Once upon a time, newspaper editors thought that religion was the kind of narrow, insider subject that could be locked into a weekly journalism ghetto called the "church page."
That eventually evolved into the "religion" page, but the idea was pretty much the same. This concept began fading about the time I reached the news biz, in the early 1980s.
Now, I don't think there is anything wrong with having a section or a column dedicated to religion-news topics. I had better think that, since I have been writing that kind of column for 30 years or more. It's nice to have a place in the news format in which you KNOW you can get a religion topic into print.
The crucial point, however, is that religion is a subject that wants to roam all over the place, if journalists take it seriously. It should end up on A1, on the education beat, in the business section, in the sports pages, etc., etc. I have had a lot of fun through the decades (and wrote a book about it) following religion ideas, symbols and trends into the world of popular culture and entertainment.
So with that in mind let me (a) highly, highly recommend a new Sarah Pulliam Bailey piece about the Netflix series "The Crown" that included scenes about Queen Elizabeth's faith and her 1955 encounter with a young American evangelist -- as in Billy Graham. At the same time, I would like to (b) ask people out there in dead-tree-pulp land where The Washington Post editors played this story in the actual newspaper, as opposed to its "Acts of Faith" status online. I sure hope that this ran, in print, in the Style or Entertainment sections. That's where it belongs.
The piece is a must-read, if you have the slightest interest in these two towering figures in 20th Century world culture. This is top-flight popular culture writing that also -- as you would expect -- pays serious attention to the religious content. It is not a piece of aggregation, but includes solid chunks of material from relevant books and interviews with scholars, such as Graham biographer William Martin, and other logical sources close to Graham. For example, concerning that meeting between Elizabeth and Billy Graham:
Franklin Graham said the show asked him to consult but he declined, saying any conversations they had were private. He said his father usually gave a dignitary a Bible, often the latest one he was carrying, so he believes he probably gave the queen one.
“There’s no question, she’s very devout in her faith and very strong in her faith,” Franklin Graham said. “Her faith has been consistent not just with conversations with my father but throughout her life.”
Bailey (a former member of the GetReligion team) builds this long feature around a series of questions.
It's all interesting, but I would like to focus on her newsy take on the much-discussed "Billy Graham Rules" (hello Vice President Mike Pence) that governed the handsome young preacher's ethics, finances and interactions with others. Thus:
(3) It’s unlikely, although still possible, that the two met alone.
“The Crown” shows the queen meeting alone with the evangelist so they could discuss things privately. However, Graham long had a personal rule that he would not meet alone with another woman, something that became known as “the Billy Graham rule” and has come under the spotlight since Vice President Pence has said he uses the same rule.
Historian and Graham biographer William Martin says Billy Graham began the practice in 1948, and it encompassed lunches, counseling sessions, even a ride to an auditorium or an airport because the pastor believed it helped keep him from “even the appearance of evil.”
Martin says, however, that there’s not much chance that the queen would have been left truly alone even if no attendant was in the room. But if the queen asked for this, Martin and fellow Graham historian Grant Wacker both believe he probably would’ve made an exception.
“Graham always meant for the rule to be observed with common sense,” said Wacker, who is a historian at Duke Divinity School. “The point was to prevent candlelit dinners far from home.”
The very next question gets into theological territory and it's the issue at the heart of this episode of "The Crown."
This is serious and very human territory. It deserves a wide audience.
(4) How Graham might have responded to the question about forgiveness.
The queen tells Graham she asked him to return to Buckingham Palace to talk about forgiveness. “Are there any circumstances, do you feel, where one can be a good Christian and yet not forgive?” she asks. Graham says Christian teaching is very clear that no one is beneath forgiveness. But forgiveness was conditional, she counters.
“One prays for those one cannot forgive,” he says.
The exchange highlights a fuzzy line between personal forgiveness and public forgiveness. Does Elizabeth, as a niece, have a responsibility to forgive her uncle? Should she, as the queen, extend forgiveness to someone who, by the show and historical documents’ account, betrayed his country?
It’s unclear exactly what was said in those meetings. Wacker said that after Graham revealed private conversations with President Harry Truman, Truman never forgave him, and Graham resolved not to discuss any conversation with any head of state ever again.
However, Queen Elizabeth has made several public comments about the role of forgiveness in her life.
“Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith,” she said in 2011. “It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.”
Read it all. And pass it on.