A Great deal has been written over the years about Billy Graham. He is perennially on “most admired” lists and among the most talked about religious figures of this generation. Not everyone likes Mr. Graham, of course. Some have erroneously imputed to him just about every base motive or action imaginable. Such changes usually have done no permanent damage, because a careful check showed the falsity of the allegations—or simple common sense dismissed them all as nonsense growing out of bad taste. Not that Mr. Graham is perfect. He would be the first one to admit that he is a sinner and has his faults.
So why the fuss about the recent biography by Marshall Frady, Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness? It’s difficult to say precisely why this book has stirred so much interest, because in many respects it is the same old story simply retold in American Gothic prose. It can’t be just the style that attracts so much attention. Its attraction to some comes rather from its attempt to find a scapegoat for what is perceived as America’s moral malaise. That American leadership has lost its moral strength is a commonplace belief. But who is to blame? Failing to find the roots of this in liberal theology and situation ethics, Frady turns instead to the theological right and fixes the blame on the chief spokesman of evangelicalism. The result is a badly twisted picture of why things are so bad in America today.
So, Frady’s book is being read and being given maximum exposure in the secular press because it meets a basic need of today’s secular and liberal religious establishment: to fix the blame for the unfortunate results of their own presuppositions and ideology on someone else. CHRISTIANITY TODAY feels it necessary to speak to this underlying issue, not solely in defense of Mr. Graham, but also in defense of evangelicalism.
The following review-essay was prepared by members of our editorial staff.
First-rate biographical writing is a delicate exercise. It requires both imaginative thinking and objective interpretation. Objectivity can get along without the imagination, and the result will be merely tedious precision. But when the imagination tries to get along without objectivity, the consequences can be devastating.
Marshall Frady’s recent biography, Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness (Boston/Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1979), is a case in point. Frady possesses a vivid imagination and he can be perceptive.
However, Frady’s work, which uses Graham as a paradigm of American righteousness, is fundamentally flawed in its basic interpretation of Graham and his relationship to America. Because of this, Frady is forced to deal loosely with the evidence, often twisting it to make it support his thesis that Graham, as the conscience of America, is largely responsible for the plastic character of our society. Frady’s basic point relates Graham to the last 40 years of America’s history. He sees an inexorable advance of emptiness, a cancerous void, which he identifies as the source of all evil. Shaken to the core, Frady rises up like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to warn us that evil
dwells among graphs, charts, statistics … that whole paper universe of bureaucracies, research centers, government agencies, [and] corporations, which are collectively accomplishing … a strange new brutalization of mankind (p. 467). [We are] to be assimilated at last without pain or even notice into some new, undefined, unknown twilight of computered Touch-Tone barbarism (p. 471). [We will be ushered into an] age of the Pop-Metaphysic, [which is] the totalitarian, pop-reality of an electronically homogenized society—a culture of the instantaneous and simultaneous and endlessly various, in which nothing lingers beyond its brief flash of celebrity [and] the end of it all is monolith, sameness: the extinction of the individual in every active and meaningful sense save for a last mere petty illusion that he is still an individual—but finally not even that. Even that ceases to matter (p. 471).
For Frady, the deepest crisis of our time is that we do not see it coming; indeed,
the next totalitarianism is coming upon us with the innocuous, pleasant familiarity of a McDonald’s commercial chorale (p. 472).
How do Frady’s grim premonitions relate to Billy Graham? We learn that Graham has become the apotheosis of America’s hypocritical, polyester rectitude, in effect, the epitome of fallen America itself. He should have known better than to let it happen, but Graham is not particularly bright and is almost pathologically in need of approval so he has allowed himself to be mesmerized by mass-media-think and crooked politicians like Nixon. This has led him to identify with the current decadent American system and to bestow his blessing upon its shameless defilements of the earth and its numbing of people into blind submission. Graham should have spoken out like a hammer that crushes the rock, but he was too hopelessly compromised to do so. More’s the pity, because according to Frady, Graham is a very likable person. But Graham’s very niceness is part of the reason the new totalitarianism is upon us, because when it comes it will not have
the swaggers or blusters of German or Stalinist precedent. It will have far more to do here with Disneyland and suburban shopping malls and Kiwanis luncheons on Wednesday afternoon at the local Holiday Inn. It is coming not in jackboots and helmets, but in polymer Dacron Fortrel leisure-suits. It will be choired by Doublemint-fresh, relentlessly glad and grinning youths like the Up With People Chorus.… It will stroll right in through the front door, wearing the congenial, wholesome, reassuring grin of Fred MacMurray (p. 472).
