25 June 2005

Sharlet: Billy Graham is back in New York City, for one last crusade. Cue the nostalgia; cue the clouds of forgetting. The press has been beyond adulatory, with only a nod toward’s Graham’santi-Semitic past from the NYT‘s Laurie Goodstein and the predictable snark from the little papers.

It wasn’t always so simple for Graham, who, for a period, defined Bible-thumping in the eyes of secular America. Now his ancient, still-handsome face adorns half the bus stops in the city, white mane against black bacground, elegant red lettering, a portrait of decay-as-spiritual-revelation that might have been lifted directly from the last days of John Paul II.

Like the late pope, Billy Graham enjoys a reputation that transcends the very particular politics with which he has been aligned: his courtship of power and his endorsement of its most vigorous American expressions, his history as a “law and order” man who once endorsed martial law as a response to civil unrest, his refusal to rebuke his son, Franklin, for his aggressively anti-Islam comments. It transcends, too, the very particular aesthetics with which Graham has long waged his crusade. More fixed in the minds of most Americans than any particular sermon about Jesus is a picture of Graham himself , broad shoulders and legendary piercing eyes, his hand in a fist, one stiff finger pointing at you. Then there are the flags, the mass rallies, and that lovely black, red, and white poster that’s around town right now.

Not that Graham is a demagogue, exactly. For himself, he seems to have always preferred influence to naked power. And he’s shied away — publicly, at least — from the kind of declarations that make Jerry Falwell an object of widespread ridicule, even among evangelicals. But such careful image control is in itself revealing, of Graham’s cultural style and of the cultural moment in which it has become not just unquestioned, but almost unquestionable.

Why doesn’t this complicated past matter to the new narrative about Graham? His tremendous charisma and apparent sincerity no doubt play a part. To many, it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you really, really believe it. And the few, relatively liberal stances he’s taken over the years also provide ballast in secular seas. But most of all there’s the press, the anti-Christian liberal media. They just can’t get enough of Billy Graham. It’s not so much a story of second chances as of endurance. Stick around long enough, and the American press will adore you. Declare that you’re apolitical, and it will believe you.

Fred Mogul, a reporter for WNYC, New York’s main public radio news station, is a old-school about such things, which is to say, he asks tougher questions. We had a long conversation about the reverend in which Fred noted the irony of Graham’s apparently innocuous language: “crusade” is a word with a history plain enough even for the American press to shriek when President Bush used it, but when Graham, the man who did so much to put America’s spiritual language in terms of warfare, uses it the press swoons for that old-time religion.

Fred asked me if I, too, fall for Billy Graham. Of course I do! I plan to swipe one of those stunning lion-in-winter posters with which the Graham crusade has adorned Gotham, even if it means vandalizing a bus stop to pry it free. But here’s what I told Fred: “There’s this idea that Billy Graham is no longer conservative or has somehow transcended politics, because he says he’s not going to talk about politics. But that’s a really shallow understanding of what conservative theology is about and what Billy Graham’s conservatism has always been about. He no longer needs to talk about politics because the alignment of evangelicalism and the kind of politics he’s always supported has become so neat at this moment that he no longer needs to exhort people in the direction he feels is the right way.”