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Protestantism was born in Germany, but it was Billy Graham who brought evangelicalism there

Flowers and notes are left at the Billy Graham Training Center on Thursday in Asheville, N.C. (AP)

Billy Graham was the most famous Christian preacher in the world for more than half a century. He was so famous, people felt like they had to have an opinion about him.

Graham died last week at 99. The evangelist lay in honor at the U.S. Capitol Wednesday, and the country is debating his legacy.

Was he “America’s pastor”? Should we think of him as the last bipartisan evangelical or a tool of partisan politics? Was he critical to the success of the civil rights movement or a white nationalist? Was he on the “wrong side of history”? Did he focus just on Jesus, or was Graham preaching a “hyper-nationalistic, militaristic and xenophobic” gospel?

Graham is a cultural inkblot. Different people see different things. In death, as in life, he is the kind of famous figure about whom people define themselves by how they feel.

This was never clearer than in Graham’s crusades in Cold War Germany. The Germans even invented a word for “someone who likes Billy Graham.”

Graham’s first German crusade was in 1954. He started the trip with a sermon at an American Army base in Frankfurt and ended it at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin. Where Adolf Hitler had announced his vision of Aryan superiority in 1936, Graham told people to give their lives to Jesus. Thousands came to see him, and many streamed forward to commit their lives to Christ when Graham gave his famous altar call.

Graham preached in Germany again in 1955, reaching tens of thousands of Germans. Then he came a third time in 1960.

It was a moment of identity crisis for German Protestants. During Hitler’s years in power, they had aligned themselves with Nazi ideas of German identity. Now, with Berlin divided (though not yet separated by a wall), the country was the symbolic center of the Cold War standoff between Communist Russia and Christian America. Graham forced them to stop and think: Should the church embrace this image of Christianity?

Graham seemed incredibly modern and up to date, even as he preached an “old-fashioned” gospel. As German historian Uta Balbier writes, the country was fascinated by the evangelist’s lifestyle. The papers wrote about how good he looked in a suit, how he played golf, how he traveled in airplanes and drove a nice car. They were fascinated by the portable microphone he carried with him. The crusades were supported by a massive advertising campaign, and everything was efficiently organized with the latest in business management theory.

Graham himself, the Germans noted, talked about salvation as a consumer product. “I am selling the greatest product in the world,” he said in Düsseldorf. “Why shouldn’t it be promoted as well as soap?”

One German church leader described Graham as “American through and through,” and praised him for being so comfortable in the contemporary world. “He is familiar with the globe and all its continents,” the church leader said. “He is a modern being, for whom everything modern is absolutely natural.” Couldn’t German Protestantism be this relevant? Graham made Christian faith seem so dynamic and lively.

Supporters within the official German Protestant Church saw Graham as a great example of how they could modernize. Graham’s simple, accessible Christianity would help the country adjust to modern capitalism without losing its soul to consumerism. It would give them the spiritual resources they needed to oppose communism. It would attract a younger generation, disillusioned by the church’s Nazi history.

The critics were louder. One leader of the confessing church — the branch of German Protestants who had opposed Hitler, and paid a very high price for their resistance — said he was terrified of Graham’s crowds. Germans, of all people, should be suspicious of masses thrilling to eloquent speech.

German theologians had concerns as well. One leading theologian said he didn’t think the method of mass evangelism was really effective at changing people’s hearts. Another said Graham’s idea of salvation was not quite right. Graham also connected the gospel too closely with American lifestyle and Cold War politics, making it seem like Christianity was just the cheerleader for an American empire. Graham’s gospel didn’t sound like a message of peace, but German rearmament.

One headline seemed to confirm this, announcing: Billy Graham preaches “waffenbrüderschaft”— brotherhood in arms.

A third group of West Germans liked Graham a lot but didn’t particular care for the official German Protestant Church. They were part of the “free church,” without official support from the government. Graham was not part of a rigidly organized hierarchical structure that had an official, legal relationship with the state. American evangelicalism was free. Church and state were separate, even if the country was “one nation, under God.” Shouldn’t German “evangelische” churches disentangle themselves from the government?

Graham, in those years, became the focal point of this conversation, as German Protestants tried to think about who they were and who they wanted to be. People argued. They took sides. They each came to their own answer to the question, “Do you like Billy Graham?”

Then in 1960, Graham changed the German language. He was preaching at the Berlin City Mission. Peter Schneider, one of the key organizers of the crusade, was translating as Graham preached. Graham would say a sentence, pause, and Schneider would translate to German. Schneider would pause, and Graham would continue on. It was quick, on-the-spot translation.

Schneider was good translator, but in that sermon in 1960 he got tripped up when Graham told the newly converted that they should join an evangelical church. As German historian Gisa Bauer explains, the direct translation of “evangelical church” is “evangelische gemeinde.” But Schneider stopped, because that wasn’t quite what Graham was saying.

In German, “evangelische” meant the official Protestant church. Not Methodist. Not Baptist. None of the many different church communities that Graham might mean when he said “evangelical” in English. In German, the “evangelische” were the official Protestant church, and some of those Christians liked Graham and some were strongly opposed.

The debate about the meaning of “evangelical,” which continues to this day, was caught, for a moment, in a tricky translation problem. But Schneider only had a moment.

Without thinking about it for more than a long pause, he invented a new word: “evangelikale.”

Those who experienced spiritual rebirth at the Billy Graham crusade, Schneider translated, should go join an evangelical church, but not necessarily an official German Protestant Church.

It only took a minute, but this new religious identity had a name. An “evangelikale,” in Germany, was someone who liked Billy Graham. He was, quite literally, the definition of the word.

Today, Graham leaves behind a disputed legacy. The deceased evangelist evokes a lot of strong, opinions. But that’s a key part of why Graham was so important. For more than 50 years, Graham was so famous people felt like they had to have an opinion about him. Whether they liked him or didn’t like him, he became a lodestar of religious identity.

Daniel Silliman is a Lilly Fellow at Valparaiso University. He studies American religion and culture.