It was men like Billy Graham who convinced me to leave the church I attended for nearly two decades. They convinced me to want to renounce my faith, to never again call myself a Christian. And it wasn’t because they were bad, but because they were good in the worst way.
My former church, Christ Community in Conway, South Carolina, was full of good men who patterned themselves after Graham. They were traditional and believed the Bible called men to lead, but also for husbands and wives to submit to one another. They, like Graham, welcomed racial integration when others wouldn’t, and took steps to make it a reality in a church whose congregation was mostly white evangelical Christian but also had a significant presence of people of color.
I found a home among them because of those efforts, and because I grew up in awe of Graham, just like every other Southerner I knew, white and black. I was on my knees in my family’s living room in our tin can of a trailer watching Graham’s crusades on TV and crying and praying along with the tens of thousands in the stadiums he routinely filled. That’s why I know white evangelical Christians aren’t the stereotypes they resemble in too many stories and movies. They disagree with gay marriage and have qualms about the acceptance of transgender people not because of blind hatred, but because these are challenges to what they believe the Bible teaches is best for everyone. In their view, love is the catalyst of their opposition to such societal changes. I disagree with their interpretation of the Bible but understand it well. That’s why I know they’d give me the shirt off their backs if I was cold and protect my kids from physical harm no matter how differently we view the world.
That’s also why I had to leave. These same white Evangelicals pushed for equality because they believed each of us is a child of God—but frequently rejected attempts that would upend a tradition that had long placed white men on the top rung. They were comfortable with interracial hugs and prayers but were often barriers to those insisting upon more than symbolic progress. It’s heartwarming that they establish prison ministries, but heartbreaking that they aren’t outraged by the daily injustice that has led to the incarceration of so many black and brown men. It’s hard to square their love of those in the LBGTQ community with their embrace of laws and customs that would make gays, lesbians and transgender people second-class citizens. I wish they would grieve as much for the unarmed black man shot in the back by police while running away as they express outrage at black football players kneeling in silent, peaceful protest to expose brutality.
More than that, it is frustrating, deflating even, when they chide us for refusing to relent in the face of bigotry, even as they embrace a man like Donald Trump. Late in life, Billy Graham expressed regret for his earlier alliances with politicians such as President Richard Nixon—and related anti-Semitic remarks—and warned his followers to be careful about their involvement in politics. But his son, the Reverend Franklin Graham, did not listen, and has been one of Trump’s cheerleaders despite his deeply un-Christian behavior.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” explained it well; he wrote it for men like Graham.
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’
Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Graham responded by saying King should “put the brakes on a little.” His followers have spent the past couple of years telling us the same thing, as though there is such a thing as too much equality, or that fighting too hard to attain it is ungodly.
For a long time, I considered it my mission in life to reach across the aisle and racial divides, even if it meant being a lonely voice. I still do. But I no longer believe that means elevating the feelings of white people bothered more by protest than injustice above my own dignity.
Late in his life, Graham said he regretted not being more forceful on the issue of race, that though he knocked down some barriers—such as integrating his crusades when it wasn’t popular to do so—he “made a mistake when I didn’t go to Selma.”
How much better this world would be had Graham been just as radical for racial justice as he was for Christ. If they aren’t careful, years from now, that question will be asked of many of the white evangelical Christians mourning Graham this week.
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