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Billy Graham’s missed opportunities

David Hollinger, professor emeritus of history | February 22, 2018

As one of world Christianity’s most admired leaders, the Rev. Billy Graham, who died on Wednesday at 99, had extraordinary opportunities to affect the character of the Christian religion and to pronounce on its implications for personal conduct. He scored at the top of lists of “most respected” Americans decade after decade. He was loved by millions in the United States and abroad.

But the parochial terms on which Graham preached Christianity render his career largely a story of missed opportunities. He too often stood aloof from or actively discouraged efforts to revise traditional Protestantism to make it more respectful of the world’s racial and cultural diversity and of the findings of modern science and scholarship.

Billy Graham, photo by Shannon Stapleton, ReutersGraham led his followers to seek comfort in versions of Christianity familiar to his core constituency, the white population of the Southern, formerly slave-holding region of the United States. He offered only weak challenges to the prejudices and injustices largely tolerated by that population.When he heard President Richard Nixon utter prejudiced remarks about Jews, for example,

Graham could have challenged him. But as audio tape of their private conversation has revealed, he did the opposite, assuring Nixon that the many Jews who befriended him “don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country.”

Many of Graham’s more theologically liberal contemporaries drew upon the words of Jesus of Nazareth and the Apostle Paul to support legislative and court actions to advance civil rights. But he chose to represent anti-black racism as a sin of the individual human heart rather than a civic evil to be corrected by collective political authority.

To his credit, Graham made a production of racially integrating his revivals and rallies at a time when many white Southern Protestants found this step provocative. But again and again he failed to contest the prevailing view that religious advocacy for civil rights was “meddling” with politics while acceptance of the inherited structures of inequality in the Jim Crow South was not.

The same pattern emerged in Graham’s approach to Christian witness in the world beyond the United States. He supported a fundamentalist reading of the Bible in the mission fields of Africa and Asia, while more ecumenical groups like the World Council of Churches promoted less sectarian versions of Christianity and less conversion-centered modes of interaction with the peoples of the globe.

There is no more perfect emblem for Graham’s global legacy than the 2003 declaration of his son and designated spiritual heir, the Rev. Franklin Graham, that President George W. Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq presented Christians with a great opportunity to convert the population of Iraq from the “wicked” religion of Islam.

Liberal Protestant and Catholic leaders have long articulated and ably defended many variations on the old faith that accommodate what modern science and scholarship have discovered about our world. But Graham, who could have done the same, acquiesced in the provincial suspicions of modern intellectual life — suspicions that keep millions of the faithful away from an honest engagement with the Darwinian revolution in natural history and with historical and archaeological findings about the origins of the Bible as a human document. Never was the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr more right than when he warned in 1957 that Graham promoted childlike religious emotions and obscurantist ideas.

Niebuhr presents a revealing contrast to Graham. Niebuhr was a key leader of the so-called Protestant establishment, the complex of liberal, ecumenical denominations that dominated the public face of Christianity in the United States until the 1970s. Graham was the most conspicuous leader of the rival, evangelical Protestantism that gradually but decisively seized control of the symbolic capital of Christianity from the Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans and other mainstream groups within the Protestant establishment.

From the 1970s onward the Grahams of American religion triumphed over the Niebuhrs, largely because the evangelicals continued to espouse a cluster of ideas that remained popular with the white public while the liberal, ecumenical leadership abandoned these same ideas as indefensibly racist, sexist, imperialist, chauvinistic, homophobic and anti-intellectual.

Prominent among these ideas was the assertion that the United States was a “Christian nation,” rather than one in which persons of many faiths, and of no faith at all, were civic equals. Another such idea was that claim that the heterosexual, nuclear, patriarchal family was God’s will. Yet another was that faith in Jesus was the only road to salvation.

Graham had a choice as to where he would urge his followers to come down on these issues. Consistently, he distanced himself from the efforts of ecumenists to revise Christianity in cosmopolitan directions. He encouraged his vast and devoted following to believe that God’s word was unchanging and that liberals were substituting their own ideas for those of a supernatural, unchanging deity revealed in the Bible. He dumbed down his inherited faith instead of helping it to address the challenges of modern times.

