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Billy Graham’s Legacy

A photograph shows Franklin and Billy Graham sitting together in stadium seats.

Franklin and Billy Graham, in Cleveland Stadium, in Cleveland, Ohio, in June 1994. Photograph by Paul M. Walsh via Wikimedia

When Billy Graham died on February 21, 2018, the media response was immediate, heartfelt, and deeply contentious. In the rush of articles and social media postings, scholars and journalists debated Graham’s legacy, both for evangelicals and for the world at large.

Graham’s death came at a time of significant crisis and division among U.S. evangelicals, and the conversations about his life and politics reflected contemporary debates over President Donald Trump and the revival of the religious right as much as they spoke to Graham’s era. White evangelicals are among President Trump’s most ardent supporters; they strongly supported him at the polls in 2016, and a number of white evangelical leaders have proudly touted their access to the Trump White House. The implicit question about Graham was whether to see him as the progenitor of—or as the quiet rebuke to—today’s evangelical politics. As Sara Moslener put it in Religion Dispatches, “In a historical moment when evangelicalism is battling its most significant identity crisis since the Scopes Monkey Trial, the opportunity to celebrate ‘one of the good ones’ is all the more enticing.”

In fact, Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and heir, is one of President Trump’s most outspoken supporters, which meant that it was nearly impossible to assess Billy without coming to some terms with Franklin. Those moderates who saw the father as being “the good one” were likely to proclaim him as a preeminent example of mainstreamed evangelicalism, a man who made mistakes but who ultimately refused to sign onto the agenda of the religious right. This rendering highlighted the reality that, on a range of topics from Christian-Muslim relations to American exceptionalism, the father’s stances were far more centrist than those of his son. U.S. religious historian Stephen Prothero had a strongly argued piece in Politico that summarized the difference he saw: “The father was a powerful evangelist who turned evangelicalism into the dominant spiritual impulse in modern America. His son is—not to put too fine a point on it—a political hack, one who is rapidly rebranding evangelicalism as a belief system marked not by faith, hope, and love but by fear of Muslims and homophobia.” In the New Yorker, Michael Luo described an evangelical movement that has “lost its way,” fractured by the right-wing leadership that has backed Trump. A younger set of believers are so disillusioned that some of them are shedding the label “evangelical,” much the way their forebears put aside “fundamentalist.”

As a number of commentators pointed out, this “good old days” model might be too simplistic in its assessment of the current evangelical political spectrum. U.S. evangelicals are themselves divided, like most other Americans, along lines of race, and a number of evangelicals of color have expressed great frustration and anxiety about Trump’s election. The day after the vote, T.D. Jakes, no liberal, described African Americans as “traumatized.” (On the other hand, Trump’s evangelical advisory board has included several African American and Latino evangelical conservatives.) Writing in FiveThirtyEight, Perry Bacon Jr. and Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux rightly argue that evangelicals are self-consciously divided, politically and racially. “America’s community of self-described evangelicals, about a fourth of the population, is increasingly divided between a more conservative, Trump-aligned bloc deeply worried about losing the so-called culture wars; and a bloc that is more liberal on issues like immigration, conscious of the need to appeal to nonwhite Christians and wary of the president. The split in evangelical Christianity isn’t new, but it appears to be widening under Trump.” The diagnosis of Graham’s life is, to a significant degree, a diagnosis of the current dilemma of religion and politics in the United States today.

Billy Graham preached to more people live than perhaps any other American minister, with estimates circling around 215 million over his lifetime. Nonetheless, a number of commentators have taken issue with the rapturous embrace of Graham and his designation, in Randall Balmer’s phrase, as “by any measure the most famous religious figure of the twentieth century.” Skeptics have argued that such descriptions reproduce the idea of Graham as a great unifier.

Instead, they say, he spoke to, and for, a distinct, narrowly focused vision of what America was—and no longer is. After all, Protestants are not today the dominant demographic in the United States that they once were. According to Pew, Protestants constituted less than 50% of the U.S. population in 2015, down from 62% in 1970 and 69% in 1949. And evangelicalism is no longer a U.S.- or European-based faith. Today, more than 50% of evangelical and charismatic/Pentecostal Christians live in the Global South, even though most U.S. discussions of evangelical life and culture remain strikingly insular. In some ways, Graham was more attuned to that reality than most American pastors; he was deeply involved in movements that recognized and promoted the globalization of Christianity. When he died, he was eulogized from Nigeria to South Korea to Brazil, where audiences had flocked to see him in his heyday.

