–Billy Graham’s gentle brand of evangelicalism

February 22, 2018


2018-02-21 23:05:11

BILLY GRAHAM, who died on February 21st at the age of 99, was the most important American evangelical of the past century. He followed in a path that had been walked by a long line of preachers such as George Whitefield, Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday before him. But in some ways he was even more successful. He was close to a long line of American presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. He reached the top ten of Gallup’s annual poll of the most-admired people in the world 60 times, far more than any other American. He preached personally to an estimated 215m people in 185 countries, in giant “crusades” in stadiums, and reached millions more over radio and television. The list of people he touched deeply includes Queen Elizabeth II, who took to inviting him to visit her when he was preaching in Britain, and George W. Bush, who claims that the great turning point in his hitherto dissolute life came when Mr Graham visited his family and “led me on the path and I began walking.”

When Mr Graham started in the business, as a young preacher in Florida, evangelical America was prickly and inward-looking, having retreated into itself after the humiliation of the Scopes trial in 1925. Leading evangelicals wanted nothing to do with the fallen world, particularly as that world existed outside Old Dixie. Mr Graham encouraged his fellow believers to be much softer and more welcoming. He held his first integrated religious rally in 1953, ordering the removal of a barrier that separated blacks from whites. He bailed Martin Luther King out of jail in 1963 and, when King was assassinated in 1968, proclaimed him a “prophet” as well as a “social leader”. At the same time he tried to put some intellectual spine into a movement that had defined itself as anti-intellectual, helping to found Christianity Today, evangelical America’s flagship journal, and acting as a patron to up-and-coming evangelical intellectuals.

Mr Graham’s gentle brand of evangelicalism was challenged by several younger figures who came to prominence during the Reagan era. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson both preached a more fire-breathing form of religion. Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart perfected the art of televangelism, with Swaggart’s tears flowing like Niagara Falls. But as long as he was still active, Mr Graham always acted as a moderating and civilising influence on the movement.

His death comes at a dismal time in its history. Evangelicals have lost their enthusiasm for reaching out beyond their own narrow enclaves, social and political. Their willingness to throw in their lot with Donald Trump, despite his long record of womanising and remarkably short record of showing any interest in religion, and despite his propensity for dividing the country, seems to confirm the darkest fears of their critics: that they are more interested in supporting Republicans, come what may, than they are in seeing a high moral standard in public life. The world that Billy Graham made is no longer with us.

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