William Franklin Graham was born into the sharecropper farming world of 1918 North Carolina. He was raised on the belief that the world belongs to white men, and lynching was an appropriate response to people who questioned the status quo.
Graham was not the first preacher to use mass meetings to rake in the dough. He wasn’t the first to use broadcasting to expand the reach of his sales pitch. But he broke out from the pack during a unique confluence of social and technological change. And he had the savvy to exploit opportunities that the changes presented.
Obits praising Graham will all note that he broke out of the pack in Los Angeles, in 1947, at a “tent revival” campaign. 1947 was a busy year. The War was over, and men were back, looking for civilian jobs. Women, who had spent the war working outside the home, learning that they could do vital jobs, and even be bosses, were being told (not asked) to give up jobs so that men without relevant work experience could be employed. The Civil Rights Movement, which had toned down its prewar activities for the duration, was beginning to win court victories, and challenging the status quo.
The local social world was in upheaval. Boys who could have been expected to marry their cousins next door instead came home with brides from societies that didn’t know about legally enforced segregation, or the oppression of labor. Many of these brides thought that real education was a right, and they expected it to be available for their children. And the G.I. Bill led many non-white G.I.s to believe that they were entitled to aspirations they had always been told were beyond their station.
Technology was transforming the entire world. In 1948, the transistor started transforming reality, no longer just a laboratory dream. Television was moving out of the cities and into homes that had not had radio, or even electricity when the War started. The spoils of War included tape recorder technology that allowed Wall St. broadcasting corporations to inexpensively deliver identical program content to every small community in the nation, helping consolidate corporate control of the public airwaves.
Control of the airwaves meant little without control of content. With women clamoring for the freedoms, experiences and paychecks that jobs had so recently given them, and with Asian and Black soldiers eager to enjoy the freedoms so many had died for, defenders of the status quo needed broadcast content to push back against the pressures for change. Square jawed heroes like Gene Autry, Davy Crockett, and Roy Rogers could ride across the tiny TV screens, in endless reruns, ‘reminding’ us of a time that never was, when white men controlled the heathens, and dispensed justice and words of wisdom.
But reruns and reminders of violence were not enough for veterans who didn’t even like to talk about their experiences, let alone relive them endlessly as entertainment. And, as lucrative as broadcasting was, the Hollywood fare didn’t begin to replace the vast war profits that ended with the War. American industry needed a new enemy around which to organize resistance to women and minorities asking for equal treatment at work. And it needed new salesmen to pitch the inevitability of conflict to veterans and families more interested in avoiding war than in increasing war profits.
Reflecting on the success of the Red Scares just after WW-I, business realized the profit potential of a “new” national enemy. Hello Communism! All that was needed were some square jawed salesmen to make the new threat both ‘real’ and ‘anti-American’. Ronald Reagan was an early recruit. Even while working as a union official, he went on the corporate payroll, selling out fellow show business workers and eagerly testifying before the infamous House Unamerican Activities Committee. But gravitas and moral authority were not inherent traits of actors who played make-believe all day and engaged in risqué behavior with innumerable non-wives on screen and off.
Preachers had the gravitas and moral authority. If they could be payed/persuaded to adopt anti-communism, they might wield a persuasive might beyond other salesmen. There was a big impediment, however – the Bible. The values expressed by that Jesus guy, and so many prophets before him, just didn’t conflict with communism as much as business would have liked.
But for a North Carolina farm boy, communist talk about rights for workers, entitlement to at least a baseline of reasonable life opportunities, sounded far too similar to the emerging demands of black farm workers for fair pay and the right to walk on the same sidewalks as white folks. It was clearly a perversion of the moral order under which William Franklin Graham had been raised and educated. And they would pay him to preach against it!
Biographers tell us that Graham was considering giving up ministry when he came to L.A. to preach in 1947. He hadn’t made a success of it, and thought that he might consider fields in which he could make a more lucrative living. But in the sunshine that was nurturing a young Richard Nixon, and turning Ronald Reagan against his co-workers, Graham had a conversion experience. He signed on for a career of explaining why the bible, and “christianity” meant defending the status quo.
In the sunshine that was nurturing a young Richard Nixon, and turning Ronald Reagan against his co-workers, Graham had a conversion experience. He signed on for a career of explaining why the bible, and “christianity” meant defending the status quo.
And explain he did. Through the 50s he opposed workers’ and union rights, and preached that god wanted corporations to be free to reap obscene cold-war profits. As the Civil Rights Movement grew, he desegregated some of his speeches, but remained a stalwart friend and supporter of racist politicians (for which Dr. King publicly chastised him). When people started protesting America’s colonial war in Vietnam, he derided the protests. After all, it was ridiculous to imagine that little ‘yellow’ people could run their own country and lives better than white American “christians” could run it.
He didn’t merely support the colonial war, he personally condemned those who disagreed. His corporatist version of “christianity” did not brook differences of opinion. Those who opposed the war weren’t just wrong, they were morally evil. He also opposed any regulation of corporations, or any efforts to protect the environment.
Graham traveled the world, becoming an ambassador of corporate Christianity, preaching to the poor and oppressed that their station in life was what god had ordained for them. He told them to embrace their suffering and learn to worship god and thank him for the hardships dictators and corporations (not god) laid on them. He particularly liked to preach in countries run by dictators. While other people’s travel was restricted, the American government applauded his trip to preach in Kim Il Sung’s North Korea.
Graham will long be remembered for his zealous support of Richard Nixon. Through the horrors of the impeachment process, Graham supported, visited with, and defended Tricky Dick. He shared Nixon’s base anti-semitism, although he self-righteously denied it, until Nixon’s white house tapes revealed his on-the-record slams against Jews.
He supported Dick Chaney’s wars on the Taliban and on Iraq, defending the use of clearly false information (fake news?) used to promote those wars. He supported South Africa’s apartheid system, and then Israel’s apartheid government against Palestinians.
And he made a fortune in the process. As one of America’s first televangelists, preaching the prosperity gospel, he received corporate largesse for decades. From his start as a small-farm boy, he retired with enormous corporate wealth. He had learned to make sure that all his “charitable” projects turned a handsome profit, providing a model for televangelists from Pat Robertson to Jerry Falwell.
But his greatest achievement may have been to turn people away from the activism preached by Jesus. Jesus said, “By their fruits shall you know them” and “Faith without works is dead.” But Graham preached that when confronted with injustice and suffering, the only action people should take was prayer – giving thanks to god for a life of suffering now against a promise of heavenly partying after you die. He opposed all efforts by sufferers to better their stations in this life, particularly if doing better came at the expense of oppressors.
William Franklin Graham was to Jesus as modern Republicans are to Ronald Reagan. He used and exploited the name for his personal glory and profit, while rejecting the core teachings of the man whose name he appropriated. IF the bible is correct, he learned on February 21, that he couldn’t take his wealth with him, and that he wasn’t welcome in the home of the man who’s name he took in vain for more than six decades.