What the Obits Aren't Saying: Evangelist Billy Graham Was a Homophobe

Billy Graham

Billy Graham, the melodramatic evangelist and counselor to presidents, died today at age 99 at his home in Montreat, N.C.

Graham was known for his televised “crusades,” which filled stadiums, and in which attendees were called upon to come forward and commit their lives to Jesus Christ after hearing a message from the fiery, deep-voiced Southern Baptist preacher. What is lesser-known is his antigay side.

While not as outspokenly homophobic as his son, Franklin, who has headed the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association since the 1990s, Billy Graham was nonetheless deeply opposed to homosexuality.

In 1974, for instance, a young woman wrote Graham saying that she was attracted to another woman. He wrote back, “Your affection for another of your own sex is misdirected and will be judged by God’s holy standards,” according to HuffPost blogger Michael C. Long. Graham also told the woman she could be “healed” of her same-sex attraction through belief in Christ.

He also once said, “Let me say this loud and clear, we traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare,” as quoted by the U.K.’s Pink News.

In 1993, he suggested that AIDS was punishment from God. “'ls AIDS a judgment of God” he said while preaching in Columbus, Ohio. “l could not be sure, but I think so.” He quickly backtracked, telling Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper two weeks later, ”l don't believe that and I don't know why I said it. I remember saying it, and I immediately regretted it and almost went back and clarified the statement. …  God stands in judgment of all sins, but AIDS is a disease that affects people and is not part of that judgment. To say that God has judged people with AIDS would be very wrong and cruel. I would like to say that I am very sorry for what I said.”

In 2012, he endorsed an anti-marriage equality constitutional amendment in his home state of North Carolina, although, given Graham’s advanced age, some suspected that was mainly the doing of his son. "At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage," Graham wrote in a full-page advertisement that appeared in several newspapers in the state. "The Bible is clear — God's definition of marriage is between a man and a woman. I want to urge my fellow North Carolinians to vote FOR the marriage amendment on Tuesday, May 8." Voters approved the amendment, which was nullified by a federal court ruling in 2014 but remains part of the North Carolina constitution.

In a 2005 interview with The New York Times, Graham said he preferred to stay away from controversial issues such as abortion and homosexuality, which some of his contemporaries, like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, were all too eager to deal with. "I'm just going to preach the Gospel and am not going to get off on all these hot-button issues," he said. "If I get on these other subjects, it divides the audience on an issue that is not the issue I'm promoting. I'm just promoting the Gospel." He also distanced himself from his son’s comment that Islam was "a very evil and wicked religion."

Billy Graham, though, was caught making negative remarks about members of other religious groups. In taped conversations with President Richard Nixon, a close friend, in 1972, Graham agreed with Nixon that Jews controlled the media and was heard saying “the synagogue of Satan.” After the tapes were made public 30 years later, Graham said he was not anti-Semitic and emphasized his support for Israel.

Graham, who grew up Presbyterian but eventually joined the more evangelical Southern Baptist denomination, long supported the Southern Baptists’ refusal to ordain women as ministers, although he eventually said he could accept women’s ordination. He initially opposed his daughter Anne Graham Lotz’s plan to teach a Bible class but later called her the family’s best preacher, according to NPR.

His views on race evolved as well. “Having once tolerated separate black and white seating sections at his rallies, he later insisted that everyone be treated equally, and he invited Martin Luther King Jr. to offer a prayer at one of his Madison Square Garden rallies in 1957,” NPR reports in its obituary. “Though not an aggressive campaigner on behalf of civil rights, Graham's support for racial integration earned him the enmity of the Ku Klux Klan and Southern segregationists.”

While Graham's friendship with Nixon cooled after the president was caught up in the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon's resignation, the evangelist continued to pursue relationships with U.S. presidents. He met with every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, NPR notes. Son Franklin delivered one of the prayers at Donald Trump's inauguration and has been a frequent defender of Trump.

Billy Graham's survivors include his son and daughter.

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