Toward the end of June, as the dog-days of summer fell upon New York City suddenly and definitely, I made a religious pilgrimage to Corona Park, Queens, to see Billy Graham’s supposedly Last Crusade. I went with two of my more Christian friends, Tobin Hack and Eleanor Barkhorn, staid, religious WASPs of the highest order. Riding a crowded 7 train out to Queens I felt a palpable sense of excitement. There were all sorts of pilgrims on the train: fresh-faced Koreans with children in tow, Bible-toting African-Americans dressed in white, and even a recently-married Princeton couple about to set out as missionaries to the Third World. It was like going to a Mets game, only more diverse.
From the subway, to get to Corona Park – where Graham was speaking – we had to walk down a half-mile open-air promenade. This walk proved to be the highlight of my pilgrimage. The promenade was where the real revival was happening: this was where the weirdos and the Jesus freaks and the born-agains congregated, where the holy people felt the presence of the Lord.
There were bearded, hippie Christians, dressed in flowing robes, singing and dancing and playing the guitar. There were Amish-looking girls in long dresses handing out religious pamphlets, their dour faces straight out of Grant Woods’ “American Gothic” There were several groups of Asians, each clustered around some sort of leader/translator. There was even a bearded hipster sporting aviators and wearing a “Jesus Surfs without a Board” t-shirt.
There were excited left-wing fanatics handing out leaflets, holding up “Billy Graham Kills” signs. There were excited right-wing fanatics handing out leaflets, holding up “Graham Leads to Hell” signs. And what’s best? No one noticed the profound weirdness of it all. The energy on the promenade was infectious, and I quickly found myself admiring the spiritual rigor of the participants.
This promised to be a good, old-fashioned revival. We were down by the river; the baptismal fires of the nineteenth century beckoned.
We finally arrived at the main event, and the service began. The audience was immediately assaulted by the sound of Christian rock (Christian muzak, really), and told of its diversity, of the wonder of being in New York City. But the program itself was not particularly diverse.
For over an hour we listened to several different pastors (white, black, Hispanic) preach the same thing: accept Jesus as your Lord, and sing along to His Christian rock songs. There was little fire to these sermons – and absolutely none to the songs – but there was much talk of 1957, when Billy Graham packed Madison Square Garden for one hundred consecutive nights. We were told that Christian radio and TV were tuned in, and that “we were created to worship.” A certain Michael W. Smith came on. Michael W. Smith is a worship sermonizer, and he dedicated a song to the “heroes of 9/11” as a superimposed American flag waved behind him on a video screen.
Mostly, I was bored. A few scattered people were really into the service, but the vast majority seemed only vaguely interested. There was too much megachurch, too little revival. How are we supposed to feel the power of the Lord when His messengers sound more like Nick Carter than Aretha Franklin?
Finally, without introduction, Billy Graham stepped onto the stage. The grizzled, wizened old man (Graham is seventy-seven) spoke about the Crusade’s logistical details and about Jesus. His first thanksgivings were not to God or Jesus, but to two Jewish New York politicians: Senator Chuck Schumer and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Graham then told the story of Noah and the Flood, and declared, “we are approaching a climactic moment in history.” “There’s going to come an end of the world,” Graham said. “God is warning us.”
Graham preached fear of damnation rather than appreciation for Jesus’ love. Graham’s utter lack of emphasis on Good Works was astounding – there was nothing about being kind, about loving your neighbor, about caring for the poor. It was a straight hell-and-brimstone speech: it was all about personal faith. “If I die, I’d go straight to heaven and see Jesus,” Graham said. “We are divided in death. Some are eternally lost.”
I was bothered by Graham’s smugness about his own fate. Who is he to be sure of his own salvation? Who are any of us?
For me, the most powerful aspect of Christian theology (and I am, admittedly, a Jew) is the idea that we are all sinners, that we have all sinned, that only by the Grace of God are we saved. Graham’s absolute faith in the world to come bespeaks a lack of care about the state of the world he lives in. It’s of little surprise that many of today’s evangelical Christians – Graham’s intellectual heirs – don’t care for Jesus’ social teachings. Some evangelical churches, of course, are deeply committed to tending to society’s downtrodden. But concern for the poor has disappeared from the public religious discourse. Evangelicals waste their energy on condemning homosexuality and abortion, instead of advocating for their less fortunate neighbors.
Toward the end of the service, we were encouraged to give money to the Crusade. “The Lord has prospered you,” we were told, and we should therefore prosper Him – in the form of a credit card contribution to the Crusade, “over and above gifts to your local church.” We were then directed to stop by the “Crusade Book Table” to buy t-shirts and books. Billy Graham might want to save my soul, but his Crusade wants to sustain itself monetarily. Today’s evangelical Christianity is little more than a marketing brand. Billy Graham didn’t come to Corona Park to preach – he came to market Billy Graham, the man who used to preach.
We have come a long way from Jonathan Edwards, from the rigors and fears of old American religion. Today’s evangelicals do not speak in tongues; they do not baptize themselves in rivers or at tent-revivals. Instead, they aspire to one day attend a mega-church in the exurbs, where they are exhorted to vote Republican and hate homosexuals. Instead, they turn on their televisions to TNN and give Pat Robertson money for his next Crusade.
I was suddenly struck by the Americanness of the whole thing. There was reason this wasn’t a raucous revival; Billy Graham and his Crusade leaders were acting the part of regular Americans in order to play into the audience’s immigrant aspiration. There was a hidden subtext to the entire service: If you accept Jesus as I do, you will eventually leave Queens, you will leave the rotten city, you will find a welcome home in white exurban megachurches, and your children will learn Christian-rock hymns. You will, above all else, become a true, regular American.
The many immigrants who saw Billy Graham at Corona Park can tell their children they heard a legendary preacher who once spoke the Good Word at Madison Square Garden for one hundred consecutive nights. But when they saw him he was only a shadow of what he once was, hollowed out by the commercial needs of the evangelical movement he helped create.