Reflections on Graham by a Former Grump
This article originally appeared in the November 18, 1988 issue of Christianity Today.
Why invent something new about Billy Graham as he enters his eighth decade? Integrity demands that, when invited, one say to his face what for years one has said, as it were, behind his back. This I shall do.
The task for the church historian begins rather simply: Locate the subject in space and time. And Graham's space has been global. From an almost hardscrabble early life in North Carolina, the precincts of small Bible colleges, and Los Angeles tent revivals, he has come to be, with the Pope, one of the two best-known figures in the Christian world—or in the world, for that matter. From the years when, still in insecurity, he was a name-dropper of kings and celebrities, he has come to be the one whose name statecrafters and notables drop. And Graham made the move in status without any evident malformation of his ego.
To locate him in time: Certainly, a hundred years from now, people in my historical profession will cite Graham as the shaper of evangelism in our half-century, as, in their time, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Grandison Finney, Dwight L. Moody, and (alas!, I have to say) Billy Sunday served in theirs.
However, Graham had a more difficult task, for he was the first to carry on his work in a culture not decisively shaped by a Protestantism that was responsive to evangelism. He has had to build community in a pluralist America, one in which neither his kind of camp nor any camp singularly "ran the show." He had to rely on old evangelistic vocabularies where he could, as in leftover parts of the oldish South. Then he had to translate them as it became the newish South, the worldly Sunbelt. Graham had to find languages to communicate, to "sing the Lord's song" in many strange lands, some of them named America. Secular America. Post-Protestant America. Religious America.
The "non-mean" man
As for the man himself: What have I been saying for years? That in the world of religious leadership, words like Left and Right, liberal or conservative mean less than mean and non-mean, and Graham—to our great fortune—has been "non-mean."
"Non-mean" is a negative-sounding category. Translate it from psychological to theological terms and say that one finds in such types—and, one says in assessment of and tribute to Graham—that the "fruit of the Spirit" has been evident in him: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. … Against such there is no law" (Gal. 5:22-23). He could have been a demagogue in these fateful decades. He could have formed formal coalitions with corrupting political forces, could have divided our Christian and national house, could have set us each against the other. He did not.
Decades ago I recall holding up against him the fear lest a "woe" be pronounced when "all men speak well" of a disciple of Jesus. Of course, not everyone did. When Graham first appeared on the scene, still part cornball, part jejune analyst of "the signs of the times," part misusable young comer, he gave good reasons for others to criticize him. He is the first to acknowledge this. One can still find ripe anthologies of apocalyptic embarrassments in his early Cold War sermons, indexable as long as books shall last. And you will find, with the help of magazine indexes, some early grumping about Graham's gaucheries in my own early reports on his rise. Fortunately for my own self-perspective, these were few and, in retrospect, always ambiguous and mild.