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Saturday, June 4, 2016

Franklin Graham's on-demand crocodile tears

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Just last year, Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said that “Islam is not a religion of peace,” nothing in its history “gives proof to peace,” and that it is “a very violent form of faith.”

His comments are a long way from his father’s 1978 remark that Muhammad Ali’s Muslim faith was “something we could all believe.” An early Birther, Franklin Graham sees only one road for salvation of Muslims, and considers even it doubtful. He told CNN’s John King in 2011:

"I think the president's problem is that he was born a Muslim, his father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born a Muslim, his father gave him an Islamic name," Graham told CNN's John King.

So it’s interesting reading Graham’s attempt to elbow his way into news of the death of Muhammad Ali. Thursday night, at 10.05 pm, he tweeted:

@MuhammadAli has been hospitalized. Met him several times over the years & so has my father--always a class act. Praying for his recovery.

Here’s what he says on Facebook today:

The world has lost a champion. Muhammad Ali was considered by many as the greatest boxer of all time. His career began during a difficult period in our country with the racial tensions of the 1960s and the Vietnam War. His outspoken positions caused him to be both loved and hated by some. I had the privilege of meeting him on several occasions, and he visited at my parents' home in Montreat, North Carolina. Muhammad Ali’s father brought him to visit my father Billy Graham because he was concerned over Ali’s faith in Islam and was afraid that his son had been led astray. They had a great visit, and my father had prayer with him. They met together again several years ago in Louisville, Kentucky, when my father was there to preach. My prayers are with his family as they mourn this loss.

Supporters, and his organizations, have long made Ali’s 1979 visit to the Grahams' North Carolina retreat a centerpiece of their case for the preacher's centrality in American life and evangelism. “Graham's integrity has encouraged millions to heed his spiritual guidance, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Bono, Muhammad Ali and United States presidents from Eisenhower to Bush’” one such commentary runs. Another unsourced anecdote has it:

Muhammad Ali said, "When I arrived at the airport, Mr. Graham himself was waiting for me. We got in his Oldsmobile and he drove it himself. I couldn't believe he came to the airport driving his own car. When we approached him home I thought he would live on a thousand acre farm, and we drove up to this house made of logs. No mansion with crystal chandeliers and gold carpets. It was the kind of house a man of God would live in. I look up to him."

Still another account- again, unsourced- has Billy Graham presenting Ali with an autographed Bible. He scrawled, almost illegibly, “God bless you,” and his signature; Ali supposedly responded, “Print ‘Signed by Billy Graham’. I want people to know it was you when I show this to them.”

An Our State profile in 2012 described Billy Graham's training center near Asheville:

[H]is fingerprints are all over this place...They’re down on the bottom floor, where walls of photos and display cases of souvenirs document Graham’s extensive travels; and on the top floor, in Graham’s private office, where a wall of fame displays snapshots of “America’s Pastor” pictured with everyone from Jimmy Stewart and Bob Hope to Johnny Cash, Muhammad Ali, and 12 U.S. presidents.

Ali looms large in Charlotte, too, at the Billy Graham Museum. As Mark Tooley wrote in The American Spectator,

A few cynical critics have derided the library as Evangelical kitsch and the Disneyfication of faith, citing the talking cow who greets visitors at the entrance of the barn shaped museum. There is also a silo, and the facility sits immediately behind Billy Graham’s relocated boyhood home, with the site recalling his rural upbringing, which included daily cow milking. The talking cow speaks in the voice of a sassy black woman and is actually quite charming…

Graham’s international celebrity status was based not only on his large stadium crowds and media savvy but also his close friendships with other celebrities, especially U.S. presidents and other heads of state across over 60 years. The library shows him with every president from Truman to Obama. Graham in an 2010 interview with Greta van Susteren recalls President Bush I, who teared up at the 2007 library dedication, as a very close friend dating to Graham’s friendship with Bush’s parents in the 1950s. A photo shows him with the Reagans as young Hollywood stars in the early 1950s. A 1967 photo shows Graham visiting an elderly Truman at his Missouri home, surrounded by stacks of books and clutter. Evidently Truman recovered from his initial distrust when a young Graham, after praying with privately him in the White House, reenacted the prayer on his knees for curious White House reporters.

