Billy Graham, Sunday School teacher, failed salesman, and cold-war fear-monger died last week at the age of 99. In the dozens of obituaries making the rounds on social media, you will seldom see one that describes him as such. When powerful men who are religious leaders die, we hail their professional achievements (I challenge you to find one obituary that does not mention the crowds of thousands to whom Graham regularly preached) and relay stories that capture their moral fortitude and personal piety. In a historical moment when evangelicalism is battling its most significant identity crisis since the Scopes Monkey Trial, the opportunity to celebrate “one of the good ones” is all the more enticing. Graham is being remembered for eschewing the trappings that brought numerous other popular evangelists down. He will also be remembered for his close ties with numerous U.S. Presidents, exerting an influence over some of the most powerful men of the twentieth century.
We have an inherent and long-standing desire to name and celebrate greatness, especially that of white men. Graham’s greatness was bestowed upon him by another great white man, William Randolph Hearst, who issued the directive, “Puff Graham,” to his army of editors launching the evangelist into the national spotlight. The media giant was by no means religious, but he saw that the young evangelist had swagger, appeal, and the ability to make the cold-war a moral issue. Having done a fair amount of research on Graham’s early career, I’m fairly confident that the origins of his greatness were not an act of the Holy Spirit (as he would certainly claim), but of a savvy media mogul and a looming geo-political threat.
Yet Graham did distinguish himself by his own efforts. His earliest sermons as an evangelist with Youth for Christ situated Christianity in a power struggle with both sexual immorality and Communism. He confronted political and spiritual powers, often employing a hawkish rhetoric that conflated military service and personal piety. “Sissy stuff” is what Graham called Christianity as a young man attempting to reconcile his athletic prowess when he found himself first beckoned to conversion. Graham’s Jesus was a tough patriot who enlisted others in the battle against evil. Power, dominance, and victory: this was the rhetorical currency that launched Graham into greatness.
So it’s interesting to note that Graham identified sexuality immorality, not the Soviet Union, as the greatest threat to Christian America. During the McCarthy Era, Graham affirmed the senator’s belief that homosexuality weakened the nation state. He supported McCarthy, ‘‘exposing the pinks, the lavenders, and the reds who have sought refuge beneath the wings of the American eagle’’ (Johnson 2006, 33–38). Graham would eventually temper, if not fully extinguish, his anti-communist rhetoric, but jeremiads against sexual immorality would remain. In 1965 he wrote:
This we do know, our decaying morals do not surprise God. They add to the pile of inflammable tinder that shall someday be ignited by the fires of God’s judgment […] I fear a generation was bequeathed that knowledge of God, we were. Yet we are throwing away this glorious heritage on our lust and passions. (World Aflame, 22)
Consistent throughout Graham’s career was a deep-seated fear of the destructive power of sex. We must consider this legacy when assessing his efforts to maintain his moral standing. In 1948 Graham and his newly-formed ministry established four rules of conduct intended to protect themselves from the appearance of various forms of sexual, financial, and leadership misconduct. What has now come to be known as the Billy Graham Rule resurfaced in the wake of the 2016 election. Vice President Mike Pence, like Graham before him, refuses to be alone with a woman. Graham and his leadership team articulated four moral priorities, most notably the idea that a man and woman in a room, alone, together was a staging ground for sexual misconduct.
Indeed, contemporary revelations of other great men’s propensity for sexual violence, including Harvey Weinstein, Garrison Keillor, and Louis C.K. affirm just this. And in comparison with other famous evangelists felled by financial and sexual indiscretions, Graham has always retained a squeaky clean reputation. This leaves contemporary observers wondering if the Billy Graham Rule is quite possibly an ally in the fight against sexual violence and misconduct. After all, #MeToo is, in part, a call to reckon with the problems of male sexual entitlement which compounds the problem of gender inequality in the workplace. Throw some Jesus on that and you have something that looks remarkably like the Billy Graham Rule.
But if we examine the Billy Graham Rule in light of his fear-based rhetoric around sex, we discover a principle that exacerbates rather than alleviates the problem of male sexual indiscretion. Graham’s Rule was in service to his own reputation, one thinly veiled by a condescending veneer of chivalry. It posits that women and sex are threats to powerful men’s reputations. In such a circumstance, the best solution is sex-based segregation. But what Graham, Pence, and their ilk fail to understand is that neither women nor sexual desire are the problem; the problem is the abuse of male power. This is why women fear confronting powerful men, or simply men who have power over them. It’s easier to claim that sexual desire is inherently dangerous than to hold powerful men accountable.
When we celebrate a great man like Billy Graham upon his passing, it’s considered at best dishonorable to discuss his failures and flaws. We want to reaffirm his greatness as a man, as a Christian, as an American. But the reckoning of the #MeToo moment is one that is calling us to a moral clarity around powerful, great men. Even the men whom we celebrate because of their squeaky clean reputation cannot be protected from the truth. The cultural insistence on male dominance, power, and victory, so infused in Graham’s religious teachings and our national ethos, has never made us safer, only more inclined to relinquish our power to the already powerful.