For famous people, major news agencies have obituaries in the can before the person dies. There was a moment during the Shrub Bush Administration when CNN inadvertently posted several of their obituaries-in-waiting for people still living, including then-Vice President Dick Cheney. (CNN's Premature Obituaries 04/16/2018).
So when evangelist Billy Graham passed away this week, there were plenty of fairly detailed obituaries waiting to be published, as well as immediate reactions to his death.
Ed Kilgore writes in Billy Graham Lived at the Crossroads of Faith and Power New York 02/21/2018:
Graham’s frequently televised “crusades” (as he called his public evangelistic events until 9/11, when the connotations in the Middle East became newly salient) became a regular part of American life from the 1950s on, presenting an intensely personal but ecumenical version of evangelical Protestant Christianity to a rapidly secularizing world. Suffering from a variety of ailments, Graham had been out of the public eye since his last big preaching event in 2005 (in Flushing Meadows, as it happens). Upon his death today at the age of 99, his legacy as perhaps the first global evangelist, and certainly the first televangelist, is secure. But his relationship with the politically powerful, which in some respects anticipated the Christian right (which Graham himself conspicuously did not join), provides a more complicated picture.
The PBS Newshour presented Remembering Billy Graham, evangelical leader whose preaching felt personal to millions 02/21/2018:
Randall Balmer, who appears in the PBS clip, writes about Graham in Billy Graham, Most Famous Religios Figure of 20th C, Dies at 99 Religion Dispatches 02/21/2018.
Graham was part of the Southern Baptist tradition, though his message appealed to a wide range of the conservative Protestant spectrum. For those not familiar with it, Southern Baptists do not practice infant baptism like the Catholic Church and most Protestant denominations. A person formally joins a Southern Baptist church by publicly acknowledging that he or she has made a conscious personal decision to "accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior." Baptism takes place after the public "profession of faith" is accepted by the local congregation. A person doesn't have to be an adult to make such a decision. For kids growing up in the denomination, the profession of faith often takes place at middle school age, similarly to confirmation in the Catholic Church.
Southern Baptists don't usually describe themselves as having a "mystical" faith, mystical being as it is popularly associated with "Eastern religions" (Hinduism and Buddhism) or with long-haired hippies from The Sixties, a period which many conservative Protestant Christians view as a kind of cultural fall from grace for America and other places. But in fact there is a strong mystical element in Southern Baptist theology coming out of the Pietist tradition. For Southern Baptists, this includes a belief that God speaks to individual directly, though without the angels or visions accepted in other Christian traditions. It also includes a strong consciousness of a punitive God with a Hell of eternal burning fire for the unsaved, i.e., those who have not had the accepted type of conversion experience. Perhaps ironically, Southern Baptist belief also has a concept of "once saved, always saved," which says that once a person make a genuine confession of faith, their place in Heaven is guaranteed, no matter what they do or believe in the future. Still, even for the saved, Baptist teachings and sermons tend to stress a fear of divine punishment which even those considering themselves permanently cleared for entrance to Paradise still feel, often keenly so.
Because of the belief in the need for a conscious conversion experience to enter into an acceptable relationship with God, and how large Hell looms in the theology, regular Sunday services in a Southern Baptist Church normally conclude with an altar call, in which a person comes forward publicly before the congregation to declare their faith. It is considered to the duty of the converted to "witness" to others so that their souls can be saved through conversion.
And this is how Graham's famous religious events were structured around a message of salvation to escape the threat of eternal damnation, concluding with an altar call. Typically, large numbers of people could be observed coming forward at the end, which those within the conservative Protestant traditions, and not just the Southern Baptist version, would code as souls being saved. So having brought untold thousands or even millions "brought to Christ" by hearing Graham's message in person or through the media, Graham enjoyed great prestige among such believers. And he was also a great showman. Which is not to say that he was a fraud or a charlatan. I know of no reason to think he was anything but serious and sincere about the faith for which he proselytized. Although most believing Christians would presumably acknowledge at least the possibility of miraculous healings, Graham was not a "faith healer." And while those in the Pentecostal were impressed by him, Graham did not practice or distinctive Pentecostal "charismatic" practices like speaking in tongues or "prophecy" rituals.