There are scenes of Graham with Bob Hope, Johnny Cash, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Arnold Palmer, and Muhammad Ali, who visited Graham’s mountain cabin. There are also Willy Brandt, Henry Kissinger, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Chiang Kai-shek, Hosni Mubarak, and even François Mitterrand, who likely didn’t meet many preachers. A photo shows Graham with Martin Luther King, although Graham’s opposition to segregation, as a southern preacher, seems insufficiently recognized. Graham is shown with Queen Elizabeth, who is perhaps nearly the only living world figure whose continuous celebrity predates Graham’s fame.

Billy Graham didn’t seem to feel a spiritual aura in the meeting with Ali in an interview for his 1992 Philadelphia Crusade:

"I met Muhammad Ali at the airport once," he recalled. "Went to pick him up in my Ford. When he stepped off the plane and saw just me, he said he had expected to be met by a big entourage and expected me to live in a mansion and sit on a throne. I don't know where he got those ideas, but his father, who was with him at the time, told me not to pay any attention to him because he was still a Baptist at heart."

Sports figures have always made useful vehicles for Graham, as the book Religion and the Marketplace in the United States notes:

Graham’s very first crusade on his own (in Charlotte, NC in 1947) featured Gil Dodds,the reigning American miler, racing six laps around the audience in a pseudo-campaign against a local runner. The idea struck fire. For the rest of the century, Graham’ s meetings highlighted testimonials from notable athletes. Graham also relished posing for photo ops with celebrity competitors such as Arnold Palmer and Muhammad Ali, grafting some of their cultural capital onto his own.

For his part, Ali seems to have treated the meeting less as an errant soul than a trade show sidebar to pick up some tips from an industry leader. Victor Bockris’ 2011 Ali book quotes him as saying after he retired, he’d like to stay on the road, only for his faith:

I’d prefer traveling- more of a Billy Graham type of thing: travel through the world and the country, spread the word of Islam.

Two years later, when New York Times sports editor George Vecsey interviewed Ali at 39, he recalled,

"Why do people go to the moon? Why did Martin Luther King say he had a dream? People need challenges." A visitor relays a greeting from George Foreman, who quit boxing abruptly four years ago and is now serving a tiny Christian congregation in the pine woods outside Houston. Foreman has said Ali should not fight any more but should serve his own Islamic faith outside the ring.

"Foreman's a good man," Ali says softly. "Don't want to say anything against him. But you say he's got 21 people in his church on a good night. I've got the whole world. If I make my comeback, I can see Yankee Stadium packed with people. There's Billy Graham on my left, preaching Christianity. There's a noted rabbi on my right. There's Reverend Ike. There's Wallace Muhammad. All of us preaching our Gods, like ponds and streams and rivers and lakes all going down to the ocean. That's why I keep fighting. I'm spreading my faith."

Six years after that, retired sports writer Gail Wood met Ali in Boise in 1987:

I asked him what interested him. He said religion was his new arena.

“I'm challenging Billy Graham. I'm challenging Oral Roberts,” he said. “I'm challenging all the preachers.”

His voice picked up slightly. His hands began to move.

“I'm challenging the Pope. I'm challenging all religion. I'm going to race with them to see who does the most for their God. I'm going to bring more people to my religion. More than any one person.”

Finished with his challenge, he asked me to read it back to him. After hearing it, he nodded contentedly.

“God has made me the most recognized man on earth,” Ali said. “I'm going to use that.”

Now Ali- long rehabilitated from his polarizing past, kept offstage for decades by illness- is dead, and Franklin Graham is more than happy to pick at the bones for souvenirs, shouting, “I knew him.”

He can spare one news cycle to claim how much he respected an elderly Muslim boxer.

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