By RAHN ADAMS
I don’t know about you, but I’m disappointed in Franklin Graham these days. He certainly isn’t his father, who has been a spiritual advisor to every Democratic President since Truman.
I’ll pause a second to let that sink in—a spiritual advisor to every Democrat in the White House from Harry S “The Buck Stops Here” Truman to Barack H. “Yes We Can!” Obama. And that even includes William J. “I Did Not Have Sexual Relations With That Woman” Clinton.
But did you notice what I just did? Yeah, it was kind of sneaky. If I were reading this, and I didn’t know any better, or if I weren’t reading carefully, or if I were easily confused by the English language—like, say, by the subjunctive mood or by pesky subordinate clauses, intercalary phrases, and obscure words or even catch phrases that a writer can throw at a reader—then I might think that the sneaky ol’ writer of this essay is saying that the Rev. Billy Graham, Franklin’s daddy, has been playing partisan politics and has favored Democrats over Republicans. But that’s not true.
To be honest, Billy Graham also counseled Richard M. “I’m Not a Crook” Nixon, who was a Republican with a degree from that law school down the road from Chapel Hill (no, not Campbell, N.C. Central or Elon) and who was the only President to resign the highest office in the land. In disgrace. After denying Americans their rights to an unfettered election and to pick the President of their choice, not his. Whose language in the Watergate Tapes was—dare I say it?—deplorable. Vile. Ditto all the other Republican Presidents since the one before Nixon, too—that all of them met and talked with Billy Graham, I mean. Not vile. Probably not.
Now, a deep breath. Inhale. Deeper. Deeper. And exhale. Good.
I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist doing it again. And, yeah, using fragments—or, in other words, not saying something important—can be misleading, too. Again, I apologize.
It can be word games to make a playful point—or, at worst, propaganda. It’s called yellow journalism if it’s practiced by newspeople like the ones at Fox News and MSNBC, two powerful news outlets on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Interestingly, the term yellow journalism goes back to the late 19th century when billionaire William Randolph “Rosebud” Hearst began building the largest and most influential newspaper chain in America. Hearst was so powerful well into the 20th century that he could order his newspapers to “puff” someone—in other words, to promote a particular person—and, presto, a new star is born. But I guess it can work the other way, too, huh? Even in our world of 24/7 TV news and social media.
Not telling the whole story. Or not naming the elephant in the room. That’s a little trick I brushed up on Thursday by watching the Rev. Franklin Graham’s hour-long Decision America 2016 Tour prayer rally in Raleigh on my cellphone at my mother-in-law’s house as I multi-tasked and did something important there. No, actually, I gave it my full attention—the prayer rally, that is—and then I did the real work. Pronouns without definite antecedents can be confusing, too. Words and language do matter.
I even took some screenshots of the slick red-and-blue promotional screen during the countdown to the online broadcast; of the huge crowd of ordinary-looking white folks on the old State Capitol grounds; of the guitar-playing white guy in the cowboy getup and dark glasses who looked kind of like Hank Jr. but wasn’t by a long shot; of the Rev. Graham, who is also white, praying into the microphone so that his four separate talks with God could be heard by the thousands of people on the capitol grounds and the thousands more, including me, around the world via the Internet; and of him—Franklin Graham, not God—holding up his cellphone and encouraging attendees to text the key words “Decision” and “America” (with Watauga County spellings) to different phone numbers, either to announce that they had prayed “to receive Christ” as their personal Savior or “to sign the pledge” in support of Christian political values as stated by Franklin Graham himself.
Just to be consistent here, I’m white, too, and so is Hank Jr. and everyone else I’ve mentioned so far except President Obama—and he’s half-white. No, I take that back. No, not that the President is biracial. I don’t think God is white, or any other color for that matter. At least His son wasn’t—white, that is. If I’m not mistaken, He was Jewish, and the Jews are God’s chosen people, aren’t they? Like Sen. Al Franken, whom Franklin Graham called “vile” at Thursday’s rally. But I guess even one of God’s chosen people—like Moses of the Bulrushers or King David or even St. Paul (the guy who persecuted Christians, not the city next to Al Franken’s hometown)—can do vile things and still merit God’s favor, or so I’ve heard. I wish Franklin Graham had explained why he thinks Al Franken is vile. I’m so confused. Doggone it, I did always like Al Franken, especially as self-help guru Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live.
Stinkin’ thinkin’ aside, I won’t use those screenshots from the rally because I don’t have permission to use them. I didn’t ask for permission, but that’s beside the point. Or is it? If I had been there in person at that public event—there on that public square on the steps of that public building, built and maintained by public tax dollars—I would have taken all the pictures I pleased, and I would have used them here in my private blog read by, well, dozens of people, if not scores. I wouldn’t need permission, because the law would protect my right as a journalist to cover a public event in a public place.
