their largest concern was sectarianism that did not recognize the diversity of religious experience in the new nation. For them, it was foundational that religious diversity needs to be affirmed for the sake of national unity; but that religion itself could be a force for good in a young, idealistic nation founded on the principle that “all men (sic!) are created equal and endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights.”
Gov. Perry has unfortunately aligned himself with a group that has a divisive, sectarian agenda at odds with the way religion plays its best role in US political life. Three years ago, Barack Obama had to renounce his pastor of two decades, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, because some of Wright’s words didn’t reflect that tradition. It’d be wise for Rick Perry to do the same with the AFA.
In the meantime, I miss Billy Graham.