As at least part of Graham's religious heritage, here is his granddaughter Jerushah Armfield talking about Christian Right adherents' loyal adherence to our current President, Billy Graham's granddaughter: My president doesn't have to be a Christian CNN 01/27/2018:
On the other hand, her uncle Franklin Graham seems to be the heir to Graham's larger ministry. And he has identified more thoroughly with the Christian Right than his father ever did. As Charlie Pierce puts it with even less reverence than I, "Given the fact that we are now left with his inexcusable wing nut son, Franklin, I’m not inclined to look too harshly on Billy Graham’s career. It can always get worse, and has." (Billy Graham Was a Giant in American Political Life Esquire Politics Blog 02/21/2018)
Part of the Graham hagiography is that he actively cooperated with Martin Luther King, Jr. in promoting desegregation in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s. Here is a version from a well-known conservtive Protestant figure, Richard Land (Confronting Graham's Demons Christian Post 06/25/2009):
Very early in his ministry, Billy Graham confronted the demons of racial prejudice and segregation, refusing to allow segregated seating at his evangelistic crusades from the late 1940s onward.Steven P. Miller (not the Steven Miller who works in Trump's White House!) covers the history of Graham's relationship to the politics of desegregation in Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (2009). His makes a point that is key in understanding this aspect of Graham's career:
In the middle decades of this century, the only integrated worship experiences many black and white Southerners ever experienced were attending Billy Graham crusades together. This courageous early stand by Billy Graham earned him the undying devotion of those seeking to rid our society of the plague of racial prejudice, as well as the unrelenting hostility of the staunch segregationists.
Within American popular evangelicalism, a mythology of sorts has emerged equating the work of Graham and King on behalf of racial justice. "Billy Graham Had a Dream," reads the title of one favorable treatment of the evangelist’s efforts to combat racism. Such thinking has blurred the significant distinction between those ministers who marched and those who did not. It also has obscured Graham’s fundamental discomfort with the civil rights movement. Part of a larger conservative effort to fashion a "limited civil rights movement" by invoking the legacy of America’s most revered civil rights leader, the misleading King-Graham equivalency has drawn sustenance from dreams about what an alliance between them might have accomplished. The interpretation first received popular dissemination in 1979 with the publication by Graham’s authorized biographer of a letter from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan to the evangelist. "You and Rev. King," wrote the Democrat and former adviser to President Richard Nixon, "more than any two men — and, surely, with God’s help — brought your own South out of that long night of racial fear and hate." Graham’s own description of his relationship with King has also contributed to the mythology. [my emphasis]During the 1950s, Graham undertook some active cooperation with King in the 1950s as a white "moderate" minister. In practice, that meant he hedged his bets on whether the Jim Crow segregation system in place in the South of the 1950s would survive or not. And he made important cultural gestures like not allowing racially segregated sections at his events. And he spoke out against acts like the Birmingham church bombing that were so obviously heinous and criminal that even the perpetrators tried to deny their own roles in them. But he was far more reserved on even speaking against the most serious state-enforced aspects of segregation like denial of voting rights to black citizens or segregated public schools.
And for African-Americans to actively protest such practices or, heaven forbid, engage in civil disobedience in such protests, well, that was something Graham felt very uncomfortable with. Because it wasn't nice, you know.
