Billy Graham

  • Share
  • Read Later

William Franklin Graham Jr., known to all the world as Billy, is now 80 years old, and has been our leading religious revivalist for almost exactly 50 years, ever since his eight-week triumph in Los Angeles in the autumn of 1949. Indeed, for at least 40 years, Graham has been the Pope of Protestant America (if Protestant is still the right word). Graham's finest moment may have been when he appeared at President Bush's side, Bible in hand, as we commenced our war against Iraq in 1991. The great revivalist's presence symbolized that the gulf crusade was, if not Christian, at least biblical. Bush was not unique among our Presidents in displaying Graham. Eisenhower and Kennedy began the tradition of consulting the evangelist, but Johnson, Nixon and Ford intensified the fashion that concluded with Bush's naming him "America's pastor." President Clinton has increasingly preferred the Rev. Jesse Jackson, but the aura of apostle still hovers around Billy Graham. Harry Truman unkindly proclaimed Graham a "counterfeit," a mere publicity monger, but while I still remain a Truman Democrat, I think our last really good President oversimplified the Graham phenomenon.

No one has accused Graham of intellectualism, profound spirituality or social compassion, but he is free of any association with the Christian right of Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed and all the other advocates of a God whose prime concerns are abolishing the graduated income tax and a woman's right to choose abortion (which Graham also opposes). And there have been no scandals, financial or sexual, to darken Graham's mission. His sincerity, transparent and convincing, cannot be denied. He is an icon essential to a country in which, for two centuries now, religion has been not the opiate but the poetry of the people. In the U.S., 96% of us believe in God, 90% pray, and 90% believe God loves them, according to Gallup polls. Graham is totally representative of American religious universalism. You don't run for office among us by proclaiming your skepticism or by deprecating Billy Graham.

Still, one can ask how so theatrical a preacher became central to the U.S. of the past half-century. Always an authentic revivalist, Graham has evaded both doctrine and denomination. He sounds not at all like a Fundamentalist, even though he affirms the fundamentals—the literal truth of the Bible: the virgin birth, atoning death and the bodily resurrection of Christ; the Second Coming; salvation purely through grace by faith and not works. Graham's most important book, Peace with God (1953), is light-years away from C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, which is revered by Fundamentalists. Everything that is harsh in Lewis is softened by Graham, whose essential optimism is inconsistent with his apocalyptic expectations. But you cannot read Peace with God and expect consistency; soft-edged Fundamentalism, Graham's stance, will not sustain scrutiny.

Graham's coherence and significance depend upon the history of modern evangelical revivalism in the U.S. That history began with Charles Grandison Finney, who created a new American form of religious revival, a highly organized, popular spectacle. (He later gave up his career as an evangelist to become president of Oberlin College in 1851.) The tradition was carried on by Dwight Lyman Moody, William Ashley Sunday and Graham, the disciple of Moody rather than of Billy Sunday. Moody, in Finney's wake, invented Graham's methods and organizing principles: advance men, advertising, aggressive publicity campaigns, and a staff of specialists (prayer leaders, singers, counselors, ushers). Graham perfected Moody's transformation of revivalism into mass popular entertainment, superbly executed in the New York City crusade of 1957, with triumphant performances at Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden.

Politics could have been the destructive element for Graham, since he started his rise in the age of Eisenhower and for a time was a fervent red hunter, an admirer of Senator Joe McCarthy and an overall basher of the left, as here in a radio broadcast of 1953: "While nobody likes a watchdog, and for that reason many investigation committees are unpopular, I thank God for men who, in the face of public denouncement and ridicule, go loyally on in their work of exposing the pinks, the lavenders and the reds who have sought refuge beneath the wings of the American eagle and from that vantage point try in every subtle, undercover way to bring comfort, aid and help to the greatest enemy we have ever known—communism."

That is now a period piece, but I think it is important to keep it on the record. Graham, a slow but sure learner, moved with the spirit of the age, and in the 1980s he became a preacher of world peace, urging reconciliation with Russia and China, where his wife Ruth, the daughter of missionaries, was born. Angry Fundamentalists turned against him, a move that became an anti-Graham passion when he rejected the program of the Christian right: "I don't think Jesus or the Apostles took sides in the political arenas of their day." The break between Graham and the Christian right became absolute when he denounced the violence of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue. "The tactics," Graham declared, "ought to be prayer and discussion."

Though Graham has never, to my knowledge, spoken out on behalf of the poor, it seems legitimate to conclude that his almost exclusive emphasis upon soul saving is his passionate center, even his authentic obsession. And there, whatever his inadequacies of intellect or of spiritual discernment, Graham has ministered to a particular American need: the public testimony of faith. He is the recognized leader of what continues to call itself American evangelical Protestantism, and his life and activities have sustained the self-respect of that vast entity. If there is an indigenous American religion—and I think there is, quite distinct from European Protestantism—then Graham remains its prime emblem.

Evangelicals constitute about 40% of Americans, and the same number believe God speaks to them directly. Such a belief yearns for a purer and more primitive church than anyone is likely to see, and something in Graham retains the nostalgia for that purity. In old age and in poor health, he is anything but a triumphalist. There is no replacement for him, though he has hopes for his son Franklin. More than a third of our nation continues to believe in salvation only through a regeneration founded upon personal conversion to the Gospel, and Graham epitomizes that belief. A great showman, something of a charismatic, Graham exploited his gifts as an offering to America's particular way with the spirit. Some might have wished for more, but Graham honestly recognized his limitations, and his career nears its close with poignancy and a sense of achievement.

Harold Bloom, author of The American Religion, most recently published Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human