"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Billy Graham, Elmer Gantry, And The Dalai Lama

A few years ago Billy Graham was everywhere – on television, kneeling alongside Presidents (his account of praying with a tearful Richard Nixon made headlines), lecturing, and preaching at tent revivals.  He was America’s evangelist, the public face of our deep Christian spirituality.  We looked to him for moral and ethical guidance.

Or not.  To many he was a charlatan, one more publicity-seeking, Bible-thumping huckster in the long tradition of American revivalists, snake-oil salesman, and get-rich-quick carny con men. Burt Lancaster played a perfect Billy Graham in Elmer Gantry, the Sinclair Lewis itinerant preacher out to make a buck, get in Sister Ruth’s pants, and take every rural rube in the country for a ride. Lancaster could have been portraying Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, or a hundred other evangelists who have barnstormed the country since the wagons went west.

Protestants, however, did not have a lock on evangelism. I was forced to watch Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen give his weekly homilies on television.  He looked great – simple cassock, rosary beads, and red skull cap. 

He was folksy and non-threatening.  He gave homilies rather than terrifying visions of hell and damnation. “Hearing nuns' confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn”, he said, and was kind, gentle, and understanding.  He was the nation’s good cop to the rabid, possessed ones that hammered Catholics every Sunday.

Father Brophy, one of the priests at my local parish, always started off like Archbishop Sheen, all homily and references to heaven and the angels, the forgiving nature of Jesus Christ, and the sanctity and goodness of the Catholic Church and the Holy Father. As he warmed up, he got more animated, and left hope and salvation behind.  Sin was what got his juices flowing.  He honed in on us children, staring at us with his beady eyes, and calling us godless reprobates.  “Honor your fathers and mothers?”, he snarled sarcastically. “Why, you don’t know what the words mean.”  He stopped to wipe his brow. “You are insolent, ungrateful spawn of the devil.  You have been given life and you repudiate those who, in God’s embrace, brought you forth into the world. You are not innocent ingénues, but first sinners, doomed to perdition and life everlasting in the pits of sulfur and intolerable fire.”

A number of parents met with Father Brophy and asked him to tone down his sermons addressed to children.  He was scaring them, and they didn’t want to come to church. “I mean to scare them”, he said.  “I want to scare them so badly that they will never, ever stray from the path of Our Lord and Savior.”

This was nothing compared to what he had in store for adults, especially when he got to Adultery and Coveting Thy Neighbor’s Wife.  When he started in on fornication, masturbation, untoward, and undisciplined demonic desire, he was unstoppable.  His eyes rolled in his head.  His face became red and apoplectic. Spittle flew from his mouth.  He waved his arms like a dervish, yelling about the flesh, the pleasures of the flesh, the soft, rounded contours of the flesh, the hard penetrating flesh.  He was transported to another world.  When he finally returned, and when whatever spirits that possessed him had flown, he again mopped his brow, adjusted his cassock, and folded his hands. “Let us pray”, he said.

There was no escaping Billy Graham for almost fifty years. He was everywhere and with everyone. He was America’s go-to good person. Being seen with Billy Graham had no downside whatsoever.  

Those few who thought him a sanctimonious publicity hound were too few to matter. Politicians and political wannabees trotted him out even when he was doddering and not sure who they were.

It was a win-win game.  Politicos used Graham to pander to their fundamentalist voters, to show the Christian flag, and to stand publically for morality and righteousness.  And Graham basked in the reflected glory of public figures.  He didn’t seem to care who they were or what they stood for.  He was uninterested in the straightness of their moral spine, the cut of their ethical jib, or the purpose in their hearts.  He would stand, kneel, and sing with anybody.

The poor bastard just smiled at the cameras, embraced whomever was with him on the stage, waved his arms at the audience, then slipped into something comfortable and nodded off to sleep.

The Dalai Lama is the Billy Graham of today.  He is as sanctimonious, as hungry for the spotlight, and as self-serving and ambitious as the old Bible-thumper himself.  There isn’t a politician in America who doesn’t want a photo op with him.  Here is His Holiness with President Bush before their golf game.

He loves to shmooze with rock stars and Hollywood greats. He and Russell Brand, below, enjoy audience applause after some shtick.

Now admittedly I have a very different image of Tibetan monks.  I have always thought of them as reclusive, solitary, and meditative, not much different from monks of any other denomination who choose to renounce life, to contemplate God, and to honor, worship, and devote themselves to Him in a strictly personal way. 

They symbolize spiritual purity and are reminders of the profane and illusory nature of our world.  They are an example of spiritual certainty.  Their lives are led only for God.  They are often criticized for their reclusiveness.  They are fleeing the real world, say some critics, and abrogating their God-ordained responsibilities to help others.

On the contrary, they are are providing an even more important service by living a life of faith alone and demonstrating its primacy and its sole place in the spiritual center of human life.

It is hard for me to stomach images of the so-called ‘spiritual leader’ of the Tibetan people schmoozing with the swells of the world.  Here is a photo of His Holiness out for a golf game with former Mexican President Vicente Fox.

I am aware of the argument for such political engagement and visibility on the part of the Dalai Lama – the plight of the Tibetan people.  Yet, no matter how many Richard Gere’s he recruits to his cause, or how many rounds of golf he plays with world leaders, nothing but Kissinger-style realpolitik is going to get China to budge on the issue of Tibet.  They haven’t moved a whisker in nearly seventy years, and there is nothing that is likely to change their minds now. Tibet in Chinese eyes is a renegade province – an insolent upstart forgetting its benefactors and protectors. China is growing richer and more powerful by the day, increasingly a master of its own fate, and impervious to foreign blandishments and sabre-rattling.  The independence of Tibet has zero geo-political interest for the United States, and further rattling China’s cage will pay no dividends.

Which brings me to the Dalai Lama and Barack Obama.  Another great photo op for the President now that Billy Graham is close to pushing up daisies.  China routinely complains and retorts, but the Chinese are too smart and politically savvy to worry that this Tibetan publicity hound can do them any harm. 

The Dalai Lama knows this, but also knows that he has a large groupie following.  Young people put stickers with his aphorisms up on cubicle walls and send each other Dalai Lama greeting cards.

Whenever I hear these treacly aphorisms, I think of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen who was a master at saying nothing and making people feel good.  He, like the Dalai Lama, was a kindly old gent who never threatened, always smiled, and was good magazine material. Both men do no harm, and I suppose that if the words of the Dalai Lama inspire even a few people to reassess their lives, he has done some good.  Yet for me there will always be something smarmy and smug about the man – just like Billy Graham and his televangelist colleagues.  I can’t take any of them seriously.  Especially the Dalai Lama.

2 comments:

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  2. Ron, unless there's been a funeral in the last few days, Billy Graham is still barely alive and sending out "messages" through his son "Franklin." I always respected Graham senior to a certain extent because he went against the Southern Baptists during the civil right movement and was insistent on integrated attendance at his "crusades." I think Franklin Graham is the worst sort of snake oil salesman, though.

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