When I was a kid, anytime the Rev. Billy Graham’s crusade was televised, we were expected to stop catching lightnin’ bugs in mayonnaise jars – the pastime of choice on a steamy Southern night – and head inside. We would take our places on the oval braided rug in front of the TV and dutifully absorb one hour of old time religion capped by an altar call.
Afterward, a donation would be mailed, probably no more than a couple of dollars, to ensure the continued arrival of Billy Graham’s “Decision” magazine in the mail every month. As a child, I was intrigued endlessly by Graham’s reassuring reminder that all the address needed was “Billy Graham, Minneapolis, Minnesota.”
“But what if there’s more than one Billy Graham in Minneapolis, Minnesota? He doesn’t even use a zip code,” I wailed to no one in particular.
Like Graham’s reassuring altar call prelude (“If you came in a bus, they’ll wait…”) I got tied up in the minutiae of a stadium crusade. “But what if they DON’T wait?” I asked my parents over and over. I have no idea why it bothered a third grader living on the edge of a soybean field in rural North Carolina so much whether or not the bus would pull away, freshly sanctified souls running behind it and never catching up.
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My family loved Billy Graham. While we didn’t have a replica oil portrait of Graham in the living room beside the souvenir plate of President and Mrs. Kennedy, suffice to say he was fairly much revered. Which is odd now that I remember we weren’t always in actual church every Sunday. No Bibles were beaten.
But Billy Graham had a way of nudging sinners and saints alike to gather around the television for up to four nights in a row of preaching and we never complained. It was religion on a huge scale. The crowd size was real.
Fast forward to this week and Billy’s son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, tells us that God put Donald Trump in the White House.
Nice try, Franklin, but we can’t blame God for this one. Devastating hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, mudslides, fires? Sure. Who hasn’t lifted a tortured face to the heavens to ask God “Why?”
Franklin Graham, whose father approaches 100 on a North Carolina mountainside he no longer leaves, thinks Trump’s infidelities, “strong” language, elevating of one race over another and other examples of moral misconduct are merely unfortunate. When asked about their dogged allegiance to Trump, evangelical leaders often say Trump speaks to their values.
It’s hard to swallow but, in Franklin Graham’s world, Trump paramour Stormy Daniels is more of a repentant Bible prostitute. Matters not that the latter never launched a Bible-times “Make America Horny Again” tour.
Watching religious “leaders” justify Trump’s bad behavior over and over again is vexing at best. When the roll is called up yonder, I’m not sure they’ll be there. Or, put another way, if they came in a bus, it may just leave them.
Celia Rivenbark is a NYT best-selling author and columnist. Visit www.celiarivenbark.com.