I actually thought about going to Raleigh on Thursday. I mean, my wife and I once drove up to sweet-smelling Hershey, Pa., just to attend a Benny Hinn Healing Crusade for fun and research purposes. I wasn’t disappointed, either—at least, not like I was on Thursday—because Pastor Benny’s extravaganza was top-notch and truly entertaining on several levels. And I’m not positive, but I think he might have even healed an earache that I’d had for at least six months. No kidding. But that’s another story—an unpublished novel, actually.
So I’m not using those screenshots I took Thursday because I obtained them through the vast resources of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and I don’t have their written consent to use the photos even privately with a large group of people—if a potential audience of my 271 Facebook friends can be considered large. Franklin Graham’s Facebook page, on the other hand, has more than 4.6 million followers, including me. He’s also on Twitter, as am I, though I use it mainly to keep up with baseball, breaking local news and weather-related stuff. I’m not an active Twitterer or Tweeter or Twit, though my nine followers may disagree.
Believe it or not, the common ground between Franklin Graham and me doesn’t end there. We both live near Boone, N.C., just a few miles apart. His daughter attended Watauga High School for four years while my wife and I taught there, and though she wasn’t in our classes, we both thought highly of her. She was an impressive young lady even then. When I was tennis coach, Franklin’s wife complained once that I hadn’t kept the other team’s players from using bad language on the court during a hotly-contested state playoff match. It was all I could do to keep my own players and myself under control that day. Franklin and I have dined separately in the same restaurant at the same time once in the past 20 years. And he and I are both PKs—preachers’ kids. But not only that.
Like Franklin Graham, I’m the son of an evangelical preacher, though my father preferred the term fundamentalist, as pejorative as that term has become in recent years—kind of like how evangelicals are replacing the worn-out term liberal with progressive as a negative label. Anyway, my dad even attended the inaugural World Congress of Fundamentalists in Edinburgh, Scotland, followed by a Holy Land tour during the summer of 1976. That was the best summer of my youth while Dad was gone, because I got to ride my motorcycle wherever and whenever I wanted, and I didn’t have to visit Arnie’s Barbershop a single time. It was the ’70s, after all, and I was a rebel without a clue.
Dad had some things in common with Billy Graham, too—besides nice hair. Both were farm boys who attended Bob Jones College, a fundamentalist Christian institution in Cleveland, Tenn. After working his way through school over about 10 years, my father eventually graduated from Bob Jones University after it had moved to Greenville, S.C. As I’ve mentioned in other columns, Dad pastored small Bible churches in Illinois and Southern Baptist churches here in North Carolina over about 30 years. He was a poor, country preacher, but he was proud of his humble ministry.
For his part, Billy Graham left Bob Jones College after one semester before completing his Christian education elsewhere. I didn’t get that particular bit of information from Wikipedia, as you might expect. In October 1977—some 39 years ago—my dad revealed that fact in our car as he drove me home from Bob Jones University after I, like Billy Graham, had dropped out. I certainly won’t speak for the Rev. Graham, but I myself left BJU partly because I got into piddling trouble every time I turned around, it seemed, for things that had nothing to do with my personal relationship with God.
I lasted only about six weeks—or 40 days and 40 nights, another way of looking at my time there. My offenses at BJU were nothing major, just absent-minded rules infractions for the most part. Besides, I wasn’t a Huck Finn kind of kid, anyway, who is always smoking and cussing and playing hooky in all those books by Mark Twain. I was a good enough boy, more like the socially-acceptable Tom Sawyer than his incorrigible, “unsivilized” friend. Or so I thought.
I should add that at the time I was also dealing with the death of my younger brother and best friend, who had died of cancer earlier that year. Did I get any grief counseling? No. Did I want or expect any? No and no. I wanted to be left alone to grieve in my own way—which I know now was not in my best interest. But neither was the legalistic—and racist—approach to Christianity at Bob Jones University back then. I saw them as Pharisees telling me that they knew God’s will for my life, and that His will was for me to stay at BJU and follow their rules, cheerfully. This was not long after BJU lost its tax-exempt status as a religious institution because it had discriminated against black students.
I wanted to write this column a few days ago, but then I heard about Franklin Graham’s rally in Raleigh—that just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?—and I also wanted to do some reading that I had put off in order to watch all those political debates, political ads and political rallies (in Raleigh and elsewhere) that are getting so much attention these days on TV and social media. Specifically, I reread the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew to refresh my understanding of Jesus’ instructions on how to pray, since I had just witnessed the sheer spectacle of that big public prayer meeting on the capitol grounds. And I reread key sections of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after a Facebook friend of an actual friend of mine, both Harvard graduates, had randomly commented earlier in the week on the poor little white-trash river rat’s spiritual outlook in this classic American novel.
