Scholars cast critical eye on Graham’s legacy

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WASHINGTON (RNS)—Ecumenist, prophet, peacemaker. Friend of presidents and queens. Evangelical powerbroker who was sometimes too closely tied to politicians. Each description applies to Billy Graham.

An official 1991 biography by William Martin called America’s foremost evangelist a Prophet With Honor. The editors of a new book largely agree, but not without casting a more critical eye on Graham’s remarkable career.

There are many reasons to appreciate Graham, say the authors of The Legacy of Billy Graham without granting him iconic status.

The book examines Graham’s political influence, his relationships with Richard Nixon and other American presidents, his views on women, sexual ethics and poverty, and the content and style of his preaching.

And while it notes the moderation that came with age, the book’s 14 essays nonetheless ask critical questions about whether Graham could have done more to harness the power of his popularity to address public concerns.

“Graham’s admirers frequently speak of his moral integrity, and they are right to note his efforts to lead a ministry without Elmer Gantry lurking in the background,” says Michael G. Long, editor of Legacy and an assistant professor of religious studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

“But if we’re honest about his legacy, we’ll also recognize that Graham was shockingly deceptive when he told us that his relationship with Richard Nixon was primarily spiritual.”

Like some others who have listened to the Nixon tapes, Long concludes Graham rarely discussed spiritual matters with Nixon in the Oval Office. Indeed, Graham apologized in 2002 for telling Nixon that Jews held a “stranglehold” on the country.

Graham, now 89 and in failing health, has retired to his home in his beloved mountains of western North Carolina. His public ministry has been taken up by his son, Franklin, who displays some of the edgy fire of his father’s early years.

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J. Philip Wogaman, the former pastor to President Bill Clinton and now a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, noted the opportunities facing Graham as the man who “has spoken directly, in person, to more people than anybody else in human history”—an estimated 110 million around the world.

“Could he not have said more? Could he not have created more sympathy for the marginalized and stigmatized and thus effected more lasting change?” asks Wogaman.

The essayists noted the simplicity of Graham’s message. Time and again, listeners at his crusades were shown a world on the brink of disaster, a world that might only be saved by each person committing his or her life to Christ.

“Starting as a raw-boned fundamentalist, Graham ma-tured and broadened and soon became much more than the icon of evangelicals,” writes Harvey Cox of Harvard University. “Polls showed him to be the most respected religious leader in the country. Still as he shook off his early shell, his actions took a prophetic turn.”

“He has maintained for six decades the same message, the same seemingly untroubled convictions, the same unblemished ethical record. In an age of anxiety, he calms the national soul.”
–Thomas G. Long, Professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology

That turn included cooperating with more liberal Christian denominations in many crusades. And though he neither joined demonstrations nor went to jail over civil rights, Graham insisted his crusades—even in the South—would not be segregated. Later, he called for the abolition of all nuclear weapons after visiting behind the Iron Curtain.

Thomas G. Long, a professor at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, noted Graham’s enduring popularity—and power—in a changing world.

“In a windstorm of changing values and shifting circumstances, Graham is the still point in the American moral universe,” Long says. “He has maintained for six decades the same message, the same seemingly untroubled convictions, the same unblemished ethical record. In an age of anxiety, he calms the national soul.”

The breadth of Graham’s legacy can be seen in both the emerging Christian left, with its hope of alleviating poverty, and the Christian right, with its push for a socially conservative public agenda. Both could evoke Graham as spiritual forebear, Long says.

“Graham is worth studying and remembering because he is the face of American noninstitutionalized religiosity,” says Long. “When Americans are in their private chapels, or none, they believe very different things, but when they come together in the public square, they believe essentially a version of what Billy preaches.”


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