Editor’s Note: Clay Cane is a television commentator and the author of “Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race.” Follow him on Twitter @claycane. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
I have a vivid memory of first hearing Billy Graham’s name. It was the mid-1980s and AIDS was slowly becoming part of the national conversation. AIDS was considered a plague and those afflicted were largely ignored or feared by their churches and the government. I saw people who were whispered to have the virus, and then saw that after a few months they quietly disappeared.
There were many Republicans and Democrats who were vehemently anti-gay (although the Democratic party had begun an active outreach to “homosexual” voters). President Ronald Reagan didn’t utter the term “AIDS” until 1987.
It was an era in which televangelism had risen to become a national phenomenon, and I was close friends with a guy from a Christian family that was obsessed with 80s TV preachers Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and, of course, the more venerable Billy Graham. When I visited my friend’s house, his parents kept the dramatic preachers in heavy rotation.
“Homosexuality” was a constant topic with these millionaire hypocrites (Bakker and Swaggart were both toppled from their pulpits in shameful, fiery glory with epic sex scandals – and Bakker did time for fraud too). However, there was one person who was not preaching against the LGBT community and AIDS: Tammy Faye Bakker, the former evangelical co-host and wife of Jim Bakker.
In 1985, Tammy interviewed Steve Pieters, who was living with AIDS. My friend’s parents were watching the interview and were horrified that Tammy appeared to accept that Pieters was born gay. In a now iconic moment, she begged for compassion for people living with AIDS.
Tammy famously said through tears, “How sad that we as Christians, who ought to be the salt of the earth, and we, who are supposed to be able to love everyone, are afraid so badly of an AIDS patient that we will not go up and put our arm around them and tell them that we care.”
My friend’s father quickly turned off the television and said to my friend’s mother, “Tammy needs to talk to Billy Graham! He is a real Christian.” My childhood friend, many years later, was diagnosed as HIV-positive. His parents still do not know and we’ve often reflected on this moment from our childhood.
On February 21, 2018, Billy Graham died at the age of 99. He is being remembered as “America’s pastor” and for some, he was – but not for people like me. As a pastor, Billy Graham was an icon and represented a part of America, past and future, that is complicated, nuanced, but too often ugly; at odds with so-called Christian values – and human values.
For those reasons, he should not be the fourth private citizen to lie in honor at the Capitol, following civil rights icon Rosa Parks in 2005 (two slain Capitol police officers Jacob J. Chestnut and John M. Gibson were also honored in 1998). Graham being honored in the same way as Rosa Parks is deeply disturbing.
While Graham did much good in his career, he has also been an agent of a kind of spiritual and theological violence via religion and the Bible. This can decimate spiritual transcendence and ruin the soul – like it did with my childhood friend, who is HIV-positive, and still lives in secrecy because of doctrines like Graham’s. Such spiritual and theological violence damages communities and prevents our culture from living with compassion.
In 1974, Graham said, “We traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare.” He was also an advocate for gay conversion therapy, and, in 1993, he said to a record-breaking crowd of 44,300 in Columbus, Ohio: “Is AIDS a judgment of God? I could not say for sure, but I think so.” He apologized two weeks later, and the apology is crucial because Graham loved to apologize. (It should be noted that he went on to fight against same-sex marriage.)
For decades, Graham never took a clear stance against racial segregation. In fact, he criticized Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, saying that “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” In later years, he expressed regret, saying that he wished he had done more to fight racial inequality (Graham and King were also, reportedly, friends).
Graham also apologized after making anti-Semitic remarks, which were captured on tape in the Nixon White House.
Because Graham wasn’t as fanatical as conservative televangelists Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or his own bigoted son Franklin Graham, he is somehow remixed into being more “progressive.” But Graham was a “first of its kind” figure – a pioneer in the toxic mixing of US politics and religion.
Yes, everyone deserves redemption and forgiveness – of some kind. But Billy Graham was no Rosa Parks, and he is not an officer who gave his life in the line of duty. Honoring this pastor at the Capitol is inappropriate; it is less about the death of an iconic religious leader and more about the country’s current cultural war. I would argue that Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, or even George W. Bush would not have honored the so-called “America’s pastor” at the Capitol.
Graham being praised in this way, in an act authorized by Republican leaders in Congress – and during the era of the Trump administration – is part and parcel to the retrograde “Make America Great Again” ethos. It is a gesture that amounts to turning the nation’s face toward the celebration of an icon of a segment of the American population – the evangelical base – and implicitly offering its back to the rest.
His name should not appear on the same short list of those honored at the Capitol as Rosa Parks, who spoke out for civil rights and equality, regardless of faith.
Yesterday, my childhood friend who is HIV-positive sent me a text saying, “Can you believe Billy Graham is being honored at the Capitol?” I responded with, “Can you believe Trump is President of the United States?”