Asheville, NC, Nov. 7, 2013 – The Reverend Billy Graham’s 95th birthday fête, organized by his son Franklin, was all that anyone who knows Graham père and Graham fils could have expected. The adoring guests who came to honor the frail evangelist were all, it seemed, rich, successful, famous, and self-important “Christians”—with nary a representative of the poor, the meek, the humble, and the downtrodden, whom Jesus called to follow him, in sight. Each of the media celebrities present clearly believed they were more important than the guest of honor, crowding the cameras for interviews and statements and extra seconds in the limelight. And, irony of ironies, the party that these holy, spiritual folks dropped in on was held in Asheville, NC—the “Cesspool of Sin,” as it was dubbed by a late NC House member who, as far as anyone could tell, had never set foot in the city.
The local Gannett paper titled its coverage “A-listers salute Graham,” but as the guest list made clear, the headline writer misunderstood what an A-list is.
The big names in attendance were Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Glenn Beck, Rupert Murdoch, Greta Van Susteren, Ricky Skaggs, and Governor Pat McCrory. It was an A-list of, at best, Republican B-listers: Palin, a failed vice-presidential nominee (accompanied by her secessionist husband Todd) who turned losing into a $12-million-per-year gig; Trump, a failed presidential candidate, Obama birther, and self-appointed king of bombast; Beck, television’s wacko-bird college dropout who was too crazy even for Fox; Murdoch, the almost-but-not-quite-indicted gazillionaire media mogul who kicked Beck off his airways; Van Susteren, the Aussie mogul’s current blonde media favorite; Skaggs, a once-popular country music star who looks like Barbara Bush with longer, whiter hair; and McCrory, the failing, flailing governor of NC, basking in an approval rating of 37% after an exciting 10 months in office.
At least one Democrat, Asheville City Council member Jan Davis, attended, along with numerous other Republican officials: Representative Mark “Shut down the government!” Meadows, NC House Speaker and Senate candidate Thom Tillis, and Buncombe County Commissioner Joe Belcher. They were joined by hotel billionaire Bill Marriott, “Mitford” series writer Jan Karon, perky TV hostess Kathie Lee Gifford, right-wing megachurch pastor and anti-everything evangelist Rick Warren, and almost-unknown Christian rap artist Lecrae Moore—who, from photos of the event, was the only person there from what Cornel West calls “the chocolate side of town.” (Dr. West was in town the night before, speaking at UNC Asheville to the city’s intellectual, and mostly Democratic, A-list, and helping inoculate them from Thursday’s hype).
Oddly enough, for the man known as the “pastor to presidents” from Truman to George W. Bush, not a single living president showed up for Graham’s party: not Bush I, nor Bush II, nor Clinton or Obama, all of whom met with the senior Graham before, during, or after their time in the Oval Office. Their absence might have been because the birthday bash was less a celebration of Billy Graham’s life and ministry than it was Franklin’s wet dream of self-importance, his paean to the right-wing God-and-country crowd that he is desperate to turn into his own power base. Trading on his father’s charisma, fame, and success, Franklin, like Saruman, hopes to become a Power of his own; but, like the dark wizard trapped in Isengard, he is forever dwarfed by the real thing.
Not that Rev. Billy Graham is, or ever was, Sauron; rather, he’s someone who made a brilliant, or lucky, career choice as a young man and whose ego, arrogance, and lack of judgment grew in tandem with his fame and success. His poor judgment reached its apex during the presidency of Richard Nixon, when Graham “loved and prayed with” some of the most evil American political figures of the 20th century, especially Nixon himself and his sidekick, counselor, and amanuensis Henry Kissinger. It took twenty years or more for Graham to find the humility to admit that he had overstepped the bounds of minister and pastor to become a political tool and counselor to these men—to admit that he might have been wrong about their character as well as their actions—yet even after that experience of being used he went on to offer “spiritual counsel and advice” to the next six presidents.
Franklin, however, has deliberately and strongly aligned himself with the anti-Obama “birther wing” of the Republican party, questioning the president’s patriotism and national origins as well as his personal faith as a Christian. He has drawn attention to himself for calling Islam “evil and wicked,” and he surrounds himself with the far-rightest and most self-righteous of the right-wing nuts—those who call President Obama a Kenyan socialist-Marxist-communist-Nazi anti-American Muslim. Hence the invitations to birther-in-chief Trump, the teary-eyed Beck, crying for his country, and half-term Governor Palin.
Franklin Graham lives in, and wants to lead, a world where business, culture, and religion become one: where politics is a for-profit enterprise, and profit is a religion unto itself. It is a world where anti-democracy activists wrap themselves in the flag, and where every star on that flag is to be replaced with a cross, where a uniquely American fascism comes “wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.”
That world, that day, has replaced the Second Coming for this crowd, and it is for that day that Franklin Graham, for his own self-aggrandizement, has hijacked his father’s name and reputation over the past 20 years. It should be sad to see Billy Graham’s legacy stolen and destroyed this way, and it would be sad … if it weren’t so frightening.