Reposted from Rolling Stone
Billy Graham saved my soul. In 1973, I was ten years old, growing up in a working-class clan in North Carolina, and I had a problem: I liked boys. Also, men. And even though my family’s Methodist church served up the mildest form of Protestantism – no dire warnings about fornicators and sodomites and feminists from our pulpit – it was impossible not to know, from a million cultural cues and a fair number of spankings I’d received for “acting sissy,” that this was not good. So when I heard that the world’s most beloved televangelist was coming to Raleigh that September for one of his extravagant “crusades,” I begged my parents to take me. It didn’t take much. They knew what they were dealing with. Maybe Billy Graham could straighten out their boy.
Graham was then at the apex of his powers, both religious and political. Since the late 1940s, when two of the country’s most powerful publishers – William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce – helped turn the ambitious blond hunk of North Carolina farmboy into a national celebrity, Graham had merged old-time fundamentalism with modern media to create a wildly popular civic religion. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association produced movies, radio shows, magazines and syndicated newspaper columns. Its crusades were television spectacles watched by millions of families like ours. They sometimes became headline news: Just a few years earlier, a single night of “crusading” in Seoul, South Korea, was attended by a jaw-dropping 1.1 million people. You might have called Billy Graham the rock star of Biblical literalism, except that he was bigger than Elvis and the Beatles combined.
The Carolina Crusade of 1973 was held in N.C. State University’s football stadium (no indoor arena could contain Graham’s multitudes). His crusades were massive undertakings; staffers would move to a future host city three years in advance to organize and publicize, ensuring a maximum number of souls in the seats. The stands were nearly packed on the cool crisp night when we emerged from an hours-long traffic jam and took our seats for the show. I don’t remember much about the singing and warm-up acts, nor the particular message Graham preached that night. And I had no idea that thanks to his long and tight friendship with President Richard Nixon, he was on the cusp of the one big public-relations disaster of his long and charmed career: According to newspaper accounts, Nixon’s confidante was already, it seems, in damage-control mode. “This Watergate thing has become almost symbolic of everything that’s wrong in America,” he said. “And there’s a little bit of Watergate in all of us. The Bible says all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. And I think we all have some repenting to do, including Billy Graham.
It would be years before anyone knew how much repenting Graham needed to do for his relationship with Nixon, or for his nefarious behind-the-scenes efforts to derail John F. Kennedy (because, Catholic) in 1960 and George McGovern (because, liberal) in 1972, or for the murderous advice he’d given both Lyndon Johnson and Nixon for conducting the war in Vietnam. None of it mattered to me, anyway. The man was here, in the flesh, and even from the distance of the bleachers he seemed bigger than life, radiant, a modern-day warrior Jesus ready to whip Satan’s ass at a moment’s notice.