|The church at Gloucester by Childe Hassam (Met).|
While being a toady was only one aspect of Graham generally failing to do his moral duty, he had his positive moments too, particularly as he got older. No, he didn't strangle his son Franklin, which would have been a true service to humanity. But he could stand up to wrongs that weren't coming from the Oval Office, such as this episode I recount in a 2000 column.
I've always liked the Rev. Billy Graham. Even though an offhand comment he once made to me ended up getting me fired.
But I'll save that tale for the end.
I like Billy Graham because he speaks and acts as if Jesus Christ really meant all that stuff about love and forgiveness, and wasn't just filling time between miracles.
Graham passed unscathed through an era when many lesser preachers were ruined by scandal. The Swaggarts and Bakkers who either got too big or too rich or just stopped being ministers and became politicians or entertainers or, to be blunt, clowns.
I'm not saying that Graham is perfect. He likes the halls of power, a lot, and found it easier to baptize Dwight D. Eisenhower than to add his public support for Civil Rights. He was so busy playing kissy-face with Lyndon Johnson that he never realized that a moral man, a man of God, might find reason to publicly oppose the war in Vietnam.
But his heart is in the right place, generally. He kept himself apart from the aggressive, one might almost say predatory, brand of evangelical Christianity, as best represented by the Southern Baptist Convention, which roiled the waters of interfaith comity by announcing that they would go to Chicago this summer and save Jews and Muslims and other heathen from the eternal hellfire that awaits us.
Graham gave the Southern Convention the brush off this week.
"I normally defend my denomination," he said. "I'm loyal to it. But I have never targeted Muslims. I have never targeted Jews."
He doesn't say the reason, but it's plain. To do so is offensive. It's one thing to thrum your religion as the bright light and infallible road to happiness. All religions do that.
It is a very different matter to single out particular creeds as being extra worthy of salvation.
But I'm running out of space, and I haven't told my story about Graham costing me a job. I was the opinion page editor of the old Wheaton Daily Journal, and it fell to me to interview the great man during one of his forays home to his alma mater, Wheaton College.
The interview went well; as I said, I like Graham. At the end he stood, offered his hand, and said: "You know, I'm friends with Helen Copley"—the owner of the Copley Newspapers, of which the Journal was the absolute smallest—"I don't get to see her as much as I'd like; next time you see her, say hello for me."
Well, of course I had never seen Helen Copley. I was never going to see Helen Copley. She was planted out at Copley headquarters in San Diego and was never going to show up at the Daily Journal on Schmale Road. But I was amused by imagining the idea of under what circumstances we might meet, and in my column describing my interview with Graham, I wrote: "Sure—next time I'm over at Bebe Rebozo's house, playing pinocle with Nixon, the Hunt brothers and Col. Ky, I'll give her my regards."
That was it. Fired, the very next day. I don't know if she ever read the joke. I doubt it. But no matter; the idea was, if she did see it, and phoned in a rage, they would be able to say that I had already been canned.
No big loss. The sacking sent me flying toward eventual happiness at the Sun-Times. And I've gotten a lot of mileage out of that story over the past 15 years. I always tell it to friends licking their wounds after being fired: Sometimes a boot in the pants can be invigorating.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 4, 2000