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The two faces of Billy Graham

Saturday, March 09, 2002

When word got round about Billy Graham's anti-Semitic dialogues with noted Jew-counter Richard Nixon, I could not help but thank the Almighty that Harry Golden is dead and safe from humiliation.

Harry Golden was the editor and publisher of The Carolina Israelite, possibly the loneliest job in all of Charlotte, N.C. Golden was a Jewish immigrant who spent his life in the South patiently explaining the cords that unify Christian and Jew, black and white, liberal and conservative. He was, in sum, a national treasure -- a man able to speak across a range of traditions and beliefs and doing so in one of the most difficult venues of the time.

In the 1950s, Billy Graham took over Youth for Christ, a project that had been making Jews nervous because of some of its rhetoric. Graham also had, as his mentor -- in fact he once introduced him publicly as such -- the Rev. Mordecai Ham, a revivalist who considered Jews "beyond redemption" and warned anyone who voted for Catholic candidate Al Smith that they were damning themselves. Ham did not limit himself to denouncing Jews as a group. Once he had pitched tent in a given town, he would denounce, by name, local Jewish merchants. This was the man who converted Billy Graham.

But Graham was not Mordecai Ham. He refused to dedicate the newly built Coliseum in Charlotte unless the audience was integrated. The day in December 1956 when Golden cornered him with questions about Ham, Youth for Christ and his view of Jews in general, Graham told Golden one statement could answer all of his questions.

"I will say this about Jews and all other non-Christians: We must lead millions of Gentiles to Jesus Christ, who then by their example of love will eliminate the need for evangelists; each Christian by the manner of his living will be a missionary in himself."

Golden wished Graham a merry Christmas.

The matter did not end there. For the next 25 years, Harry Golden and Billy Graham kept in touch and many of these letters have been saved at the special collections section at Atkins Library of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, a record of what were then the two most famous sons of that city.

Golden, a Jew, arranged for Graham, a Baptist, to become the first Protestant to speak at Belmont Abbey, a Catholic college. Graham helped make arrangements for Golden to give a speech at Wheaton College, Graham's alma mater.

When Graham visited Israel in 1960, Golden sent a letter of introduction to Teddy Kollek, director of the prime minister's office and later mayor of Jerusalem.

"I believe that today Billy Graham is one of the great philo-Semites among the Christian clergy of the western world," Golden wrote. Graham was warmly received in Israel.

Five years later, when Graham was ill, Golden sent a letter of encouragement. A Graham aide, T. W. Wilson, replied on his behalf: "He said for me to assure you that he would be happy any time to be identified with you."

In 1973, Golden sent Graham a copy of a brief story about the travels of a penny during Christmas, from a boy's pocket to a charitable kettle to a church altar -- its moral being that even the tiniest of coins can do big things.

Graham replied that he'd read it to his family on Christmas morning.

"You too are a good friend -- and I love you!" Graham wrote.

This was one year after Graham reassured Richard Nixon that he was not mistaken in distrusting the Jews.

"A lot of Jews are great friends of mine," Graham told Nixon, as the office tape-recorder whirred. "They swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I am friendly to Israel and so forth. But they don't know how I really feel about what they're doing to this country, and I have no power and no way to handle them."

So here I sit, two documents before me. One is a transcript of Billy Graham explaining his inner torments at being unable to tell his Jewish friends how he really feels about them. The other is a letter dated Dec. 20, 1973, telling Harry Golden, "You are a good friend -- and I love you very much!"

I suspect that Billy Graham really did love Harry Golden very much. He was a hard man not to love. I suspect, too, that it is possible for a man to dislike an entire people and yet delude himself into thinking he can love one of its constituent members, as if people can somehow separate themselves from what they are.

But it is also possible that a bit of Mordecai Ham found its way into Graham's marrow. Just as Harry Golden could no more have abandoned his roots as a Jew than Graham could have cast aside his Biblical fundamentalism, our lives are a constant struggle between what we are born to be and what we choose to become. Reconciling those two is how we grow. It is how a man becomes, in the words of Billy Graham, "a missionary in himself."

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