King didn't mention Billy Graham specifically in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963). But that statement paints a devastating picture of how useless (or worse) white "moderate" ministers could be when it came to protesting white racism and discrimination. Miller's book gives a realistic assessment of Graham's role in the civil rights movement:
The mid-1960s represented the high point of Graham’s regional influence [in the US South], when he facilitated the growth of a faith-informed, postsegregation public language and paved ground for the racially moderate Sunbelt ideal. While Graham and his southern booster collaborators worked to convince white southerners to accept the fated demise of legalized Jim Crow — and, through desegregated evangelistic services, modeled one way of doing so — they also steered the course of social change away from the more substantive goals of civil rights activists. The moderate forces of law and order (so distinct and decent when contrasted with a George Wallace or a Bull Connor) grew less civil in the face of demonstrations and downright vigilant when confronted with urban riots. Graham’s brand of demonstrations highlighted the better part of the white South, but also foreshadowed the Nixonian politics of the "silent majority." [my emphasis]
Graham styled himself as a counselor to Presidents. How seriously US Presidents from Truman to Trump actually took his advice is an open question. But his most significant political association was with Richard Nixon. He gave his only public endorsement of a Presidential candidate to Richard Nixon in 1972.
Nixon's infamous tape came back to plague Graham when a segment became public in 2002, as Haaretz and Reuters report in Billy Graham, Nixon and anti-Semitism: The Bombshell Tapes That Tarnished the Faith Leader's Reputation Haaretz 02/22/2018. This passage was pretty stunning:
"They're the ones putting out the pornographic stuff," Graham said to Nixon - "the Jewish stranglehold has got to be broken or the country's going down the drain," he continued.Even during Nixon's time in office, Graham's well-know close association with him tarnished Graham's reputation as Nixon's Administration disintegrated in the Watergate scandal.
Graham also confided in Nixon that he hid his [real] feelings about Jews from them: "I go and I keep friends with Mr. Rosenthal (then exective [sic] editor) at The New York Times and people of that sort, you know. And all -- I mean, not all the Jews, but a lot of the Jews are great friends of mine, they swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I'm friendly with Israel. But they don't know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country. And I have no power, no way to handle them, but I would stand up if under proper circumstances."
Graham, who had a long history of supporting Israel, apologized profusely after the tapes' release and said he had no recollection of the conversation.
After Nixon's fall, Graham struck a more restricted public political posture, even advocating for nuclear arms control. But even during this period of his career, Miller asks us to look beyond the dominant public image:
The tale of Graham’s self-described "pilgrimage" toward moderation has highlighted certain changes at the expense of other telling continuities. Popular portraits of Graham have exaggerated the nature of his depoliticization. Specifically, they have elided his social ties with the emerging Christian Right, underestimated his presence in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush White Houses, exaggerated his defense of Bill Clinton, and not connected the dots between the motif of Christian statesmanship and the faith narrative of George W. Bush. In short, Graham never completely abandoned the world of politics. As he shed the political residue of the Nixon era, he walked an increasingly forgiving line between his reconstructed image and the fundamental endurance not only of his basic theological assumptions but of his political inclinations as well. During this time, the narrative of the Sunbelt South began to overlap with that of an ascendant conservatism. One need not embrace a glib thesis of "southernization" in order to draw a connection between the two developments - and Graham is a case in point. ...
In key respects, Graham helped to construct the political and religious culture that made the Christian Right possible. [my emphasis]
Here are some additional articles on Graham's life and career:
- Billy Graham: Influential US evangelist dies at 99 BBC News 02/21/2018
- Billy Graham: Six things the evangelist believed BBC News 02/21/2018
- Kevin Eckstrom, "Just As I Am," Billy Graham's signature hymn, embodied his style as an evangelist Christian Century 02/21/2018
- Laurie Goodstein, Billy Graham, 99, Dies; Pastor Filled Stadiums and Counseled Presidents New York Times 02/21/2018
- Harriet Sherwood, Billy Graham, famed Christian evangelist, dies aged 99 Guardian 02/21/2018
- Jon Sweeney, How Billy Graham shaped American Catholicism America 02/21/2018
- Brad Tuttle, Billy Graham Was One of America's Richest Pastors. Here's What We Know About His Money Money 02/21/2018
- Grant Wacker, Billy Graham’s legacy for Christians, evangelical and otherwise Christian Century 02/21/2018