I thought Billy Graham, "America’s Preacher", had pretty much passed the torch to his Islamophobic son Franklin.  But recently, a billboard went up down the street from me with a picture of the weathered old man against a stark black background, and the caption: "Come Hear BILLY GRAHAM / Flushing Meadows Corona Park / June 24-26, 2005 / FREE ADMISSION".

Today’s NY Times features an interview with the 86-year-old Graham, now crippled by Parkinson’s.  Whatever one thinks of him, he’s a pivotal figure in American culture: confidante of 11 presidents, and pioneer of televangelism, who has probably filled more arenas around the world than the Stones.
He’s obviously a forefather of today’s religious right.  Yet he dates from a time when conservative Protestants saw their faith as far less worldly.  Unlike James Dobson and company, he has stayed away from political endorsements — and rabble-rousing pronouncements on abortion and gays:

"I’m just going to preach the gospel and am not going to get off on all these hot-button issues," he said when politics was broached again later. "If I get on these other subjects, it divides the audience on an issue that is not the issue I’m promoting. I’m just promoting the gospel. And after they come to Christ, they hopefully come to a church where they will learn more about their responsibility in society."

Some fundamentalists think he’s too ecumenical.  But his ecumenism didn’t stop him from making anti-Semitic remarks to Richard Nixon, caught on tape and publicized a few years ago.  The Times piece details them, along with Graham’s apologies.

Maybe that experience shaped his approach to Islam, post 9/11:

Asked about his son’s remarks, Billy Graham answered, "We had an understanding a long time ago, he speaks for himself." Pressed further, he responded, "Let’s say, I didn’t say it." Then he recounted how, while on a crusade in Fresno, Calif., soon after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, he asked to be taken directly from the airport to the local mosque to show support for the Muslims there.

Asked whether he agreed with those who anticipate a "clash of civilizations" between Christianity and Islam, he quickly said, "I think the big conflict is with hunger and starvation and poverty."

To that, a hearty "Amen."  My recent re-read of the Gospel of Matthew reminded me just how much time Jesus actually spent talking about feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and helping the poor.*  

Rather than focusing on the so-called "unsaved", perhaps the Reverend Graham should invite some of today’s American Taliban to come to his extravaganza at Shea Stadium.  They seem to be in dire need of a refresher course.

*Probably his second-favorite topic, by verse count.  But his very favorite?  Religious hypocrisy.  Plus ca change…

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