Do We Need Another Billy Graham?

OBama and Graham

As far as I know, Tara Isabella Burton is not a historian.  But her piece on Billy Graham at VOX is a model of balanced historical writing.  It is refreshing to see a piece that does not:

  1.  Claim Graham was the most important figure in world history since Saul of Tarsus.
  2.  Use Graham’s death to exorcise personal demons from evangelical childhoods.
  3.  Dismiss Graham because he failed to live up to contemporary moral standards.
  4.  Trash Graham as a huckster and peddler of superstition.

A lot of the pieces I refer to above have been written by historians.

Here is a taste of Burton’s piece, “Evangelical America Needs Billy Graham More Than Ever“:

As white evangelical Christianity in America comes to look more and more like Christian nationalism — a blend of GOP policy platforms, jingoism, white supremacy, and Christian rhetoric — it’s worth recognizing Billy Graham’s legacy as a spiritual leader who balanced a stringent, even uncompromising approach to his own faith with a ferocious independence from the American political arena. While today, faith and politics seem irredeemably intertwined (after all, 81 percent of white evangelicals famously voted for Trump), for Graham, political activism was — with the exception, as he himself recognized, of his disastrous friendship with Nixon — secondary to the faith principles he espoused.

In 2007, Graham defended his decision to distance himself from Falwell’s Moral Majority and its political successors:

I’m all for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.

In that regard, if he resembles any contemporary political figure, it is the Catholic Pope Francis — another figure whose theological convictions allow him to embrace perspectives and approaches from both sides of the secular political aisle, and who transcends the easy binary of left and right. Francis’s ferocious environmentalism, anti-capitalism, and commitment to eradicating income inequality, for example, have been lauded by the left, even as his views on abortion, say, place him in line with the “right.”

But Francis, like Graham before him, is a religious figure, not a political one, and words like “left” and “right” mean little. Both figures saw themselves as “pro-life” in the broadest sense of the word, a faith-based ethos that encompassed a variety of positions on the political spectrum.

Mike Pence famously caused controversy when he referred to himself as “A Christian, a conservative, and a Republican — in that order.” But almost the same must be said of Graham.

A religious leader whose convictions informed his politics, and not the other way around, Graham showed America that theological convictions and a deep religious faith could exist for their own sake, and not be made subordinate to Republican partisan aims. And in an increasingly religiously polarized America — in which political and religious identity have all but fused — a spiritual leader who rejects those binaries is exactly what we need.

We need, in other words, another Billy Graham.

Sadly, I don’t think Burton will get her wish.  Read the entire piece here.

One thought on “Do We Need Another Billy Graham?

  1. I grew up in a church where converting others was revered, and we had evangelist meetings from time to time. I once served as a counselor for one when I was in high school.

    Even then, though, I thought it a bit bizarre that people would go to a meeting for the purpose of being preached at and converted. If you were inclined to believe, what was it about this particular event that persuaded you to convert? If you were not so inclined, why would you go to a church to listen to some guy yell at you?

    Where I think Graham did a disservice to Christianity was de-linking conversion to lifestyle. Being a Christian meant uttering a prayer under emotional conditions. Believing a certain set of propositions and ignoring the actual teachings of the person they were allegedly praying to.

    Graham said Jesus came to do three days work, to be born, die and get resurrected. But to me that makes a mockery of the religion. And it sets the foundation to accept people like Trump, because Christianity is about beliefs and end goals and not about living a certain way and having certain attitudes.


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