The memory of Graham is rightly honored by those who shared his values and the goals for which he mobilized evangelical Christianity. But the rest of us can surely be forgiven if we remember him differently.

Crossposted from the New York Times.

Comments to “Billy Graham’s missed opportunities

  1. Op-ed columns are not works of scholarship, although they can be, as this one is, informed by scholarship. This is an opinion piece. Of course it has a political agenda. That’s what opinion pieces are supposed to do. And it should be recognized that Billy Graham did not remotely honor the church-state separation, and consistently deceived the public about the degree and character of his political involvement. Even the sympathetic biography by Grant Wacker acknowledges this.

  2. Thanks for this corrective to the myopic obituaries that were featured elsewhere. I was scratching my head at the segments on the PBS NewsHour and on Medium while wondering why Americans more broadly so often kowtow to white Southern sensibilities. I’m starting to feel caught in a dynamic where I try to calm agitated waters in leftist academic circles by insisting that things aren’t as bad as they are being made to appear, systemic-racism-wise, and then my efforts are undercut by yet another example of unreflective deep-seated parochialism spouted as universal gospel. Graham should be placed in the position he merits — a few strides ahead of the horrors that came before, but being less awful than one’s predecessors doesn’t make one a saint.

  3. “Despite repeated requests by Graham, Niebuhr refused to meet with him.
    So Graham simply complimented Niebuhr and explained away their differences.
    “I have read nearly everything Mr. Niebuhr has written and I feel inadequate before his brilliant mind and learning,” Graham told reporters.
    “Occasionally I get a glimmer of what he is talking about. . . .
    If I tried to preach as he writes, people would be so bewildered they would walk out.”
    (Collin Hansen)

    “He spoke, Wacker says, to more people directly — about 215 million — than any person in history. In 1945, at age 26, he addressed 65,000 at Chicago’s Soldier Field. The 1949 crusade in Los Angeles, promoted by the not notably devout William Randolph Hearst, had a cumulative attendance of 350,000. In 1957, a May-to-September rally in New York had attendance of 2.4 million, including 100,000 on one night at Yankee Stadium. A five-day meeting in Seoul in 1973 drew 3 million.”
    (USA Today)

  4. “….he chose to represent anti-black racism as a sin of the individual human heart rather than a civic evil to be corrected by collective political authority.”

    It’s ironic that they criticize him for not taking political action on issues that they supported while criticizing him for being politically involved in things they don’t agree with.

    The writer of this article does not parse between what it means to be a religious leader and politician and clearly has a double standard. Graham resolved to a policy that honored separation of church and state. One of the biggest points being that you cannot force people to change by simply adding to a body of legislation.

    Also, mentioning Billy Graham’s origins in a former slave-state is a complete strawman. Does everyone from a former slave state necessarily associate themselves with this?

    The writer begs the question of being morally superior in both the article’s title and in the examples he/she provides. Besides the example with the anti-jewish remarks, clearly not excusable, every other example was listed assuming that Graham’s position or actions were evidently wrong (even though no justification is otherwise given).

    I’m very disappointed to see such low quality literary work that clearly has a political agenda coming from our school.

    This is not a work of scholarship, but merely the emotions of someone who did not care to engage critically with their own beliefs and Graham’s. It’s disrespectful and self-centered to think that one can simply dismiss his actions (good or bad) simply because they personally disagreed with his views. I may or may not have a “good” memory of him either, but that’s no excuse for intellectual laziness.

    • This rote/formulaic bit of rhetorical mud-splashing is literally following the rule-book of Frank Luntz and the astroturf think tanks by flinging out globs of ‘strawman’ and ‘laziness’ and ‘double standard’ without any reflective awareness of the nature of political discussion —
      simply put, this is a tendentious example of what comedian George Carlin observed: why is it that your own shit is stuff while the other guy’s stuff is shit?

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