Frady’s point is that America is evil and Graham, instead of standing against it like a true prophet, identifies with it and reinforces it by falsely preaching to America that it is nice and it is good and it is on the right track.
Such is the general thrust of the book. To evaluate it we shall turn first to its literary style, then to the more fundamental issues of its accuracy and objectivity, and finally we shall turn again to Frady’s understanding of Graham’s ministry to contemporary society—especially as it concerns the gospel he preaches, his stance toward sin, and the quality of his crusades.
Concerning Frady’s literary style, we observe that his reviewers have praised his way with words, and there is no question that he is capable of using words artistically. At times, however, Frady seems to bend artistic license a bit far with his penchant to coin words. He also makes much of the suffix ment, and we read of enamorment and nettlement, of disconcertment and self-cloisterment and salvagement, of bufferment and clobberment, of astoundment and confoundment and propoundment. This leaves us with a sense of (to use two of Frady’s words) bedazement and bogglement.
But these are minor matters in his use of language. The real problem is that he uses words as dishonest weapons to hurt, rather than as honest means of conveying truth. He invariably paints a cleverly negative picture of anyone or anything associated with Graham, and an approvingly warm portrait of anything anti-Graham. For example: W. B. Riley comes across as a raucous anti-Semite having large gently slabbed lips, fluttering bony fingers, and a crow-like voice that caws to Billy Graham, “You are the man to succeed me” (p. 175). Grady Wilson is described as “sitting squat and amiable and sly-eyed behind him [Graham] with something of the look of Huey Long in his smoked-ham face” (p. 217). Dorothy Kilgallen “warbled” about Graham in the New York Journal-American and Murray Kempton was “beguiled to accede that he would ‘make no sport of any honest prophet of Christ’ ” (p. 225). The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is described as a fantasy world where life is always improbably serene, movement artificially graceful, personal appearance deceivingly attractive, and the vegetation garishly colorful.
On a more crucial level, the reader wants to know whether the facts of the book are accurate. Without this, false impressions may form, and biases find unjustified support.
The reader soon begins to sense that all is not well here. For example, Bethany, originally the name of a village in New Testament times, is stated to be “four thousand years earlier” than American colonial days (p. 210). Israel is erroneously said to contain “catacombs holding in them some old dank of anonymous dreadful asceticisms and dark pieties” (p. 345). There are no catacombs in Israel, of course. Methodists, adherents of a basically Arminian theology, are said to be part of “a Calvinist commonry” in the South in the early twentieth century (p. 53).
John F. Kennedy is said to have become president in 1959—over a year before he took office. Bill Moyers, one-time press secretary to Lyndon Johnson and now in public television, was, Frady notes, “a ministerial student once at a dusty little Southern Baptist Seminary in Texas.” Texans and Southern Baptists perhaps will be surprised to learn how Frady thus describes Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the largest Protestant seminary in the world (over 3,500 students).
One of the more serious, though less immediately obvious, characteristics of Frady’s book is its confused chronology. Often the uninformed reader will conclude that Graham said or did something at such-and-such a time and place, when the event occurred elsewhere or at a significantly different time. Misplacing chronology can be trivial—except that Frady manages to misplace events so that they seem to provide illicit motives for Graham’s actions, when the actual sequence would have made impossible any devious intentions. As a result, it is impossible to count on Frady’s work as a resource for tracing developments in Graham’s thinking.
For example, Frady claims that when Graham learned of the true implications of Watergate and of what they would do to his erstwhile friendship with Richard Nixon, “he simply removed himself to Switzerland for an international congress on world evangelism” (p. 479). Frady is evidently unaware that Graham was virtually the prime mover behind the conception of the 1974 conference in Lausanne. As a congress that had claimed Graham’s attention for years, it could scarcely have provided a sudden excuse for escaping a distasteful situation. This example is multiplied many times over.
