Long before the terms ‘culture wars’ and ‘televangelist’ entered the English language, Billy Graham was doing both. Graham was a pioneer of using modern technology to attack a progressive world, all under the guise of religion. From the 1950s until old age, he was a fixture on American television and a man who had the ear of every President of the 20th century beginning with Eisenhower.
For his devoted followers he was something of a messianic figure, for mainstream America he was part of the national fabric and for critical thinkers, secularists and supporters of what is now called multipolarity, he was the inventor of a menacing trend in US politics which sought to co-op the cross and make it the property of the regressive, reactionary right.
In the 1950s, global trends were turning towards the secular and in many ways towards the left. The reasons for this were obvious enough. In the so-called third world, progressive secular politics were an effective way of united diverse peoples living in the borders of states drawn by imperialists. Progressive secular politics helped to unite such populations both against colonial occupiers and helped to unite people among themselves under a national identity which renounced the kind of sectarianism that occurs when factionalism, including the factionalism of religion is combined with political extremism. From Cuba to Pakistan, Egypt and Syria to Yugoslavia and the USSR, secular anti-imperialism was moving the world forward, lifting millions out of poverty and into education and higher living standards.
For the United States which dominated the international monetary system after the Second World War due to the Bretton-Woods agreement, the idea that the peoples of the third world were looking towards political systems that were not dependent on the US and its neo-imperial allies in western Europe, was a frightening concept. But selling US hegemony to an American public which after 1945 was contended with its own self-assured high living standards was not going to be simple. In order to sell an expensive Cold War against the so-called 2nd and 3rd worlds, the US needed something that could capture the hearts and minds of otherwise apolitical Americans.
By the early 1950s, the United States itself was becoming more secular along the lines of Europe, whose increasingly secular intellectual movements resonated with a majority of US citizens who traced their ancestry to Europe. Into this fray stepped Billy Graham along with his elder ideological sidekick Norman Vincent Peale and thus secularism became tarred as “Godless”, in a simplistic dichotomy which created a giant sucking sound (to paraphrase Ross Perot) which took the reason, logic and Constitutionally guaranteed freedom out of America.
The thesis of Graham and his followers which was sometimes stated overtly and at other times implied, was that secularism and faith could not coexist and that anyone embracing secular political or social ideas was somehow a less than responsible Christian or worse yet “Godless”. This nonsensical approach which gradually crept into mainstream American thinking has dumbed down the country to the point where the teaching of science, critical thinking in the humanities, objective history and art have become categorically dismal by international standards. For Billy Graham, the cross was an answer in and of itself, rather than the beginning of a spiritual journey that is incomplete without an equally important exploration of the physical, material and humanistic world and for the record, I speak as someone who both accepts religion in his life and accepts and lives a secular day to day existence.
Graham’s greatest achievement was to pave the way for a generation of far more overtly politicised evangelical leaders who in the 1980s used the advent of cable and satellite dish based television to make millions. With the millions they made, all without paying a penny of tax due to their status as ‘tax exempt churches’, these televangelists worked to take over politics by infiltrating a Republican party that had previously been known for its support of enterprise, small government and opposition to racism. Regarding racism, while many have pointed out Graham’s embrace of Martin Luther King, one ought to understand that in the context of its day, Graham served to sanitise and neuter the African American civil rights movement, so that the US state could more easily oppress left-wing and non-Christian groups including Malcolm X’s Nation of Islam.
The Republican party that was conquered in the 1980s by the evangelicals, became authoritarian, pseudo-theocratic, anti-free speech and in favour of big government, so long as the government was banning everything that evangelicals detested from privately financed abortions to rock and roll music. When in the mid 1980s, composer and musician Frank Zappa warned that the greatest danger to freedom in America was not the USSR but the danger of an evangelical led fascist theocracy, many laughed. Today in an age of supreme evangelical power over the governing Republican party and a big government spying apparatus as exposed by Wikileaks that would make the Gestapo blush, Zappa’s words remain truer now than they were in the 1980s.
