Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Graham Saga

My colleague The Moose, fresh from a forced-march family vacation in the Lone Star State, has drawn attention to the profile of Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman by Dan Halpern in the current issue of The New Yorker. This is indeed a great read, which shows exactly how far the Kinkster is pushing the anti-political, political envelope beyond the far horizons established by Jesse Ventura back in 1998 (compared to Kinky, The Body was a fairly conventional candidate, as the former Ventura advisors now staffing Friedman have probably figured out).

But the same issue of The New Yorker has another piece that I highly recommend: Peter J. Boyer's article on Billy and Franklin Graham. (The article's not available online, though the New Yorker site does offer an audio slide show about it).

Boyer interprets Billy Graham's rise as representing the emergence of Protestant Evangelical Christianity through the deliberate blurring of fundamentalism's "rough edges," most epecially doctrinal rigidity and hostily towards less-rigorous Christians. And he interprets Franklin Graham's long and winding road towards a prominence rivalling his father's as illustrating a more recent resurgence of fundamentalist theology bent on direct engagement with secular culture, and a recommitment to conservative and partisan politics.

I found Boyer's reporting on Billy Graham's early career, and the hostility he generated among evangelical fundamentalists, fascinating and instructive. As it happens, I grew up in a conservative southern evangelical milieu, and had no idea Graham was considered a dangerous liberal by the fundies. Indeed, my wife and I have virtually identical anecdotes from our childhood about our deeply conservative Baptist grandmothers striding to the family television set (a major war-zone in those pre-cable days), changing the channel from a movie our fathers wanted to watch, and announcing: "It's time for Billy Graham." No one dared to switch the channel back.

In the decades since those innocent days, the fundamentalists have indeed not only reconquered southern evangelical Protestantism, but appear to currently occupy the commanding heights of evangelical Protestantism around the country. Billy's son, Franklin, is part of the backlash. And moreover, another famous son of a famous father, George W. Bush, is a key transition figure in the rightward turn of evangelical Protestantism.

You probably know the story: Back during his impressionable thirties, W. left behind a casual affiliation with the Anglicanism of his forefathers, and perhaps a more intense attachment to the congregation of Jack Daniels, after a discussion with Billy Graham. And years later, of course, the younger Bush developed a close political alliance with the new fundamentalist-dominated Christian Right, including the younger Graham. Indeed, Franklin Graham probably achieved his greatest notoriety when protests broke out against his plans to become an administration-authorized dispenser of aid to war-ravaged Iraq despite a history of inflammatory statements about Islam as "evil."

In any event, the whole tale is fascinating, and worth the price of buying the print version of The New Yorker. You can read about Kinky for dessert.
-- Posted at 5:47 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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