A flyer that arrived by post yesterday from an organisation called the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association UK brought back to memory an odd and possibly seminal incident in my life.
When I was a boy of eleven or twelve my mother took me to a rally at Wembley Stadium, one of Britain’s biggest football arenas, to hear the American evangelist Billy Graham speak. The rally was part of Billy’s national ‘crusade’ to proclaim the Gospel and, to quote the brochure, ‘bring the Good News of Jesus Christ” to millions of Britons. The residents of this island were, and are, notoriously and blessedly irreligious; they are, moreover, traditionally suspicious of American hell-fire preachers – and for that matter any other kind of foreign preacher, including the Pope – and perhaps in particular the Pope. But Billy soon had tens of thousands of them, in that vast stadium in north-west London, cheering rhythmically, applauding and stomping their feet.
Why my mother, though a devout church-going member of the Anglican community, was moved to stand in a packed stadium amid the spiritual yearning masses to absorb Graham’s peculiar Southern Baptist view of the world I have no idea. Nor do I know why she took me along; I can only suppose for a dose of spiritual nourishment.
I have no recollection of how she felt afterwards, but I distinctly remember being horrified – yes, even at that early age – by Graham’s ability to whip up a mass audience into a frenzy of joy mingled with tearful penitence. I have a vague memory of the instantly converted being invited to go onto the platform from which Graham had just spoken in order to affirm their love of Jesus Christ, lining up to do so in their thousands. I also seem to remember being nauseated. I dare say these new adherents had no sooner left the stage than they were asked to cough up indecent amounts of hard-earned cash to purchase bibles or to take out magazine subscriptions. The revealed word never comes cheaply in the world of evangelism.
All I can say is that this dispiriting experience shocked me so profoundly that it might well have been one of the critical episodes – among many – that caused my latent atheism to take flight.
The oleaginous Billy Graham has been around ever since. He is, as I write, approaching his one-hundredth birthday. He has been a spiritual advisor to every occupant of the White House in my lifetime, and for half a century a familiar figure on evangelical television, that peculiar sub-genre of show business to which so many Americans – a nation more susceptible to a slick sales pitch than any other – seem addicted.
But perhaps no more so than many Britons, it seems. The brochure that came through my letter-box mentions that “In 1954, God started a movement that swept the entire UK”. Now, the Billy Graham Evangelical Association is preparing to launch another ‘crusade’ – as Billy used to call his tours – this time in the name of his son Franklin Graham.
Billy Graham, like most evangelical preachers, is a charlatan. He played to the civil rights movement in his early days, but this was commercially expedient. His taped conversations with President Richard Nixon revealed them both as anti-Semites, each egging the other on about Jewish control of the media. His ‘movement’ may be classified by the United States Internal Revenue Services as a religious body, and so entitled to significant tax breaks, but it is in fact a business; a very lucrative business by all accounts, although no financial statements are ever made public.
I would say the Billy Graham organisation is less sinister and harmful than many other fraudulent peddlers of pseudo-religion – Scientology and Mormonism come immediately to mind – but it is part and parcel of a lucrative and ruthless industry that was built, and is openly managed, to exploit the more susceptible members of our society. Would the supposed founder of Christianity have approved of such commercial empire-building in his name? Of course not – and nor should we.
I know nothing of Billy’s son Franklin (he is the spitting image of his father) or of his acolytes. But one Graham was quite enough, thank you.
In this new campaign to seek British victims, which he calls ‘partnering with us as we share the Good News of Jesus Christ’ – ‘partnering’ meaning parting with money – he surely qualifies as an undesirable alien. There is enough religious bigotry in the world without encouraging more.
The British government should send him and his followers packing by denying them entry.