Billy Lives!: An Open Letter to Frank Schaeffer


A Response to “‘Tea Party Kills Billy Graham’—A True Headline You Won’t be Reading”

Dear Mr. Schaeffer:

As you can recall better than I, things were simpler in 1976.  Or at least there were fewer channels then.  Just as the Toronto Blue Jays were hatching, punk rock was being birthed with The Ramones’ debut album.  While the world celebrated the end of the great Cod War between Great Britain and Iceland, somewhere in Wasilla, Alaska, Sarah Palin was learning to play the flute.

Parents plunked their children down in front of the television without fear of much more than exposure to the buffoonery of Gilligan’s Island.  The worst thing that could happen to a young boy my age was that he might develop some good ol’ Carterian lust in his heart for Ginger or Mary Ann, or with any luck, perhaps cultivate some contempt for the self-serving Howells.

I was just a tot in 1976, the night that a smiling, sincere man with a Carolina drawl spoke to me through the boob tube.  He asked me to invite Jesus into my heart.  The proposition seemed simple enough.  I was unaware of the evildoing of the Fourth Crusade, of the Avignon Papacy, of the execution by fire of Michael Servetus.

Even though I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, I said yes.

I walked into the kitchen and looked up at my mother, who was of course my entire world at the time:  “Mommy, I just asked Jesus into my heart.”

I imagine that my mother ran into the living room to see just what on earth was playing on ye olde RCA console.  She listened to the man behind the pulpit.  Next thing you know, she too was a believer.  Smoking, drinking, drugs and all the trappings of her wayward, bellbottom life were instantly tossed away.  (Or so the legend goes.)

It took several more years for the man who raised me to take the bait.  I am told that every Sunday morning I persisted in communicating to him Billy’s simple message.  Finally, he succumbed.  He tossed away his vices too.  (Which is a bummer, as I am told he had an amazing classic rock LP collection.)

My family had been on a road headed nowhere fast, as were a lot of people back then.  (As are a lot of people now.)  Then Billy Graham showed up in open-air stadiums all over our Little Blue Planet, wind blowing through his evangelistic pompadour, with a simple message.  And there was hope.  Authentic hope.

Billy Graham communicated a message of individual hope.  Perhaps it is fair to critique his proselytizing for not going far enough to condemn the military industrial complex, neocolonialism, plus the thousand other slings and arrows of outrageous Christian empire.

At the same time, although he was “pastor to Presidents,” Billy Graham clearly opined that Christ had no political party.  Even more importantly, he ultimately refused to align himself with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.  While men like Harry Truman didn’t care much for the first pin-up televangelist, the Christian Right became incensed at Billy’s unwillingness to hold high the banner of fundamentalist Evangelical politics.

As Billy Graham aged, his words became even more ecumenical.  Then his son Franklin showed up and began smothering his father’s wisdom and speaking in his name in ways that deep down we all knew were disingenuous to the simple message of Christian love that Billy had spent his life sowing.

I spend an awful lot of time lambasting fundamentalist Christianity on this website.  I have also penned a number of articles about the complexity of Christian history and biblical interpretation.  But at the end of the day, I remain a Christian because of a very simple message delivered to me long ago by Billy Graham:  “There once was a man who said:  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ … ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you’ … ‘God loves you’ … Follow him.”

It was a message so simple that a three year old could accept it.  And it remains so simple that a 40-year-old man can maintain it despite the millions of fundamentalists he sees daily abusing it.

There are, unfortunately, a number of people who have walked away from Christianity because, as you suggest, “village idiots” are defecating all over the message of Jesus.  You named a few of these public poopers in your article; there’s Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Jerry Falwell.  You could have named a few more.  In fact, I really wish you would have taken the time to identify Ted Cruz and Pat Robertson.  And, Lord Almighty, does the world need to know how much of a charlatan Kenneth Copeland is.

But at least you especially singled out Franklin Graham:  “The actual passing of [Billy] Graham will just be a splashy footnote played for all its worth for fundraising purposes by his son who wants to keep pulling down that $600,000 pay check.”

Anyway, a good friend of mine, Amanda, a few weeks back encouraged me to pull my intellectual head out of my ass with respect to my faith.  (That’s my interpretation, by the way.  She would never be so blunt.)  She reminded me that I have a personal spiritual journey which I shouldn’t be afraid to share publicly.

She’s right, and your article inspired me to follow her advice.

There will be a few readers who wonder what the hell this article is doing on an openly progressive political website.

What they don’t understand is that there are thousands of Christians who will read your words this week.  Many are disillusioned from all these Tea Party Poopers, and they may be looking for a new philosophical landscape in which to pitch their tents.

And I want to let them know there’s a spiritual and political home for them beyond the killing fields of the Tea Party.

Nearly 40 years ago, a man named Billy introduced me to a man named Jesus, a revolutionary figure of human dignity.  Both men propelled me on a lifelong spiritual journey of progressivism.

Along the way I had to figure out that the people who told me that Jesus hates Muslims, homosexuals, Democratic presidential candidates, even the music of Bruce Springsteen, were full of crap.

But Billy Graham never taught me that.  Billy told me that Jesus said to love my neighbor as myself.  Billy told me that every person has a spiritual need to believe in something bigger than himself or herself, that every person’s intended destiny is to follow a path of divine love.