Part of what makes Billy Graham so controversial is that he symbolized one of the great divides in U.S. religious life: the divide between evangelical and liberal Protestants. Graham himself tried to overcome this divide. He was a Southern Baptist who offered a broadly ecumenical, if clearly Protestant, message. In his crusades, he worked closely with a broad range of churches in each city. He was far more willing to cross denominational lines than most evangelicals.

But Graham never really understood, and certainly never embraced, the activist, liberal, ecumenical visions of the World Council of Churches and its allies. As David Hollinger wrote in the New York Times, Graham was central in consolidating the evangelical movement as an alternative to the “so-called Protestant establishment.” In 1956, he helped to found Christianity Today, operating as part of a group of theologically conservative believers who were trying to refashion early-twentieth-century fundamentalism into something more engaged and worldly. Thus Billy Graham was part of the team that “seized control of the symbolic capital of Christianity” from liberals, and he encouraged a vision of Christianity that was focused on “a fundamentalist reading of the Bible” both at home and abroad. The ecumenical World Council of Churches, on the other hand, “promoted less sectarian versions of Christianity and less conversion-centered modes of interaction with the peoples of the globe.” Hollinger is right to highlight this great division in Protestantism and to remind us that Graham represented and helped to strengthen the conservative wing.

Graham’s conservatism was political as well as theological. As a number of scholars commented in recent weeks, including Kevin Kruse in the Washington Post, Graham began his career with a profoundly conservative political vision, one that spoke to the “God and country” logic of McCarthyism and its progeny. In 1949, Kruse tells us, Graham told an early audience that “communism is a religion that is inspired, directed, and motivated by the Devil himself who has declared war against Almighty God.” For the next twenty-five years (at least), Graham continued to insert himself into political debates, usually on behalf of Republicans.

As most commentators have noted, including Kruse and Jeff Greenfield in Politico, the low point of Graham’s embrace of power was his relationship with President Richard Nixon, whom Graham pandered to shamefully, and who, in turn, used Graham shamelessly. In 2002, White House tapes revealed Graham making anti-Semitic comments in a conversation with Nixon. Whether these remarks were offered simply to curry favor with the president or whether they represented Graham’s true views, they indicated something deeply disturbing about his moral compass.

When the tapes were revealed, Graham apologized profusely and tried to heal his warm relationships with Jewish leaders, but nothing could fully wipe away the stain. Here again, Graham’s life intersected with larger political issues: he had been close allies with Jews primarily because of his warm embrace of Israel. He, like many evangelicals, viewed Jerusalem and its surroundings as the site of Jesus’s Second Coming and the final great battle of Armageddon. His embrace was instrumental, and American Jewish leaders were equally pragmatic in their views of Graham and evangelicals.

Yet even as American Jews moved fully into the mainstream of U.S. culture and challenged the casual anti-Semitism of mid-century, they still faced the backroom anti-Semitism of people like Nixon and, it seemed, Graham. As George Will put it, harshly but not unfairly, “One can reasonably acquit Graham of anti-Semitism only by convicting him of toadying.”

This combination of an entwined love of power and illiberal sentiments is the heart of the view of Graham as a Founding Father of evangelicalism’s right-wing. For example, historian Robert Orsi tweeted: “Billy Graham muted the prophetic voice of American white Protestant Christianity, in this way leading to the soulless pandering of conservative evangelicals today, including especially his son.” Anthea Butler makes a similar argument in Religion Dispatches: “Graham has paved the way for evangelicals to operate not only comfortably in the political world, but as lobbyists for theocratic policies and moral issues.” After Nixon’s disgrace and resignation, Graham himself began to pull away from close political alliances, but by then he had forged a path that many others gladly stepped into. The rise of the Christian Right in the late 1970s was a retooling of what had been many postwar evangelicals’ fear of excessive worldliness. On this model, Graham’s willingness to comment on everything from communism to civil rights to nuclear war was part of what allowed Jerry Falwell and others to forge white evangelicals into a potent and deeply conservative political force.

