When I was nine years old, while watching a Billy Graham crusade on television, I had a “born again” experience. I don’t remember whose house I was at, but it was on Oak Street, between Winding Way and Dickinson Street, across the street and half a block from my church in Binghamton, NY.
It was a specific theology that wasn’t so different, I suppose, from what I learned from Trinity AME Zion, but it resonated so much that, somehow, I got recruited by the secretary at my school, Pat, for Friday Night Bible Club. My sister Leslie soon went as well, and we attended for several years.
I’m fairly sure it was Pat who gave me a copy of Peace with God, Graham’s 1952 classic book about salvation. This codified my budding theology so that I thought, as did others, that I would grow up to be a preacher.
I could quote Scripture pretty darn well in those days. Psalm 119:11 – “Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might might not sin against Thee.” Didn’t have to look it up, even after all these years.
By 9th grade, I started carrying around my Bible to school. By 10th grade, my friend Bobby and I would walk two miles to the Primitive Methodist Church in Johnson City every Sunday afternoon for more fundamentalist training, and then usually walk back.
I really became “holier than thou.” Even when some of my friends drank and smoked pot, in my presence, I remained resolute. Until I wasn’t.
When I understood that all those people in India and China who never accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, who perhaps never really even heard of him, were supposedly going to go to a literally fiery pit called Hell – which is why why we “needed” so many missionaries – I simply couldn’t accept that.
Fairly soon thereafter, I fell away from this belief system, which I had initially learned from Billy Graham, and it took a long time to find my way back to a theology that made sense to me.
I started re-examining the preacher. His close ties with Presidents, when I had been younger, I saw as a good thing in spreading the Word.
His friendship with Richard Nixon, in particular, became problematic for me, as I believed even by my freshman year in college that Graham was co-opted by the power elite, rather than speaking truth to that power.
To his credit, Graham eventually came to that same conclusion himself. He actively discouraged Jerry Falwell, a founder of the Moral Majority, from mixing religion and politics.
“Evangelicals can’t be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle, to preach to all the people, right and left,” Graham said in 1981, according to Time magazine. “I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will in the future.”
I have a soft spot in my heart for Billy Graham, despite his significant shortcomings, as accurately laid out by Arthur. Not so for his dreadful son Franklin, whose appearance in Albany in 2016 I protested.