It is also unfortunate that Frady decided virtually to end his account with Watergate, because in so doing he has failed to chronicle the significant developments in Graham’s viewpoint on a variety of issues over the past five years. Concerning the nuclear arms race, he said last August, “There have been times in the past when I have, I suppose, confused the kingdom of God with the American way of life.… I am grateful for the heritage of our country.… But the kingdom of God is not the same as America.…” Later he commented, “Is it God’s will that resources be used for massive armaments which could otherwise be used for alleviating human suffering and hunger? Of course not. Our world has lost sight of true values and substituted false gods and false values.”
Another example of inaccurate information, one that seems to reflect on Frady’s objectivity and suggests bias, concerns the kind of people Graham is supposed to attract. They are usually depicted as odd or highly undesirable characters. For example, Russell Maguire is described as a vicious anti-Semite and lawbreaker and Graham “had managed to remain strangely insensible of the anti-Semitic stridors that had become by now unusually common and recurrent through the sources and progress of his ministry” (p. 230). Others are described as relishing sleazy novels (p. 159) or looking like a “Breughel painting [with] a round bulb of a nose and round eyes that widen large as two poached eggs with emphasis” (p. 156). These distorted pictures are created by Frady in order to make Graham look guilty of attracting the disreputable or foolish by associating with the absurd.
At one point Frady tells the intriguing story of how Graham reached for his Bible to check the wording of a Scripture verse that former President Lyndon Johnson was attempting to quote during a conversation (p. 263). Frady here gives us an unwitting example of what he himself should have been doing: checking his sources, his protests to the contrary notwithstanding (pp. vii–xi). Repeatedly he quotes out of context, fails to footnote important points, and cites in more than one form what he apparently intends as direct quotations (pp. 72, 122, 280, 284).
A check of many Frady interviews, including eight of his important sources, revealed that he took no notes at the time, and used no tape recorder. Many of those interviewed wondered how he could recall the information. The book gives the answer: he relied on a bad memory that seems happy with massive inaccuracy.
The curious affair of Eugene Carson Blake typifies this. Frady says Dr. L. Nelson Bell, a surgeon and Graham’s father-in-law, was at one time operating on Blake, a theological liberal. Just as Blake was going under the anesthetic, Bell said to him, “In your heart you know the evangelicals are right,” or something to that effect. This breach of professional ethics sounds especially heinous—except that Bell never operated on Blake. The actual story concerns Calvin Thielman, a Presbyterian pastor in Montreat, North Carolina. Thielman, an ardent supporter of Lyndon Johnson, had been operated on by Dr. George Gilbert, with Bell as observer. As he emerged from the effects of the anesthetic, Thielman heard the two men laughing and asked the reason for their mirth. They told him his last words before succumbing to anesthesia were, “In your heart you know he’s right”—the Republican Goldwater election slogan.
Many of Frady’s errors are trivial and do not affect his overall interpretation; but many others become part of a tapestry that gives an inaccurate impressionistic view of both Graham and the evangelicalism he represents. They are also symptomatic of a method of research so careless and random that it has the net effect of distorting some critical issues and entirely missing others.
But let us now examine more carefully Frady’s analysis of Graham’s relation to America’s deepest problems. Frady’s concern is impressive, but his inaccurate reading of Graham’s involvement has caused him to go almost completely astray in interpreting Graham and his ministry.
Consider first what Frady says about the gospel Graham preaches. Frady is attempting to depict Graham as the benign tool of a synthetic system. As a result, he says Graham’s ultimate disservice to Middle America in the decades after the war was
to affirm rousingly, not only for America’s proprietorial estate, but for the savings-and-loan manager in Wichita and the real-estate developer in Anaheim, that they were, in fact, fundamentally good … Their essential worthiness … was indeed still authentic … [and] not only that, but immortally good (p. 216). [In the fifties, Frady says, Graham] rousingly verified those sensible virtues that made up the Christian canon of the chambers of commerce and offices of authority over the land … that … duty, hard work, soberness, [and] discipline [are] the way not only of redemption but prosperity and well-being (p. 235). [Graham’s effect was] to exalt the ordinary proprieties—a tidiness and hygiene of behavior and habits—to the cosmic magnitude of salvation or damnation: niceness, in the end, was the ticket to immortality (p. 301).
