On the landmark issue of civil rights, for example, Graham showed uneven but unmistakable progress. The youthful Graham—reared in the South—accepted segregation. But in the late 1940s, his conscience awakened. In the early 1950s, he took a succession of bold stands, despite withering attacks. In the early 1960s, unsettled by Black Power and disorder in the streets, he backed off. Temperamentally, he always preferred orderly process. But by the mid-1970s, he would embrace—or re-embrace—the goals, if not always the tactics, of the civil rights movement.
In 1982, in the patriarchal cathedral in Moscow, Graham said that he had undergone three conversions in his life: to Christ, to racial justice, and to nuclear disarmament. It was a long journey. Once a strident Cold War hawk, the mature Graham carried the torch for de-militarization on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He preached that civilization was on the brink of destroying itself. This move took enormous courage in an age when most Americans, not to mention most evangelicals, remained fearful of Soviet intentions.
When the culture wars arrived in the late 1970s, Graham resisted. He agreed with some of the Christian Right’s positions, but he also said its leaders didn’t talk enough about poverty and hunger. Besides, the pulpit should not become a soapbox. Graham insisted that there was a difference between partisan politics, which served the interests of the Democratic or the Republican Parties, and moral politics, which served the interests of the nation and of the world.
Graham’s mistakes in the political realm remind evangelicals that they dare not place anyone on a pedestal. He fell into dogged support for particular presidents, especially Nixon. Graham defended the president’s stand on the Vietnam War and on Watergate long after most Americans had given up on both causes. The press called him the “White House Chaplain.”
One of Graham’s most grievous blunders took place in 1972, when he made scandalous remarks about Jews and the media in the privacy of Nixon’s office. When his words surfaced 30 years later, he was mortified. Graham apologized repeatedly and profusely, in print and face-to-face with Jewish leaders. But the episode tarnished his legacy.
A Second Chance
Without question, Graham’s most important legacy lay in his preaching about Christian hope. Over the years, millions of letters flowed into his Minneapolis office. Often calling him just Billy, writers described lives twisted by sin, marriages on the rocks, kids gone astray, fears of death, and loneliness. No matter how badly you have messed up your life, he urged, Christ offers forgiveness and a new start.
Though Graham regularly preached about Christ’s Second Coming (albeit with few specific details), his main contribution to Christian hope lay exactly there, in the promise of a second chance, not only for individuals but also for the nation and the world of nations.
Will these legacies continue in a successor? People with his unique combination of “gifts and graces”—the looks, voice, accent, humor, poise, timing, sincerity, humility, and ambition, both for himself and for God—come along rarely.
But even if a person of Graham’s talents should appear, the social context has changed dramatically. Was communism then the same as terrorism today? How do changes in the family, once a nuclear unit huddled around a flickering television screen, now dispersed and glued to cell phones, alter the picture? Would huge stadium crusades still work in an age of social media?