Billy Graham and Amendment One

One of the odder phenomena surrounding the passage of Amendment One in North Carolina was the last-minute emergence of the Rev. Billy Graham, the retired, chronically-ill 93-year-old evangelist, as a supporter of the amendment. Graham’s family-run organization took out full-page ads in 14 NC newspapers last weekend endorsing the Amendment as a simple matter of following the scriptural definition of marriage.

Nobody would have been surprised if Franklin Graham–who has inherited direction of his father’s ministry–had taken this step; Graham is an inveterate participant in conservative politics, most recent getting himself into some hot water by appearing to doubt the president’s Christianity.

But the patriarch of the Graham clan has been careful for many years about getting himself identified with political causes that might appear partisan, going back to the damage in credibility he suffered from his close association with Richard Nixon. He very conspicuously refused to take part in the Moral Majority. He seems to have been especially sensitive to claims that he was tolerant of bigotry, probably dating back to concerns that he was too complacent about segegration when he began his ministry in the Jim Crow South. He made a point of desegregating his own audiences in the 1950s and of inviting Martin Luther King, Jr., to speak at one of his Crusades (though safely outside the South) in 1957. Graham was also a reasonably early and quite staunch opponent of South African apartheid.

So why, at this late stage of his life, when he had finally achieved a reputation as a religious leader who had transcended all the divisions of his times, would he so conspicuously enlist in the shopwarn anti-gay-marriage cause, in his home state no less? It’s hard to say, unless he’s no longer in control of his ministry or of his faculties. But it’s sad to see; sort of like an aging musician who courts embarrassment with just one tour too many instead of letting the old recordings speak for themselves. And in North Carolina, where Graham is almost certainly the state’s best-known citizen, it probably did have an impact for the worse–for marriage equality, and for Billy Graham’s ultimate legacy.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.