The fatal attraction of temporal power
By Gaither Stewart
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Oct 5, 2007, 00:49

Religious leaders can�t resist it. They simply love temporal power. Since the pharaohs built their pyramids to commemorate their divinity, religious leaders� attraction to earthly power has seemed irresistible. To be God or his direct representative among men and to exercise temporal power has attracted religious leaders since time immemorial.

Here I have several contemporaries in mind: Reverend Billy Graham who shared in the war administrations of several American presidents, his Catholic counterpart, Monsignor Christian von Wernich, one of the exterminators of dissidents in Argentina�s last brutal military dictatorship, and the popes of Rome.

Oscar Wilde�s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), tells the story of a handsome youth whose beautiful portrait mysteriously changes throughout his life to reflect the ravages of his gradual moral degeneration while leaving Dorian�s physical beauty intact. Dorian�s pact with the devil came to mind again in these days as I became familiar with Cecil Bothwell�s portrait of Reverend Billy Graham in his recent book, The Prince of War, which prompted me to examine recent photographs of the rich, 87-year old North Carolina evangelist.

As a child, I saw Billy Graham many times. In my memory, the Baptist preacher was handsome and cold, with piercing light blue eyes, eyes that one Sunday in the First Baptist Church in Asheville, NC, seemed to fix in my boy�s eyes both accusation and challenge. Billy Graham then was already an idol of Asheville area Baptists while he was becoming known in the world at large. My parents, who like most Baptists adored Graham, had pinned me up front on the right side of the church just under the evangelist dressed in a dark blue suit up on the pulpit. His eyes, flashing and blazing and admonishing from above, fascinated me. I was as if hypnotized by his Rasputin-like magnetism. But above all, I think now, he terrified me. In my reconstruct today of that meeting at the time, he was blossoming as the famous evangelist, who seemed to emerge from a gossamer territory somewhere between heaven and hell. I felt then that he wanted to drag me personally into his kingdom. In later years, when he would appear at the Baptist �retreat� called Montreat near Asheville, where he made his home, people shivered in the anticipation of hearing his voice or shaking his hand. I instead shuddered in terror. Though I didn�t realize it then, I was right to be afraid.

Investigative journalist Cecil Bothwell documents how the Baptist evangelist blessed every war in which the United States has been involved in the last 60 years. Bothwell reveals that Graham in a 13-page letter of April 1969 to his pal Richard Nixon urged the president to bomb North Vietnam: �There are tens of thousands of North Vietnamese defectors to bomb and invade the North. Why should all the fighting be in the South? Especially let them bomb the dikes which could overnight destroy the economy of North Vietnam.� Bothwell recalls that military action against the dikes would probably kill a million people and wipe out an already poor nation�s agricultural system. Graham�s advice fell on receptive ears, for not long afterwards the US moved the Vietnam war north and west.

Bothwell reports that Billy Graham not only supported each of America�s wars but that he claimed its armies were carrying the word and the will of the Lord. Graham attacked antiwar protesters as radicals who wanted to overthrow the �American way of life.� He charged that Martin Luther King�s famous antiwar sermon in New York in 1967 was an affront to the thousands of Negro troops in Vietnam . . . but after King�s assassination the good Christian pastor had absolutely nothing to say. Now that I am familiar with Cecil Bothwell�s The Prince Of War (Brave Ulysses Books, 2007) I realize I would have suggested a subtitle to the book: Or Prince of Evil. For me the warmonger preacher will always be the man who stepped out of hell itself.

In an e-mail exchange, Bothwell confirms his view that the main point of his analysis is that like other evangelists of his ilk, Billy Graham loves money and Power. Americans know many of their names: Pat Robertson who called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Ch�vez, the crook Jimmy Swaggart and the fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, all of whom built financial empires in a framework of total unaccountability and evil. Better than the others, however, Billy Graham managed to build his economic empire based first on his magnetic personality and second on the gullibility of religious fundamentalist America, while all the time remaining widely socially acceptable.

The difference between Graham and his confederates was his attraction to political power. Perhaps more than money he has loved to be both in the proximity of political Power in Washington and to yield it, too.

