I was 20 years old and working in North Dakota when the National Mall in Washington DC hosted the familiar Fourth of July celebration. Featured were musicians Pat Boone, Kate Smith, Dinah Shore, comedians Bob Hope, Red Skelton, and Jack Benny, and preacher Billy Graham.
“Let the world know that the vast majority of us still proudly sing: ‘My Country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty,” the late evangelist announced, “America needs to sing again! America needs to celebrate again! America need to wave the flag again!”
The event is described by Jon Meacham in Songs of America, his new book on music and American history, with this simple sentence: “The two Americas clashed again.”
Why? Because protesters near that Washington Monument on that most patriotic of American days yelled obscenities, threw rocks, paraded naked, set of firecrackers, and pushed a truck into the reflecting pool.
What were they protesting? The Vietnam War, Richard Nixon, and business as usual after a decade of social upheaval that had disrupted every aspect of American life.
I was in North Dakota that summer and untouched by the events of the day; but I was twenty years old, a white preacher boy from the South, mimicking the sounds and substance of Billy Graham every time I got up to give a word of the gospel
Out of the corner of my eye, though, I had watched that other Baptist preacher from the South, Martin Luther King, Jr. He quoted the same Bible, invoked the same Jesus, and appealed to the same devotion that had captured my imagination during summer conferences of praying, preaching, and singing.
For these fifty intervening years, I have prayed, and preached, and sung in the shadow of these other two Baptist preachers from the South: Graham and King. Early on and including the year of our Lord two thousand and seventy, I was mesmerized by that bright shinning light that was Graham: compelling voice, stirring message, capacity crowds. I had decided to follow him.
But the imputed righteousness of his gospel message was gradually undermined by the social justice of the gospel preached by King. What once was a mysterious moon, a sliver of reflected light on the remote circumference of my religious universe, grew larger, bolder, stronger, brighter until it eclipsed entirely the light I had mistaken for the sun itself. While Graham lingered until he was almost one hundred years old, King had died early, and his impact on me as a Baptist preacher occurred almost entirely after his voice was silenced.
Now I read the list of celebrities gathered on that National Mall almost 50 years ago and note only one thing: they were all white, including Graham. And I think: still today, two Americas clash, again and again.
I ask myself: are these two Americas the lengthening shadows of these two pulpit giants, Graham and King? Do they represent now, in death, what they reflected then, in life: different versions of America? Or more, two versions of Jesus?
Graham’s son Franklin has taken up his father’s work but in doing so has focused on the shadow side of the great evangelist’s legacy. Franklin is perhaps the chief religious voice asserting the cause of White Christian Nationalism.
In a cover article in the July edition of Decision magazine, he writes: “The America that I knew as a young boy growing up in the mountains of North Carolina has changed so radically…. The progressive left has ascended into a national political power that presents a clear and present danger to our basic religious liberties and freedoms.”
Franklin Graham’s stated concerns are abortion and homosexuality. His focus is on the 2020 presidential election.
The legacy of King, on the other hand, is best exemplified by the four United States Congresswomen—all representing marginalized populations of our great country—whom our President has condemned in rude and racist words (and I paraphrase): “Go back to the foreign and forlorn countries from which you have come.”
It is the country of King that is my present and our future. It is the part of the gospel that he emphasized—that we do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with God—that rings true today, that gathers the biblical witness of exodus, and service, and resurrection, that reaches out in all directions with the compassionate words of Jesus, “Come unto me, all who labor and are heaven laden, and I will give you rest.”
This is the Baptist preacher of the South that calls forth the better angels of our nature, that sees most clearly that city set upon a hill, and that can lead us into the Promised Land of our deepest hopes and grandest dreams.
Now, almost fifty years later, there is on that same National Mall a memorial to a Baptist preacher from the South—and it is not Billy Graham. I still have a dream.
copyright 2019 Dwight A. Moody