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Billy Graham: Ministering to the Powerful

Cecil Bothwell, The Prince of War: Billy Graham’s Crusade for a Wholly Christian Empire, Asheville, NC, 2007.

Today we are used to the ministers and preachers playing an open role in class politics.  Usually they support the rule of our employers: railing against this or that Satan (the Kaiser, the Bolsheviks, Hitler, the USSR, Castro, Gorbachev, Saddam, Bin Laden, Saddam, Chavez) that has run afoul of Washington and Wall Street.  They float trial balloons other figures in bourgeois politics are too wary to initiate: charter schools, abortion clinic attacks, ending affirmative action, assassinating elected leaders of Venezuela or Iran, et cetera.  At the same time, they keep playing the centuries-old favorites: Render Unto Caesar; If You’re Poor, It’s Your Fault and You Better Get Right with God; If You Are a Success, Get Out Your Checkbook, Brother.

Once there wasn’t the sheer number of preachers playing this relentless, tub-thumping role in secular political life.  Cecil Bothwell’s wonderful, angry, muck-raking The Prince of War is a biography of the man who tested the uncertain terrain, took steps forward, made some retreats, and paved the way for 24/7 Christian Reaction.  (Should we say Christian Fascist the way the Horowitzniks and Hitchensites say Islamo-Fascism?)

The ruling class always needs church leaders to anoint reaction.  Billy Graham was second to no one for several decades (1949-1981) at this.  It will come as no surprise that he started out as a Fuller Brush salesman, and was successful at it.  Anyone who has sold door-to-door knows the kind of manipulative psychological monsters who make a success of it.

After study at Bob Jones College and Florida Bible Institute, Graham started on the Elmer Gantry tent revival circuit.  The difference between Graham and all the other barnstormers was the use of Madison Avenue advertising methods.   Graham employed the men in the grey flannel suits as advance men to spread the cash around and prime the pumps preceding his arrival.

Graham’s millennial brand of Southern Baptist Convention theology fit in perfectly circa 1949 with the bipartisan witch hunt against trade union militants on the shop floor, communists in the unions, and middle-class progressives in government.

His view of the Cold War as a Biblical showdown with war inevitable and winnable brought him the attention and whole-hearted support of William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce.   Author Bothwell reports that positive stories about Billy Graham appeared over 600 times in Luce publications alone.  These media plutocrats presented Graham the same way 99% of all future media would, as an “apolitical” and “disinterested” man of the cloth: a spiritual advisor placed beyond politics and partisanship, a selfless arbiter.

Billy Graham was a lifelong cultivator of well-healed businessmen.  Standard Oil, the Rockefeller Clan, and Brown and Root (Halliburton) were all early and frequent investors in his ministerial empire.  And it was an empire, make no mistake.  It had its tentacles deep into Central and South America: missionaries frequently sent intelligence reports home which Graham passed along to Eisenhower, Nixon, and the Dulles brothers.  A private airline for missionaries and their supplies was always at the disposal of Washington’s intelligence services.  Bothwell reports many instances of the missionaries working to soften up local populations before they were forced off their lands or slaughtered to make room for cattle ranches and oil infrastructure.

In the last 20 years of his life Graham often related anecdotes about his support for voting rights and civil rights for U.S. Blacks.  He also spoke of his close relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr.   This is historical falsehood on a scale worthy of David Irving.  When he started out, Jim Crow had no better defender than Graham.  When Wall Street Mandarin Bernard Baruch was first introduced to him in 1950, the reverend was a houseguest of South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond.

At a time in the early 1960s when tens of thousands of ministers, priests, and rabbis of varying political stripes were joining the mass movement for Black rights in the south, Graham was supporting more cops, more police spying, and was getting personal briefings about Dr. King from J. Edgar Hoover.

Again and again in both segregated and unsegregated events, Graham’s message to whites and Blacks was the Christian’s duty to obey all laws, whether just or unjust.  He cautioned Blacks to “Go Slow” and to ignore “outside agitators.”  Graham didn’t just support government attacks on democratic rights; he demanded harsher and more extreme measures.  For him, ghetto rebellions were only a sign of the unreasonableness of ghetto inhabitants — a matter for police.

Bothwell recounts page after page of examples of Graham flattering the vanity of warlords like LBJ, Nixon, the Shah, and the most reactionary heads of state in the Americas.  Like the antebellum preachers in the U.S. south who extolled the glory of submission by slaves to their hard-working masters, Graham never once disagreed with the military and economic prerogatives of the U.S. government.  Later he would say he broke with Nixon, but the only documented criticism of Nixon by Graham that Bothwell could find was of the president’s foul language on the White House tape transcripts.  Graham claimed he loved peace, but all his life gave spiritual rationalizations and ethical cover to Washington’s depredations around the world, and got rich dining at the table of the warmakers.

Billy Graham was only slightly more circumspect than today’s televangelists.  There are several reasons for this: 1) He was the first.  2) Bourgeois politics hadn’t finished its shift to the right during his most active years.  3) He didn’t have to come up with 24 hours of cable/satellite programming every day.  His son and successor Franklin, who has many traits and experiences in common with George W. Bush, and was an active contra supporter during the 1980s, today oversees an empire with annual earnings of approximately 109 million dollars and net assets of 271 million dollars.

Bothwell’s book is short, sharp, and uncompromising in its portrait.  We may groan when the author points to former President Jimmy Carter as a model of the properly political Christian, but Bothwell remains an ally of the oppressed, and an explicit defender of labor and democratic rights throughout the book.

For atheists and communists it is easy to remain blasé and say with some complacency and self-satisfaction, “Well of course these millionaire ministers are implements used by our class enemy, just like the union leadership and the potentates who run the schools and universities.”  To these statements let me simply say: read the book.  The Prince of War goes beyond merely entertaining such truisms.  It is a sifting and ordering of all the evidence for the first time, displaying all the historical interconnections, following the money and the class loyalty of an innovator in some very dangerous and effective methods of prettying-up and disguising the nature of class rule.

In my opinion, we don’t need a different or more enlightened or “truer” or “better-interpreted” Christianity to start defending our class and its allies.  (I think Bothwell would disagree strongly with me here.)  Instead, what we need is some class consciousness, solidarity, internationalism, and at long last some sustained and expanding militancy.  A better world is possible.


Jay Rothermel lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio.



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