One of the people I’m connected to on Facebook, a communications trainer, posted about the death of US evangelist Billy Graham the other day: “You may or may not agree with his message,” he wrote, but you can learn many lessons about effective communication.
You may or may not agree with his message?
That jews had a “stranglehold” on the country?
That AIDS was a judgement from God?
That the US must nuke Vietnam?
That civil rights campaigners shouldn’t be so uppity?
That homosexuality was an abomination that inevitably lead to a sordid death?
That the US must become a theocracy?
Many LGBT people are getting astonishing abuse on social media right now for pointing out just one or two of these things, all of which are widely known and well documented.
As Bob Moser writes in Rolling Stone, Graham was gifted and influential, “the most famous and heavily self-promoted Christian of the entire 20th Century.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he was a good man or a universally positive influence.
he was not only a virulent homophobe, but a few other not-so-Godly things as well: Jew-basher, aspiring war criminal, back-stabbing political operator and Christian Dominionist predicting imminent apocalypse, for starters.
I’m not so sure there are lessons to be learnt for aspiring communications professionals beyond: if all your rivals are crazed, woman-grabbing racists, not coming across as a crazed, woman-grabbing racist is a good way to differentiate yourself.
Beyond that, Graham’s deal was pretty basic: persuade people that there’s a need for what you’re selling, then sell it to them. Carnival barkers, snake-oil salesmen and politicians have been doing this stuff for centuries.
In communication terms, Graham wasn’t dramatically different from any other charismatic demagogue.
Let’s pick one.
Lewis Charles Levin agitated against the subversion of America by degenerate “aliens” in the 1840s and 50s. Like Graham he did so by harnessing technology to spread his message far and wide: in his case the steam-powered “penny press”; in Graham’s, TV. Levin has since been described as the Donald Trump of the Nineteenth Century.
Levin’s message was simple. America was under attack from people whose objective was “so monstrous, so appalling, so hideous, as the possible overthrow of American Freedom.” He railed against the evils of political correctness, although of course it wasn’t called that back then, and was a hugely influential political force.
Levin’s aliens to fear and fight? Catholics.
I didn’t pick Levin’s name out of a hat. Some years later, Billy Graham was the prime mover in an attempt to stop a Catholic, John F Kennedy, from becoming President. He hosted a meeting of religious leaders where the participants discussed “the nature and character of the Roman Catholic Church” and “were unanimous in feeling that the Protestants in America must be aroused in some way, or the solid block Catholic voting, plus money, will take this election.” However, news of the meeting leaked and caused a PR disaster.
The meeting’s most prominent guest was the Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. In the aftermath of the meeting:
He was condemned in a published statement by a hundred religious leaders, excoriated in both the religious and secular press and dropped as a syndicated columnist from a dozen newspapers.
Peale took the fall, but Graham was the leader.
In response, JFK said:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.
Graham’s message was the opposite.
You might have called Billy Graham the rock star of Biblical literalism, except that he was bigger than Elvis and the Beatles combined.
And like rock stars, the character you see isn’t necessarily who they really are.