There was a disappointing story and photo on the AP wire last week, though I really should not have been surprised. President Barack Obama traveled to Montreat, N.C., to meet with that geriatric ecclesiastic, the curate to the credulous. I speak, of course, of 91-year-old Billy Graham.
Graham has met every president since Harry Truman, so it is not surprising that Obama would seek him out while the president and his family were vacationing in nearby Asheville. In all likelihood, this will be the last president Graham will have the opportunity to sway, and for that we should all be grateful.
The legend of Billy Graham has spread almost as far and deep as his influence. It includes the stories of his praying with various presidents, his integration of evangelical rallies before integration was law or custom, his friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a story of piety and service that has been so well cultivated by the Graham organization and the national media that it would be almost impossible to debunk. But one man has done just that.
Cecil Bothwell made national headlines last year when he was elected to the Asheville City Council. The problem was that Bothwell is an atheist and the N.C. constitution bars atheists from holding public office. Over much protest, Bothwell was sworn in anyway on the reasoning that U.S. Supreme Court precedent long ago invalidated the North Carolina rule against atheists. More recently, Bothwell addressed the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, entertaining an enthusiastic crowd at the Unitarian Church with stories of his career as a journalist, fighting organized crime and organized religion.
It is in that latter field that Bothwell has likely made his most lasting contribution. His 2007 book, The Prince of War: Billy Graham's Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire, tells the story of the iconic American evangelist. But reading Bothwell's book is like looking at a photographic negative: very familiar, but very different.
The Billy Graham that Bothwell reveals is calculating and manipulative, using fear — fear of communism, fear of nuclear war, fear of Armageddon, fear of death and damnation — to hold his sheep in the fold and keep them thinking right. Bothwell quotes an earlier Graham biographer: "... even those whose personal lives seemed rich and fulfilling must live in a world filled with terror and threat. As a direct result of sinful humanity's rebellion against God, our streets have become jungles of terror, mugging, rape and death ...
"Then, when he has his listeners mentally crouching in terror ... he held out the only compass that pointed reliably to the straight and narrow path that leads to personal happiness and lasting peace."
Make no mistake, in Graham's world, the way was straight and narrow and the purpose of a Christian was to be a good American, a good capitalist, and a good follower of law and tradition.
From the earliest years of his ministry, Graham was attracted to wealth and power. No foreign missions or social gospel for this proselyte. He crafted his message for business leaders and politicians and honed it relentlessly.
But nothing was as relentless as the way he turned his eye on the White House and sought to curry the favor of its chief resident, whatever that person's party or politics. According to one of Graham's corporate biographies, "Every U.S. President since World War II has found occasion and reason to call on Billy, who readily responded."
Bothwell tells another story of Graham and the presidents: "Historians, presidential secretaries, and presidents themselves have described the relationship somewhat differently, with Graham the constant supplicant seeking presidential attention."
So it seems that Barack Obama is the first president to actively pursue Graham to kiss the holy ring. I assume the gesture was purely political. Obama has never shown any deep interest in spiritual matters — especially Southern Baptist spiritual matters. He has shown himself to be a cannily — some say infuriatingly — shrewd politician.
Perhaps the most alarming thing Bothwell's book reveals is Graham's love of war. Starting in the 1940s and continuing into the 21st century, Graham has been there to whisper into the ear of the presiding leader that God and history commanded him to be strong and take no crap from foreigners — especially non-Christian foreigners. He supported Douglas MacArthur's plan to invade China, Lyndon Johnson's war in Vietnam, and the two Bushes in their respective wars against Iraq.
As Bothwell sees it, Billy Graham is a warmonger who has used his influence over 11 presidents in a ceaseless effort to spread American and Christian power. Keep the bastard away from President Obama.