Evangelical preacher Billy Graham was lain in honor Wednesday in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Graham is the first American religious leader to be accorded that status, and the first private citizen since civil rights icon Rosa Parks was honored in 2005.
Parks and Graham would not have seen eye to eye on many things, and that is a fact worth discussing amid the remembrances of Graham’s life.
Graham promoted a white evangelical respectability that wanted to “put the brakes” on the civil rights movement, and never really accepted women as equal to men. He may have been the country’s greatest evangelist, but he was also an apologist for the racist and sexist beliefs pervasive among white evangelical men in 20th-century America.
Since Graham’s death, much has been said about his friendships with presidents and Martin Luther King Jr. His friendships, however, belied the power he wielded because of his piety.
Graham’s Christianity was steeped not only in political friendships, but also in evangelical ethics. Graham functioned as a megaphone for conservative biblical ideas that dovetailed with conservative politics, including family, sexual morality and adherence to laws. He was not only an evangelist, he was also an enforcer: enforcing conservative white Christian social beliefs and evangelical ethical claims as “America’s Pastor.”
“Graham would have told Parks that she needed to obey the law, stay at home, and be content with being a black woman with no rights.”
This was apparent in how Graham spoke about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. For his part, King attended Graham’s New York City crusade in July of 1957, and even said an opening prayer at the meeting.
But while Graham spoke often about desegregating his crusades, he placed a premium on moderation and order in the quest for civil rights. For Graham, dissent meant disobedience to both God and the laws of the land. Later, Graham would decline to take a stand on sit-ins, declaring, “No matter what the law may be — it may be an unjust law — I believe we have a Christian responsibility to obey it.”
Graham would have told Parks that she needed to obey the law, stay at home, and be content with being a black woman with no rights.
Graham, while lauded for his integrated evangelistic services in the south, would also gloss over the wounds of racism. In 1958, King would ask Graham not to appear with the then-governor of Texas, Price Daniels, because in King’s words, “It can well be interpreted as your endorsement of racial segregation and discrimination.” Graham appeared anyway, ignoring King.
After King’s “Letter From Birmingham City Jail” appeared in April of 1963, Graham told press that King “should put the brakes on a little bit.”
The following year, in preparation for Easter Sunday services six months after the Birmingham bombings in March of 1964, Graham would elide the horror of the bombings, saying they didn’t represent ”the real Birmingham.”
“This city is recovering from its bad image, by just doing things like the meeting tomorrow,” he said.
Graham may have wanted integration, but instead, he promoted gradualism, and provided absolution for racists hiding behind a Christianity attuned not only to Jesus, but also focused on regulating behavior and black bodies.
Women too, were also to be regulated in the male-dominated world of Billy Graham. Graham’s famous rule not to be alone with a woman other than his wife has been discussed recently in light of Vice President Mike Pence’s admission that he follows the guideline.
Graham promoted an ideal of womanhood that was in keeping with evangelical norms about family life. In a piece for the December 1970 issue of the Ladies Home Journal on “Jesus and the Liberated Woman,” Graham wrote, “The majority of women want to be what they were meant to be, and remain feminine. They don’t want to be drafted and fight in the trenches.”
Most women also “don’t want to go into men’s restrooms,” he wrote, “and who can blame them when the statistics show more muggings occur in men’s than ladies restrooms.”
“The majority of women want to be what they were meant to be, and remain feminine.”
Given the latest bathroom battles in states like Texas and North Carolina, Graham would have been right at home with today’s evangelicals.
Graham would also arouse ire in the early 1990s at a youth meeting in Pittsburgh, where he would talk about the dangers of sex.
Addressing the issue of sexual harassment, Graham said, “In the newspapers today, we read about sexual harassment, and the blame is put so much on the men. I heard one man talking on the television talking with a woman who is known to all of you, and they were agreeing that many times it is the fault of the woman too, because she tries to look in such a way that a man will be sexually attracted to her. So it’s a two-way street.”
Graham backtracked from that comment after he was confronted about it, and his spokesman Larry Ross said Graham was merely repeating what he had heard and seen in the media. The damage, however, was done.
Graham was not simply a pastor and evangelist. He was a purveyor and promoter of beliefs, rooted in fundamentalist readings of the Bible, that were designed to regulate members of the public who were not white, Christian and male. He sought not to extend freedom, but to encourage deference to power.
Graham’s legacy is not as a maverick or a trailblazer. It is the legacy of a man who used Jesus as a tool to placate the masses so that the status quo of conservative white America could remain firmly in place.
Anthea Butler is Associate Professor of Religion and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter at @AntheaButler.