Only Frady’s single-minded desire to make Graham fit his own theoretical mold could cause him to miss the content of Graham’s gospel so badly. Nowhere has Graham said that people are fundamentally good or that duty, hard work, et cetera are the ways of redemption or that tidiness and hygiene are what earn salvation, or that niceness is the ticket to immortality. Graham has never preached any other gospel than that found in the New Testament which asserts that all men are sinners by nature, who cannot save themselves by any good acts; that only God’s grace shown in Christ’s death for our sins alone can save; and that the ticket to immortality is repentance and faith. Let Frady look at a thousand of Graham’s sermons and see if there is a single deviation from that formulation of the gospel. Again we seem to be faced with inaccuracy and bias.
But Frady misunderstands Graham’s preaching in another way. Because he wants to depict Graham as a tub-thumping fundamentalist on the one hand and a watered-down George Whitefield on the other, he is forced to paint two flatly contradictory pictures of Graham’s message. He says it is
made up of the rudimentary elements of pentecostal fundamentalism (p. 218) [and has contained] an unabating incantation of imminent apocalypse … moving always in this context of Armageddonal crisis.… In fact, in this obsessive litany over the years … there seems to emerge after a while almost a lust for the Götterdämmerung, an impatience for the holocaust (pp. 396–97). His pentecostalism remained as astringent as always … as he delivered those ammoniacal Calvinist austerities (p. 339).
And yet by contrast, Frady says,
In the end [Graham’s message] was somehow an oddly denatured variety of the harsh vinegars of frontier Calvinism—reconstituted into a kind of mild mass-consumption commodity, a freeze-dried instant sanctity, a rather sensible and efficient salvation (p. 215).
But how can Graham both lust apocalyptically for the damnation of society and at the same time preach a mild condoning sanctification of the status quo?
Frady’s anxiety that a new totalitarianism of a fascist sort is upon us—grinningly American, of course—has also distorted his vision of the citywide crusades. Graham’s mass evangelism
operates out of the pop-metaphysic that the more, the truer and the mightier (p. 287).… There is something of the Nuremberg mystique at work in such excitements—the faceless and impersonal grandeur of immense throngs; regarding the movements of huge crowds as “the breath of God” (p. 288). [Graham preaches] a kind of Wehrmacht Christianity (p. 405) [and] central and enduring in Graham’s somewhat Prussian species of Christian piety through the Sixties was a rigorous authoritarian ethic (p. 405). [In his crusades, Graham is] supremely a creature of the peculiar catatonia of the pop age—that frantic ceaseless interruption of any longer, evolving, more comprehending sense of time and sequence in experience, which some have cited as an intrinsic part of the totalitarian conditioning of a people (p. 398),
and hence Graham is an unwitting dupe of the coming fascist state.
To summarize this rather excessively stated position, Graham preaches a Hitler-like Wehrmacht gospel that uses totalitarian methods of conditioning to turn people into a Prussian species of Christian who will blindly submit to authoritarian rule.
But what could be farther from the truth? Let Frady find one instance where Graham says we should submit to anyone but God, or that we should give in to authoritarianism or totalitarianism. When does he show that the Nuremberg mystique is the model to follow?
How do the crusades relate to Graham’s supposed authoritarianism and techniques of conditioning?
[Further,] the crusade system itself had come to exist for the sake of [its] own self-propagation. And with Graham’s mutation in New York on into television, that circular syllogistic system suddenly registered a quantum leap into its simple perfection: crusades now existed for their televised reproductions; the television event now existed to produce more television events (p. 314).
And all these imposing machineries (p. 294) existed to feed Graham’s massive, if juvenile, ego; indeed,
what it all arises from finally—all the boards and offices and financial machineries—is that central activating principle of Graham’s whole life and ministry: the ultimate significance of the mass-reality (p. 285).
