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A conservative party for Rev. Billy Graham

Peter St. Onge
Peter St. Onge is The Observer's associate editor.

So Billy Graham had a birthday party this week, and a Fox News gala broke out.

It happened Thursday, at a private gathering in Asheville’s Grove Park Inn. If you weren’t among the lucky 900 to get a ticket, no worries. The celebration was aired on the Fox network, with Fox personalities participating. Greta Van Susteren helped everyone sing “Happy Birthday,” and Sarah Palin said we need Billy’s message more than ever. Former Fox personality Glenn Beck was in the audience, too, along with the network’s owner, Rupert Murdoch.

It was, to some, an odd blending of media and ministry. Fox News and its combative agenda seems not to fit with the traditionally open arms of Billy Graham’s message. Or does it?

North Carolina’s most revered preacher is 95 now, and before long, the celebrations of his long and worthy life will become evaluations of what that life meant. For many, including many Christians, that won’t be simple.

Is he the preacher whose ministry was built on the welcoming message of Jesus’ love and forgiveness? Or is he the preacher who aggressively singled out a group of “sinners” by urging his fellow North Carolinians to vote for a discriminatory and hurtful gay marriage amendment?

Is he a person who shunned denominational politics and expressed a late regret for getting too involved in national politics? Or is he the person flanked last night by Palin and Donald Trump, the one who embraced the intersection of faith and policy with recent full-page ads urging Americans to “vote for biblical values”?

Which is he? I don’t know.

I do know there are attendees who were uncomfortable with the Fox-ification of Thursday’s birthday party. They suspect it was choreographed by Billy’s son, Franklin, an unabashed conservative who now runs the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. (At the party, Franklin called Fox “the greatest news channel in America.”)

These same people wonder if Franklin was the driver behind his father’s full-page ads in recent years on voting and same-sex marriage. Perhaps so, or perhaps it’s the explanation that best allows them to preserve the Billy Graham they want to believe in.

We do that, often, with the extraordinary among us. From presidents to preachers, we justify their errors or explain away their flaws, because when you believe in a person’s greatness, you want to believe that person can only be great.

Make no mistake: For many Christians, Billy Graham’s greatness wasn’t diminished at all by his opposition to gay marriage or his Fox birthday bash. He has, after all, been a long-time conservative. But for other Christians, like myself, these recent years seem inconsistent for a man we admire, a man whose joyful message brought faith and meaning to millions of lives.

But among the truest things Graham ever said was this, about himself in 2002, after audio tapes revealed him disparaging Jews 30 years earlier with President Richard Nixon:

“I am an erring, fallible disciple.”

We should remember that this week – and whenever we try to reconcile the preacher with the politics, the welcoming Billy Graham and the one who aligns himself with strident, harsh voices. Which is he, really? He’s both, of course. He’s human.

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