Of course, Billy never told me that Jesus was a socialist.  But I did some reading on my own and came to the conclusion that progressivism and socialism have a helluva lot more in common with Christ’s teachings than the logorrheic excrement being espoused by the Koch Brothers, Bill O’Reilly, Hobby Lobby, Karl Rove, etc., et al.

I am nearly four decades removed from my conversion moment, and I remain a Christian.

I am a Christian because Billy Graham invited me to accept the teachings of a man named Jesus before I could read.

I cling to my faith as ever before.

And I wholeheartedly reject the bullshit of Evangelical fundamentalism.  Of fundamentalism everywhere.

All Billy ever told me was:  “Once upon a time a man said: … ‘Turn the other cheek’ … ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ … ‘Love your enemies’ … ‘Follow me.’”

I also happen to buy the rest of the Christian narrative about the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.  But it’s not my job to force this belief on anybody else.  It’s my personal belief.

And this personal belief doesn’t belong in a legislative chamber.  In a courthouse.  In a White House.  In a constitution.  On a public school chalkboard.  It belongs in human hearts.

Thank you, Mr. Schaeffer, for reminding me of my spiritual foundation.

Also, I just wanted you to know that the Tea Party didn’t kill Billy’s legacy altogether.  It lives in me.  As does the progressive message of hope.

Arik Bjorn

Arik Bjorn lives in Columbia, South Carolina. He was the Democratic Party / Green Party fusion candidate for U.S. Congress in the 2nd Congressional District of South Carolina. Visit the archive for Arik’s campaign website, and check out his latest book, So I Ran for Congress. You can also follow his political activities on Twitter @Bjorn2RunSC and on Facebook. And be sure to check out more from Arik in his archives!


Facebook comments

  • hermanprovi

    JC, is not coming back, it’s too dangerous! Too many folk with guns and too many ‘christians’ willing to [still] burn people a the stake! We have a zealot in Congress that thinks she is now the spokesperson for Him!

  • Lyola M Roeske Shafer

    I am glad for you.

  • fergmelk

    The timeliness of Schaeffer’s article and your post…. Just last week, I found a tract (people still leave tracts in public places? who knew?!?!?!) from Anne Graham Lotz’s “AnGeL Ministries” and was reminded at how Billy’s kids’ priorities differed so very greatly from his own. :/

  • frankschaeffer

    Arik, Thanks for the moving tribute to Billy, your faith and the times we are in. I’m grateful you read my article. Best, Frank Schaeffer

    • The Author

      Thank you, Mr. Schaeffer. Your endorsement helps greatly to validate the tribute. This is a time to reclaim the simplicity of our faith from the political hacks who follow in the tradition of those who, throughout the history of our religion, have attempted to turn Christianity into a draconian and loveless earthly kingdom.

  • Cait Lamberton

    Well done, Arik. Well done.

  • melloe

    Thank you for posting this. I was older, 14 when in a small church listening to a guy who was about as bigoted as they come got me interested in Christ. I guess Jesus can use any vessel. Oh, BTW, I did not know about the preacher when I went down the isle, but finding out did not change anything, I did not get saved by him, but in a round about way because of his words. Again, Thanks. In small local churches, the gospel is still shared.

    • The Author

      Indeed, Melloe, the message of hope can derive from anywhere. Thank you for reminding us of this point. The problem, of course, is that those who lead one to hopeful waters must realize that they also have the power to dissuade that same person by the example they set thereafter.

  • Sunny

    Thank you so much for this post, Arik. And also to Frank Schaeffer for indirectly prompting you to write it. This couldn’t have been stated any better or clearer. We need so much more of these inspiring posts. Again, thank you!

    • The Author

      Thank you, Sunny. You brightened my day by reading and thinking about it!

  • Zarah Braun

    Billy Graham is a huge Bigot!! he is the biggest anti Lbgt person in the state of North Carolina.He is very political and your sweeping review you need to study the man Love your neighbor only if he is straight and a fundimentialist christian!Do you know he called President Obama Personal to say he was disappointed in him supporting Gay rights. He is no different then any other Preacher that preaches hate!

  • BikinBuddha

    The great Cod War? I FELL OUT OF MY CHAIR… LMAO. Thank you, I needed that…. I’ll never think about/ say cold war again and correct people when they say it. My mind created a story as I Roollled on the floor of the Cod war of the mid 20th

  • GL

    The sad thing about this article is, there are going to be a lot of people who stop reading it because they have a knee-jerk reaction. But reading this, seeing your testimony and your belief placed out there into the public sphere with such bravery… You, sir, and Mr. Schaeffer as well, are the kind of Christians who does justice to the name, rather than making a mockery of it. And when I see you and those like you, it really gives me hope that some day, we’ll have more Christians who live by the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than those usurpers in whom Jesus would be disappointed. And that’s a future of Christianity and its many branches that I would love to see.

    • The Author

      Touched to the point of tears, GL. (Monday mornings can be like that.) Thank you for your kind, and very hopeful, words.

  • Ken Orcutt

    I have heard people be critical of Billy Graham on many occasions. I personally never listened to him speak. Our paths simply never crossed. As a believer, it is puzzling how other believers can be critical of someone spreading the Word who has filled stadiums with 50,000 people for 50 years.

    I quickly let the air out of their balloon.

    I simply ask them, “What have you done?”