The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Billy Graham’s legacy and the thin line between church and state

The Rev. Billy Graham arrives at his birthday party, pushed by his grandson, Edward Graham. (Reuters)

CHARLOTTE — Visitors to Charlotte often travel from the airport to the city center via the Billy Graham Parkway. It can startle the first time, seeing a public roadway named for a major religious figure. But you get used to it once you’ve lived here awhile. You realize how much the region takes pride in its native son, though the life and history of the man called “America’s Pastor” illustrates — in even his own judgment — how tough it can be to maintain a separation of church and state. Should America have a pastor at all?

America is ambivalent about that line, as recent Supreme Court arguments over the issue of prayer before public meetings made clear. Those who check non-Christian or none of the above are usually not favored in these civic exhortations and end up in court to be heard.

Religion inevitably becomes mired in the political debate, with every side turning to the word of God for validation for particular policies – from abortion to aid to the poor.

In his long career, Graham has survived controversy over political alliances. He distrusted Catholic John F. Kennedy and was a Richard Nixon supporter, though a photo of Graham with JFK in the Billy Graham Library – just off the parkway – shows the handsome young evangelist giving the charismatic president a run for his money. President Richard Nixon embarrassed him over profanities on the Watergate tapes, and Graham apologized for his own caught-on-tape statements judged anti-Semitic.

But he never lost his prominence and has been honored across the globe. Coverage of his 95th birthday last Thursday in Asheville, N.C., respectfully reflected this tendency to hold him above the fray, despite a speech by former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and prominent appearances by occasional “birther” Donald Trump and North Carolina’s Republican governor Pat McCrory, no doubt happy to take a break from criticism for policies such as refusing federal Medicaid funds that could benefit many of the state’s uninsured.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, now led by his son, Franklin Graham, is back to openly leaning Republican these days. The words of criticism of the increasing politicization of his ministry are generally aimed at Franklin Graham, whose touch is not quite as deft as his dad’s. He heartily endorsed Mitt Romney, and, over the issue of same-sex marriage, said President Obama had “shaken his fist” at God. That negated the symbolic meeting the elder Graham had with the president in the reverend’s Montreat, N.C. home.

At the Thursday celebration, Franklin Graham – with Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of News Corp. listening – praised Fox News. For the “greatest news in the world,” he said in a Washington Post report, “God is using the greatest news channel.” The cable channel aired a video “The Cross,” that featured Billy Graham’s speeches and message. When any money-making enterprise is given a heavenly imprimatur, it can make even a Christian uncomfortable. The opening of the library in 2007, with a bipartisan tableau of past presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton (invited but not in attendance last week) seems a long time ago.

It was Billy Graham’s name on full-page newspaper ads that supported an amendment to North Carolina’s constitution – passed in May 2012 — that asserted marriage between one man and one woman as the only valid domestic legal union. Though it was an overwhelming victory overall, the state’s big cities, including Charlotte, rejected the amendment, signaling change in Graham’s Southern base. Young people, like their counterparts across the country, care less than their elders about social issues.

In North Carolina, same-sex couples are pushing for recognition of their unions, and Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat and McCrory’s probable 2016 opponent, is on record as supporting marriage equality even as he vows to defend the ban. Cooper spoke on Saturday at the 2013 Equality North Carolina Foundation Gala in Greensboro, N.C., which has some conservative state organizations howling.

When I walked with Franklin Graham through the cross-shaped door into the library soon after it opened, he said those from other religions and non-believers were welcome; he said he hoped they would be inspired to accept Jesus Christ after a visit and reflection.

“My Hope America” is going nationwide with this evangelistic effort. “Christians across America will open their homes to share the Gospel message with friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors using one of several new evangelistic programs featuring life-changing testimonies and powerful messages from Billy Graham,” according to the campaign’s plan.

The religious and culture warrior is using new tools in an increasingly diverse America, one that has changed in his 95 years. It’s sure to have Graham and his familial and spiritual inheritors as well as those who disagree choosing sides and continuing the fight.