At the Altar with Billy Graham

“I am a girl, and I love another girl!” M.D. writes to the Lakeland Ledger, “However, I am worried about my Christian life…Please help.” On November 20, 1973, Billy Graham replies, “Let me say this loud and clear! We traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual warfare.”

When Billy Graham died on February 21, 2018, my friends — mostly writers and academics, liberal Civil Rights activists and feminists and queers — took to Facebook to circumvent the assured onslaught of praise for the man who had been known for decades as “America’s Pastor.” One friend shared a campy memorial: Billy Graham’s name atop the Wicked Witch’s body crushed under the house along with the words “girl bye.”

Another friend got more quickly to how many of us felt about the reverend: “Billy Graham is dead. Beneath that bland, non-denominational exterior was a disgusting bigoted man… Good riddance, and rot in hell.” I would be lying if I claimed a feeling otherwise, to claim that with hatred towards the good reverend, my cup didn’t runneth over. His list of sins is long and mighty. Graham preached against the feminist and gay liberation movements, and even spoke out against Civil Rights as a matter of cultural sin, painting racism itself as just a matter of the fallen heart. Graham encouraged Nixon in his anti-semitic fervor, both Bush’s in their respective wars on sovereign nations, and Clinton in his dismantling of welfare as we knew it. He was an outspoken supporter of massive bombing campaigns in Vietnam and later, celebrated the war in Iraq as an opportunity for our Christian nation to save people from Islam.

Graham blocked Protestantism — nay, all of Western Christendom — from abandoning its socially exclusionary ways. Graham mired us, softly, yes, but perhaps more than anyone else during the twentieth century, in Christian fundamentalism. A fundamentalism that gave us the culture wars, that gave us a broken American electorate, that gave us a Christian nation no longer interested in the social justice gospel of its origin, but hell bent on electing Donald Trump as a warrior for Christ.

I’m writing myself out of what I came here to say: that the legacy of Billy Graham is complicated. Is it? I’m not so sure, but I’ll try to imagine this version of remembrance, too.

In their obituary, The New York Times recalls Graham as one prominent version of the American dream incarnate, “a North Carolina farmer’s son who preached to millions in stadium events he called crusades, becoming a pastor to presidents and the nation’s best-known Christian evangelist for more than 60 years.” Perhaps more than anyone else, too, Graham ushered in the era of cult celebrity, a reality star who took church not only to the street, but also to the television. Celebrity, a complicated cultural position in and of itself, Jesus warned, saying “For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:43).

For all the shit things Graham did, and they are voluminous, he also encouraged a nation to feel. And this, I say now as a queer agnostic, is perhaps his greatest, perhaps his only great, legacy. Since the late 1940s, Graham appeared before millions of Americans, before millions more around the world, excluding many, yes, but comforting many others, from Queen Elizabeth II to Hurricane Katrina victims. “Are you frustrated, bewildered, dejected, breaking under the strains of life?” he was found of asking the stadiums filled for his crusades. My father watched these on television, I remember now, just as his father, an abusive drunk, listened to them on the radio.

I remember my father crying then, “breaking under the strains of life,” unafraid to cry in front of me as the Spirit supposedly moved him, a reformation of American masculinity rarely seen in my household, certainly many others. Melissa Gregg tells us how in such moments, “bodies can catch feelings as easily as catch fire: affect leaps from one body to another, evoking tenderness, inciting shame, igniting rage, exciting fear.” I am not saying anyone’s reaction to Graham’s death is wrong. He made many people feel, feelings which catch fire now in both tenderness and shame and rage.

My grandfather, were he alive today, would grow tender, I imagine. When I call him, my father feels shame, for worshipping at the bequest of a man who would want to teach him to hate his own faggot son. His son, that’s me, rages along with friends at the acquiescent misremembering of a man who taught Americans to devalue each other, with one hand, and with the other, to feel.


D. Gilson is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas Tech University. He’s working on a collection of essays on queerness and evangelical pasts.