Graham’s notion of mission broadened into an inclusive effort to bring as many people as possible into hearing range of the gospel. This meant reaching out to fundamentalists on his right, mainline Protestants on his left, and Catholics and Pentecostals everywhere. Except for fundamentalists, who remained wary, Graham won supporters in most quarters. His principle was: “I'll work with anyone who will work with me if they don't ask me to change my message.”
Most controversially, Graham refused to speculate about the ultimate fate of nonbelievers. He never trimmed his insistence that Christ was the only way to heaven. But he saw no point hazarding guesses. To reporters who asked, he invariably said, "All that is up to God and I'm not going to play God."
In sum, one of Graham’s key legacies to evangelicals was his ability to combine a fixed core—a still point in a turning world—with fresh thinking about how that core should be expressed and applied.
Evangelicalism with a Necktie
Graham helped teach evangelicals the importance of a practical approach to Christianity. We see it especially in “My Answer,” a daily Q & A column that appeared in newspapers across the country. Most answers came with a heavy dose of conventional evangelical theology, but the theology included common-sense guidelines based on biblical precepts.
Graham served as a badge of credibility for evangelicals. He helped teach them how to take a seat at the table in the public square. One of the most astute historians of American religion, Samuel S. Hill, once said, tongue-in-cheek but aptly, "Billy taught evangelicals when to wear a necktie."
Graham’s ministry also defined the center of the evangelical landscape. He helped the movement maintain its centrist appeal by establishing a sense of scale. Some things were more important than others. Christ did not die on the cross to save folks from cigarettes or dancing or playing cards. He died to save people from their sinful hearts and offer everlasting life.
Decade after decade, Graham embodied a pole-star of decency. Biographer William Martin said it best: Graham represented Americans’ “best selves.” Topping the list was the preacher’s commitment to marital fidelity, without compromises of any sort. That included acts that might raise suspicions, such as traveling or dining alone with a woman outside the family. He was equally committed to financial transparency, again, without fudging. And absolute honesty. When reporters asked about the number of converts he had won, Graham responded, “I have no idea. I can count inquirers but only God knows who the converts are.” And finally, a reticence about criticizing others. Graham targeted broad trends he found destructive, but rarely specific individuals or denominations or religious traditions.
We can’t say that Graham changed US political history as Lyndon Johnson or Martin Luther King Jr., did. But he did change Americans’ lives in important ways. On most things political, he pointed in a progressive direction.