For Constitutionalists like Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, the change was disheartening. Goldwater is most famous for his 1964 Presidential campaign where he argued for a combination of small government, pro-enterprise policies and a strongly anti-Soviet foreign policy. While his anti-Soviet stance contrasted sharply with the anti-NATO policies of his small-government Republican standard bearing predecessor Robert Taft, by the 1980s and certainly by the 1990s when the Cold War had ended, Goldwater became a pariah on the libertarian wing of his party which had been hijacked by evangelical extremists like Pat Robertson who himself attempted to become President in 1988.
Goldwater said of the evangelical takeover of the Republican party,
“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them”.
Goldwater was something of an amateur scenic aficionado himself and found the regressive tendencies among evangelicals to be frightening. He once stated,
“My faith in the future rests squarely on the belief that man, if he doesn’t first destroy himself, will find new answers in the universe, new technologies, new disciplines, which will contribute to a vastly different and better world in the twenty-first century. Recalling what has happened in my short lifetime in the fields of communication and transportation and the life sciences, I marvel at the pessimists who tell us that we have reached the end of our productive capacity, who project a future of primarily dividing up what we now have and making do with less. To my mind the single essential element on which all discoveries will be dependent is human freedom”.
By the time the evangelicals had taken over, America stopped thinking big, having reduced itself to petty debates that had gone from the pulpit to the Congress. Since then, the phenomenon of so-called Christian Zionism has invaded the mainstream of American politics with “Israeli” propagandists seizing upon the gullibility of evangelicals, thus getting them to combine their own regressive mythology with the mythical founding myth of the so-called ‘land of Zion’. This was especially true for arch-Zionist Graham who was a massive supporter of the occupation of Palestine, even though like many so-called ‘Christian Zionists’ he didn’t care a great deal for individuals who happened to personally identify as Jewish. Suddenly, out of the window went a moderate, balanced approach to Palestine favoured by Russia and China, let alone the secular anti-colonial one favoured by Nasser and the contemporary Syrian Arab Republic. Now, Americans who know nothing about the Middle East have become zealots for Zionism, all because they believe that they’ll go to Billy Graham or Pat Robertson’s idea of heaven if they do so.
Ironically, when it comes to a government which has pursued moderate religious values combined with an emphasis on science and technology (including birth control) such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, most Americans have only negative things to say. The evangelical movement, replete with its lack of tolerance for not only secularists but for religious people who worship in a different way than them, does not care to learn about how Iran has found a way to balance faith and progress. Is it any wonder that such a nation is filled with a brain dead political class which has sided with Takfiri terrorists who have the same views on both secularism and moderate Iranian style Islam as they do? It’s no coincidence at all, it’s a marriage made in a sane person’s idea of hell.
For a country that has a Constitutional separation of church and state, the evangelicals have worked tirelessly to rip this reality to shreds, all while retarding the mental capacity of a nation that is less literate per-capita today than it was 100 years ago.
Billy Graham was neither well meaning nor innocent. He was the founder of a wider post-Second World War movement that has made US politics look more like the Taliban and less like the moderate secularists who rule countries like secular Syria.
The moral of this story is that there cannot be a monopoly on one narrow, reactionary version of morality at the expense of all others, especially in a country with as ethnically and religious diverse a population as the United States. Billy Graham was able to use and abuse the American financial system to exploit a nation, meddle in supposedly secular politics and set the stage for the numbing of the American mind to reason, as well as the concept that faith and reason can exist harmoniously, as they do in Americas last favourite country, Iran.
There is after all a big difference between people like Billy Graham and so-called cult leaders like Jerry Jones. While Jones forced his followers to drink poisoned Kool Aid, Graham and his disciples realised that it is better for business to keep one’s followers alive.
The US has been drinking the Kool Aid of Graham, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell for far too long. It’s time for America to stop its military adventurism which George W. Bush revealingly called a ‘crusade’ and give some much needed tender loving care to the First Amendment, something that Graham used for his own advantages, while his followers have attempted to strip it away among all those who dare disagree with the evangelical ‘Christian-Zionist’ theocracy.