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.
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