Bothwell underlines that there is nothing Billy Graham likes more than sucking up to Power and being photographed in the White House together with presidents, praying, praying, praying, without a word against war or the evils of war, against torture of men and peoples.

It is for this reason that for me Billy Graham is the Prince of Evil, engaged in evil in God�s name. Graham claims to have spoken to over 200 million people in 185 countries. Yet, he has seldom spoken of truth and love and solidarity and resistance to evil. Like Dorian Gray�s relationship with his own beauty, Graham seems to believe that his magnetism gives him a divine right to power and glory . . . and that, moreover, God is on his side. He has lived his career as if the visible world were of no import. Maybe he no longer believes that, for unlike Dorian Gray his face in recent photographs reflects for anyone to see not only the lines of age, but what I see as the physical signs of a progressive moral decline.

Billy Graham is a Baptist, a Southern Baptist; the worst sort. But Catholics are no better. The Argentinean chaplain of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police, Christian Federico von Wernich, is today on trial near Buenos Aires for his involvement in murder and torture while he was closely associated with the ferocious military regime in Argentina, (1976-83). One of the most atrocious crimes in which he is accused of participating was that of the �Group of Seven� students, whom he broke through their confessions and who were later murdered by von Wernich�s military associates. It is alleged that he often visited relatives of the seven students asking for money and assuring them that their children would be released if they cooperated.

The report, �Never Again� (Nunca M�s), of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared charged von Wernich -- along with much of the clergy -- with complicity in torture and arbitrary detention. Von Wernich, as did Billy Graham, even took it on himself to reassure those engaged in mass murder, now officially labeled genocide, that their acts were necessary and patriotic and that God knew it was for the good of the country.

Christian von Wernich was finally arrested in 2003 and is today on trial for his crimes: 42 arbitrary arrests, 31 cases of torture and seven murders.

The Roman Church and temporal power

Neither of the above two examples can surpass the historic aspirations of the Roman Catholic Church for temporal power. From my Rome base, not a day passes that the Church, whether the Italian Church or the Vatican, or the Pope himself, does not intervene in some way in Italian state affairs, as if the times of the 600 years of the Papal States comprising today�s Latium -- the most neglected of Italy�s regions -- were still alive. A 14th century bull of Pope Boniface VIII expressed the principle that every pope, be he conservative or liberal, would secretly like to revive, to the effect that �for every human creature it is essential for their salvation to be subject to the authority of the Roman Pontiff.�

Even today�s Pope Benedict XVI, who published a book with the audacious title of God�s Revolution, makes his pronouncements on Italian legislation concerning temporal matters like divorce, birth control, abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, same sex marriage, women�s rights and officially or unofficially intervenes in Italian elections. The Pope�s ferocious battle against Islam and his encouragement of proselytizing among Moslems continually stirs up and accentuates tensions and problems with Islamic nations and Moslems in Europe.

As one journalist who recently raised the issue of the Holy See�s claim to statehood, I, too, have often wondered why any country should maintain diplomatic relations with the Roman Church. Relations with a rigid institution that acts in total uncontrolled and undemocratic secrecy and whose dream is to control again the temporal world of yore in which everything progressive was forbidden!

Why should nations of the world maintain separate embassies to the Holy See in Rome? What if the Southern Baptist Convention under Reverend Billy Graham should suggest the same kind of diplomatic recognition and invite world nations to establish their embassies in Nashville, Tennessee, and in a flurry of temporal-spiritual activity transmit through them Graham�s fundamentalist messages across the planet?

Gaither Stewart, writer and journalist, is originally from Asheville, NC. After studies at the University of California at Berkeley and other American universities, he has lived his adult life abroad, first in Germany, then in Italy, alternated with long residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico and Russia. After a career in journalism as the Italian correspondent for the Rotterdam daily newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to the press, radio and TV in various European countries, he writes fiction full-time. His books of fiction, "Icy Current Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger" and "Once In Berlin" are published by Wind River Press. His new novel, "Asheville," is published by He lives with his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy. E-mail:

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