The story is not entirely so simple, however, especially when it comes to thinking about Graham’s racial and gender politics. On issues of race and civil rights, there is no question that Graham was more liberal than most members of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) that ordained him. (Although, as Alan Willis, David Chappell, and Mark Newman have made clear, there was more racial liberalism in the SBC in the 1950s and 60s than most commentators recognize.[1]) Graham invited Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver a prayer at one of his rallies in Madison Square Garden in 1957 and personally took down the rope separating black and white sections at one of his events in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1953.[2]

Matthew Sutton argues in The Guardian that, nonetheless, Graham was “on the wrong side of history” on race (and the environment). Sutton points out that Graham made clear that, when it came to civil rights, he preferred changing hearts to changing laws. The Rev. Broderick Greer asserts that Graham’s ambivalence about politics—his love of presidential power but his unwillingness to stand on the side of social justice struggles—“demonstrate[s] the limitations of relegating the gospel of Jesus Christ to little more than eternal fire insurance.” Graham’s vacillation around race was evident on the international stage as well. He declined to go to South Africa until 1973, when he was finally able to hold racially mixed services, but, once there, he also refused to directly condemn apartheid. This was—and is—a tension for evangelicals who wanted to claim distance from politics: if they focused only on securing eternal life in the hereafter, they might rightly be accused of ignoring suffering in the quotidian here-and-now. Graham might have believed that stepping back from politics was a salvation, given the temptations of worldliness, but his failure to speak truth about racial power was perceived, by a good many people, as a kind of abandonment.

On the other hand, Graham was never hesitant to comment on gender and sexuality, although his views received relatively little attention at the time of his death. As Marie Griffith describes it, Graham spoke out against Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953, complaining about the book’s vision of female interest in sex outside of marriage. “Thank God,” Graham said, “we have millions of women who still know how to blush—women who believe that virtue is the greatest attribute of womanhood.”[3] That notion of female virtue was at the heart of the famous “Billy Graham rule”—Graham’s assertion that he would never dine or travel alone with a woman who was not his wife. When it became known that Vice President Mike Pence has his own version of the “rule,” a number of commentators began to criticize the retrograde vision of gender that undergirds it. Others have highlighted the obvious ways that men who lunch with other men but not women end up limiting women’s leadership roles in evangelical organizations. And yet, despite the visibility of the “rule” within evangelical culture, relatively few of the obituaries or commentary ended up discussing the legacy of Graham’s gender politics.

There were more comments on Graham’s anti-LGBTQ views, which he expressed early on and never seemed to have changed. But, as a commentator on NBC pointed out, Graham’s most profound legacy for queer people may be that he left the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) in his son Franklin’s hands. In recent years, with Billy mostly out of the public eye, the BGEA website has “claimed Satan is behind LGBTQ rights and activism, has said there is ‘no place for compromise’ on same-sex marriage, and has praised Russian leaders who [it] said have ‘stood steadfastly against the rising homosexual agenda in their country.’” In 2012, the elderly Graham was featured in an ad supporting a North Carolina referendum that banned gay marriage (until it was overturned). In this, both Grahams may have been expressing views that put them out of touch with a younger generation of evangelicals, who tend to be equally conservative as older believers on abortion but far more liberal on LGBTQ issues.

Although those who see Billy Graham as having some responsibility for the failures of social justice vision among American evangelicals are partly correct, it is also true that the differences between Billy and Franklin Graham are significant, not least because Billy Graham did evince a personal humility and love of people that many of today’s evangelical leaders, including his son, seem to sorely lack. As Franklin’s defenders point out, he has worked as the head of Samaritan’s Purse, an aggressively evangelical development and aid agency that has also unquestionably done difficult work running hospitals and feeding programs in war zones and crisis centers around the world, from Kosovo to South Sudan. In that sense, Franklin Graham has already done more to “care for orphans and widows in distress” (James 1:27) than his father ever did. But Franklin also has a deservedly terrible reputation for his anti-Muslim attitudes, including his famous comment that Islam is an “evil and wicked religion.” Billy, on the other hand, told a New York Times reporter who asked about a “clash of civilizations” that he thought “the big conflict is with hunger and starvation and poverty.” Perhaps it’s a sign of our times that such basic, non-hostile humanity toward Muslims is something we have to celebrate rather than assume. But it reminds us, at least, that the politics of evangelical Christianity, like all politics, are evolving and contested, in every generation.

Melani McAlister teaches American studies and international affairs at George Washington University. She has recently completed The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicals, a study of evangelical internationalism since 1960, looking particularly at U.S. evangelical relations with the Middle East and Africa. She is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

[1] Alan Scot Willis, All According to God’s Plan: Southern Baptist Missions and Race, 1945-1970 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005); David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Mark Newman, Getting Right with God: Southern Baptists and Desegregation, 1945-1995 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001).

[2] Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2014), 15.

[3] R. Marie Griffith, Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 141.

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