So Frady believes the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is, like Graham himself, wholly self-centered, existing only to go on existing in ever-increasing proportions, mindlessly dazzled by its own magnitude and utterly sold out to the modern Baal of mass reality.
But is this really the case? Have only an insignificant number been saved or helped by a Graham crusade? Is Graham’s whole life and ministry—together with that of the BGEA—activated only by a seemingly pathological need to tune into mass reality? For his answer, let Frady interview the hundreds of thousands who have come to know Jesus Christ as Lord through the Graham crusades. Some readers may even suspect a malicious twist in Frady that makes him deliberately choose to believe Graham is not motivated by a desire to help people but rather by an ambition merely to keep the show on the road.
We are forced to conclude, at any rate, that Frady makes no concerted attempt to understand the essential nature of the crusades or mass evangelism. Rather he dwells only and interminably on its external manifestations. He simply never enters empathetically into the life and thought of mainstream evangelicalism. If he had, he would have perceived more in the crusades. He would have related them to biblical Christianity’s consuming desire that everyone know Jesus Christ.
In summary, this volume displays three basic flaws:
(1) It provides us with a factually unreliable account of Billy Graham and those with whom he dealt. It mixes truth and error by garbling incidents so badly they are often almost unrecognizable. It sets pieces of truth out of context. This volume simply cannot be trusted factually.
(2) Concerning interpretation, it distorts the picture of Graham to fit Frady’s own imaginary construction. And he uses his warped account to attack not simply Graham, but evangelicalism. Of course, to those who have already made up their minds such data seem to “fit.” But they fit as two false descriptions of any situation that may be consistent with each other and seem to support each other. They fit because they agree with an initially perverted picture. We believe this explains the widespread acceptance of Frady’s misinterpretation of Graham reflected in the reviews that have recently appeared in American news media. Frady is telling many what they already believe and concocting evidence that lends support to their prejudice.
(3) Frady betrays an essential misunderstanding of evangelicalism and the gospel; he therefore finds it impossible to understand Billy Graham.
Please do not misunderstand: we are not arguing for Billy Graham’s innocence or that he is free from mistakes. He, too, is a sinner in need of divine forgiveness. He has not always seen the sins of America with the foresight we might wish, as he himself would be the first to admit. But all of this is tangential to the problem: Who is it that is responsible for leading America into the moral paralysis of the present day? Is it Billy Graham, or the moral relativists of the past generation? Is it Billy Graham who has crossed America to call all men and women everywhere to repent of their sins, to eschew selfishness, to forsake their materialism, to tell the truth, to cast down their pride, to destroy their idols, to love their fellows even to their own hurt, and to turn to the living God for grace and mercy and moral strength to do the right at any cost? Or, is it not rather those who, like John Dewey, Ruth Benedict, and Joseph Fletcher, argue that judgments are merely practical adjustments to society, or that moral truth is relative to our culture, or that God’s laws are never absolute? America’s problem is a loss of confidence in moral absolutes—absolutes to which Graham is calling us back. Frady is apparently incapable of putting the blame in the right place.
In the closing pages (509–510) Frady describes with heavy irony the testimony of a Korean girl at a Graham crusade. She told how she had been blinded by the flash of an exploding bomb when she was five. As a result, her father threw her into a river in an unsuccessful attempt at infanticide. At the crusade meeting she sang of seeing Christ’s love, which kept her from bitterness and isolation. (“The love of God is greater far/than tongue or pen can ever tell.…”)
However, in what she said and the way in which she said it (“a gladly ringing voice,” “a pretty crystal voice”), she made a mistake—a mistake, that is, from Marshall Frady’s point of view. To him she represented not someone profoundly touched by the measureless love of God, but a “cheerful sweet barbarity of mindless piety.”
Yet that girl has a brilliant mind and has completed her Ph.D. course work at one of our finest universities. But that is beside the point. What does it tell us about Frady who must interpret her acceptance of divine love as barbarous mindlessness?
The title Frady chose for his book suggests, tongue in cheek, that Billy Graham is a parable of American righteousness. Frady’s remark about the effects of grace on a blinded Korean girl, however, suggests he himself may be a parable—a parable of a blind man who would not see, a parable of American blindness.
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