Years ago, a musician friend of mine used to do a bad impression of Billy Graham. It was bad because it was completely dependent on one fillip: He would pronounce the word “exhumed” as though it were “exhoomed.” Like I said, it wasn’t that good, but at least you could tell he wasn’t doing a John Wayne impression.
Graham has announced he is likely ending his global evangelism crusades because of his failing health. In a way, I’ll miss him. But, in a much larger sense, we might all miss him because his absence in evangelism could open the door to, well, God knows what.
Graham came to prominence at a time when America was in the grip of fear of Communism. Graham’s following in America expanded dramatically when a nation that was supposed to be God-fearing was being told it was in danger of being taken over by Godless “commies.” Credit where credit is due: Graham is simply one of the best public speakers of our time. He has a gravitas and class that have never quite been equaled. He’s also had the practical sense to stay on message, never making a monkey out of himself with a Pat Robertson/Jerry Falwell-style antic like tying 9-11 to gays.
Graham spoke to an America under God. Of late, it seems evangelicals and politicians believe more in an America over God. A nation that is so tight, in street vernacular, with heaven that dubious messengers can speak to very specific issues such as war and stem cell research as though each citizen of the USA was getting a daily fax from the Lord confirming the righteousness of the views being put forth. Or a fax he’ll send as soon as he catches up with those freely invoking him.
A mighty weld between America and heaven was forged for those messengers when we learned that the terror of 9/11 was conceived and executed by religious extremists. Not a one of the messengers witnessed that weld; they simply manufactured it for their own purposes. That manufacturing chugs on, as in Bush’s recent address to the nation on Iraq in which the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” were used with the same abandon that voices invoked “Godless commies” during the Cold War.
I would never presume (or “presoome”) to speak for Reverend Graham, but it’s my guess that as a great orator he would agree with me that language matters. And the reckless tossing about that “God” and the “Lord” are getting right now in this country, as though those words were but elements in a chopped salad, are a danger worthy of at least as much contemplation as any cow on our soil found to have Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy.
Maybe it’s a matter of degrees, or of simple human trust. Last Saturday I attended a celebration for newly elected L.A. City Councilman Bill Rosendahl staged on Venice Beach. It included the swearing in ceremony, one in which Rosendahl’s hand rested on a Bible. The event also included the Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer-like speech from a rabbi, some life-affirming poetry, solemn references to persons who had passed on… all presented in a truly upbeat public gathering that celebrated the diversity of Venice and L.A. Even L.A.’s newly elected mayor took time from his first day in office to be there.
At no point did any of the sincere elements in the Rosendahl event cause me to feel queasy the same way I do whenever Bush or Cheney bow their heads in prayer. Is it simply because I think Bill Rosendahl has the old-school take of an America under God?
There’s a Pentecostal preacher named T.D. Jakes that I find quite compelling. Like Graham, he’s a powerhouse public speaker, but his preaching is mixed with an Oprah-like humanism and often some very sharp humor. I’d keep my eye on him in regards to Graham’s departure. What I hope is that I never hear he’s running for public office.
This Week’s “Know Your News” Quiz
1) Some July 4th parades were threatened by
(a) lack of funds and cutbacks.
(b) Shriner go-karts.
(c) unhappy clowns.
2) Microsoft will give IBM
(a) a headache forever.
(b) a $775 million settlement.
(c) “Super Frogger!”
3) GM’s new discount prices have
(a) boosted U.S. vehicle sales.
(b) made the Japanese giggle.
(c) made Humvee’s look “sensible.”
1) (a) “Where’s Santa?”
2) (b) “Lunch is on Gates!”3) (a) “Seats? You wanted seats…?”