It is hard to overstate Billy Graham’s impact on American culture and the spread of Christianity across the globe.
Graham, who died on Wednesday at 99, preached the gospel of Christ to more souls than any other person since Jesus of Nazareth himself walked the Earth. Hundreds of millions listened to his sermons on the radio, or on television, or by streaming into coliseums, football stadiums and country churches. Whichever it was, they heard the Southern Baptist preacher deliver a simple message of faith, redemption and forgiveness.
Despite his meteoric rise, despite the fact that Time magazine considered him one of the most important people of the 20th century and Gallup placed him on its “most admired” list 61 times, Graham remained a humble man. He considered himself more country preacher than groundbreaking theologian, always. That was one reason his message resonated with families like my own trying to cope with the vertiginous changes that shook the postwar world. Images of Vietnam, assassinations, riots and campus protests raced across evening newscasts, along with stories of sexual revolution and drug epidemics. Graham’s broadcasts were an oasis of stability in a world gone mad.
Whether it was connecting with my family in the Deep South or reaching the newly converted in sub-Saharan Africa, Graham took his crusades wherever people had ears to hear. More than a few Cold War hawks complained when that mission carried him to the Soviet Union seeking spiritual detente with communist leaders. But Graham ignored his critics. He believed the unbelievers of Moscow needed the gospel just as much as any Baptist in Miami or Meridian.
Likewise, Graham’s ministry reached beyond the masses to some of the most prominent leaders of his time. Queen Elizabeth surprised court-watchers when she became enamored of Graham’s preaching. His 1954-1955 “crusades” drew an audience of millions across Britain — and earned him an audience with the queen that started a friendship that lasted throughout their lives. In 1995, Graham led Easter services at the royal family’s private chapel. Elizabeth would bestow an honorary knighthood upon him in 2001.
Better known was Graham’s closeness with American presidents. He became friends with Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and many who followed. Jimmy Carter met him in the 1950s while working with Graham’s organization to promote integration in Georgia. Johnson spent hours with Graham fretting about his personal salvation. George W. Bush credited the evangelical giant for his own conversion.
Graham counseled these flawed men regardless of the policies they pursued or the parties they led. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jon Meacham explained to me Wednesday how a few minutes in Graham’s company revealed why the powerful sought his guidance. “He had a remarkably reassuring pastoral presence,” Meacham said. “Two minutes after meeting him, I realized why presidents in the maelstrom of power would want him around.”
Still, there was a cost in this for Graham. Like many close to Nixon, his reputation was damaged after Watergate. When the Nixon tapes were released, Graham was shocked by the president’s crude language and obvious guilt. Many Americans were stunned to hear Graham express anti-Semitic sentiments. Though he apologized, the episode remains the darkest blot on his legacy.
But Graham was also a positive voice for civil rights, promoting integration and personally removing racial barriers erected by event organizers. He used his influence to encourage Eisenhower to send troops to Little Rock so black students could peacefully enter segregated schools. Later, Graham would be attacked by fundamentalists for the respect he showed other faiths. In its obituary, Politico noted author Bruce Bawer’s observation that “fundamentalists despise Graham as a sellout for affirming the value of the Catholic and Jewish faith.”
That reaction is emblematic of a lack of grace in today’s evangelical church. Graham’s death leaves a void in a movement already shaken by the moral decline of its most prominent leaders. One can only hope that the great preacher’s passing will cause some in that community of faith to reexamine their priorities. Taking a closer look at Graham’s example would be a good place to start.
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