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Wholesale salvation, priced to go

Even for those of us who don’t deify Billy Graham, it would still be hard to say anything bad about him. He never preached hatred. In fact he was friends with Martin Luther King and once bailed King out of jail in Alabama. Though he meddled in politics, he was reasonably nonpartisan about it. He refused to join the odious Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” in 1979 and said, “I’m for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice.” How many white preachers have ever talked about social justice? When televangelist Jim Bakker was sent to prison for fraud in 1989, newspapers looked into Graham’s finances the same way they had looked into Bakker’s. Bakker was a con man, but Graham was always found to be squeaky clean. He was married to one woman for almost 64 years.

The Washington Post reports that Graham will lie in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol from Feb. 28 to March 1. It will be almost like a state funeral.

And so it’s not surprising that the media have been filled with panegyrics for Billy Graham. I have seen only one piece, in the Guardian, that looks at Billy Graham from another angle. That’s “Billy Graham was on the wrong side of history,” by historian Matthew Avery Sutton. Sutton writes, “Graham had good intentions, as his work desegregating his crusades demonstrated. But when his influence really would have counted, when he could have effected real change, real social transformation, he was too locked into last-days fearmongering to recognize the potential of the state to do good. We are all paying the price.”

Billy Graham’s focus, then, was on “salvation,” and you’d better come and get your salvation quick because the end is near. Saving the earth didn’t much matter. It was saving souls that Billy Graham was into, and he developed methods for doing it wholesale.

Not too long ago, I assumed that the idea of “salvation” must have been a Christian innovation. That is not the case. Max Weber, in his classic The Sociology of Religion, has a good bit to say about the concept of “salvation.” The concept has existed all over the world, in forms of Buddhism, Confucianism, Gnosticism, Hinduism and Judaism. What we need to be saved from, and the means of attaining salvation, vary greatly. But the demand for salvation, it seems, is perpetually strong. It’s a good business to be in. Most people never stop to think about the ridiculousness of the idea that some magic wand can somehow make the difference between eternal salvation and eternal perdition. The concept of salvation is useful only to those who have something invisible to sell.

In light of Weber’s ideas, one could point out three elements that helped make Billy Graham such a celebrity.

First, Graham represented the Protestant church, which meant that Graham could offer membership in the church. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus — outside the church there is no salvation. The church is, as Weber writes, seen as “vested with the control of grace.” The church thus has shelves well stocked with fresh salvation. Come and get it.

Second, the price is cheap. Weber writes, “The level of personal ethical accomplishment must therefore be made compatible with average human qualifications, and this in practice means that it can be set quite low.” Easy terms and no credit check, either.

Third, Graham was a “religious virtuoso” who added value and sparkle to the deal, absolutely free. Weber writes, “Whoever can achieve more in the ethical sphere, i.e., the religious virtuoso, may thereby, in addition to insuring his own salvation, accumulate good works for the credit of the institution, which will then distribute them to those in need of good works.”

So that boils down to millions of lost souls “saved,” because the church was seen as a warehouse overflowing with salvation and grace, the price of salvation was cheap, and the bestower of salvation was charismatic and famous to boot. Lost souls know a good deal when they seen one. Basic salvation, no Billy Graham sparkle added, would have cost them a great deal more if they got it from a Jim Bakker, or a Pat Robertson, or a Joel Osteen.

In Billy Graham’s 99 years, has the world gotten any better with all this affordable grace and salvation added to the world? But as Matthew Avery Sutton argues in the Guardian, Graham didn’t much care about the world. If people of little ethical accomplishment can get into heaven so cheaply, then why not let the world burn, and seven billion souls burn in it?


  1. James Mellichamp wrote:

    Bravo. If they cared half as much about creating heaven while on earth, the world would be better for that.

    Thursday, February 22, 2018 at 10:47 pm | Permalink
  2. I encountered a different take on Graham’s passing on Facebook:

    I have held off on commenting on the passing of Rev. Billy Graham, partly out of fear (I have a public career) and partly out of respect for my friends who revere him.

    Regrettably, I now find myself in a situation, a closet no less, that I promised myself I would never be in again. You see, I now live, again, in Billy Graham country – directly in the shadows of Billy Graham Evangelical Association, run by his bigoted son Franklin and I can no longer stay silent and let MY TRUTH left unsaid.

    Billy Graham was NO friend to me and my #LGBT Community.

    Growing up, as a family, we listened, watched and read Billy Graham and for most, he was inspirational; however, I cannot ignore or undo the fact that his anti-homosexual preachings and rhetoric were a key component of my depression, suicidal thoughts, tendencies and (thankfully) failed attempt.

    His words were vicious, “Let me say this loud and clear, we traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare. It is a sinister form of perversion that is contributing to the decay of civilization.”

    He spoke out during the AIDS crisis, condemning gay people to hell and calling AIDS “God’s punishment.”

    Finally, I leave you with this — Garrard Conley, the author of “Boy Erased,” a memoir in which he recounts his experiences in conversion therapy in Arkansas, said Graham’s rhetoric was frequently employed in the liturgy he encountered and in the camp where he was told he could be “cured” of homosexuality.

    “I grew up hearing Graham’s name referenced in almost every church service, and when I was sent to conversion therapy, his evangelical fire was the model for our change.“

    Though many saw Graham as a loving influence, his legacy has been harmful for queer individuals — and this includes ME! RIP Billy Graham but don’t be looking to me for any tears.

    Sunday, February 25, 2018 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

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