And do you know what? Huck is right to be confused by the hypocrisy of professed Christians as he and runaway slave Jim travel together down the Mississippi River on their raft. At the start of the book, Huck doesn’t understand prayer despite biblical instruction from the kind Widow Douglas and her prudish spinster sister Miss Watson—that Jesus said prayer should be private, not public, for instance. Also, Huck knows from personal experience that he never receives that fishing line he always asks for. He also doesn’t understand the concepts of heaven and hell. In fact, at first he’d rather go to hell and be with his friends than go to heaven where mean, slave-holding Miss Watson says she will spend eternity.
But toward the end of the novel, Huck knows more than he gives himself credit for knowing, for he must decide between two things—between doing what is legally right in the antebellum South by turning in his friend Jim, a runaway slave, with slavery being something that even the Southern Baptist Convention supported back then; or, Huck’s alternative, breaking the law and “sinning” against the church by helping Jim be free. Huck even tries to pray about his dilemma but can’t, because, he says, “You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.” He’s talking about God and his own conscience. I wonder if that—not being able to pray a lie—holds true today. Or if some folks still have consciences and are willing to humble themselves enough to apologize for their mean tricks that hurt others.
At the risk of eternal damnation, Huck finally decides to help Jim. “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” Huck says, now understanding the statement’s full import. It’s the ultimate Christian act, beyond that of the Good Samaritan—to sacrifice himself for this man in need, to love this enslaved black neighbor more than this poor but free white boy loves himself. But, bless his fictional little heart, Huck doesn’t even know he’s doing what is morally right, that he is acting on the side of the angels, not damning his very soul, as many evangelical Christians of his time and place might say he was doing. And Huck doesn’t know yet that Jim is already free or that Tom Sawyer—the “good” boy in society’s eyes—will use Jim’s predicament to compound the legislated sin of slavery by making a mockery of one powerless black man’s human rights.
Even good boys sometimes do “bad” things. Sometimes they get in trouble for not signing back in after having to go off campus for a couple of hours to watch three quarters of a football game on TV. Or for using the wrong music practice room at a time so early in the morning that no one else is practicing. Or for playing original compositions with a syncopated beat on a piano in the right practice room. Or for missing a speck on the lavatory mirror in a dormitory room of a fundamentalist Christian university.
And sometimes good men say, “Hold your nose and vote,” knowing full well how everyone with any intelligence at all is interpreting that instruction. Knowing full well that the elephant in the room now says he is “unchained” and, therefore, has no reason to stand on any platform and perform as expected. He was a rogue elephant before he joined the circus; he is a rogue again, but still rampaging around the circus grounds. And no one knows what he’ll do. In any situation or encounter.
But the world is filled with irony, and who knows what will happen in the end? I guess we’ll find out sooner or later after Election Day on Nov. 8th.
According to a Time magazine article referenced in Wikipedia, when young Billy Graham was leaving Bob Jones College back in 1939, the old man himself—popular evangelist Bob Jones, Sr.—advised the handsome, charismatic preacher boy from Charlotte not to go somewhere else. Old Dr. Bob reportedly told him, “At best, all you could amount to would be a poor country Baptist preacher somewhere out in the sticks.” Well, that good man was dead wrong.
Billy Graham left Bob Jones College and became the most popular evangelist of all. I loved watching his crusades on TV. I loved hearing George Beverly Shea sing and Billy Graham preach. My dad, on the other hand, graduated from BJU and became Dr. Bob’s “poor country Baptist preacher.” I heard my father preach so often—every time the church doors were open, in fact—that I couldn’t wait to hear those magic words at the end of every service: “Now, to Him who is able to keep us from falling, to present us faultless before His presence with exceeding joy, to the only wise God, our Savior, be glory, majesty, dominion and power, both now and forevermore. Amen.” I didn’t even have to look up Dad’s stock benediction; it’s burned into my brain.
Isn’t it ironic how things work out?
I would be a fool to suggest that my father’s ministry was just as weighty on a universal scale as that of Franklin Graham’s father or that of Franklin himself, just as this essay’s effect on my little quadrant of cyberspace will be minuscule compared to the impact on conservative voters of the 50-state Decision America 2016 Tour that landed Thursday in Raleigh. Maybe I’m foolish for even writing this. My dad, if he were still alive, would surely advise me to just pray about it and then vote my conscience, just as he crossed party lines in 1976 to vote for Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian who continues to live his faith and help make our world a better and safer place. I didn’t find that out about my father’s vote until long after he had left the pulpit. So, yes, I may be a fool for not having gotten to know my father any better than I did.
But this preacher’s kid is still disappointed. And Billy Graham’s son should know why.