Religion

Billy Graham, the Purple State Preacher

Evangelist Billy Graham speaks at Flushing Meadows Park in New York City in 2005. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Leaders like Billy Graham could help heal this country.

Many of the conservative Evangelicals who are now hailing Billy Graham as Pastor to the Nation might be put off by my demographic profile: a northern, secular, liberal Democrat, living in a big city in a blue state, who reads the New York Times, watches MSNBC, and has a Harvard degree. But the Baptist preacher from the mountains of North Carolina did not flinch at working with me.

Without ever inquiring about my faith or lack thereof, he personally supported my authorship of a book about the stories of people who had known him, Billy Graham & Me, affording me the cooperation of his closest colleagues and eventually writing an afterword for the book. He was not naïve about the bitterness of the red and blue divide, yet he chose to focus on the purple in all of us.

Long before the alt-right fringe made inroads into the Republican party, Graham championed diversity and inclusion. His compassion was not transactional, his faith needing no affirmation from sophisticates and celebrities to prove its worth. For Graham, everyone was his equal; only God is above us. He didn’t serve people because they were Christians; he did it because he was Christian. He had taken up the cross to preach the Good News that his God loves you even if you don’t love Him back, encouraging instead of persecuting those deemed sinful by his theology.

His preaching was distinctly American, mindful of the words that follow “one nation under God” in the pledge of allegiance to our United States. Despite the angry turbulence of our politics, Graham insisted that “there is more hope in America than maybe some people think.” His patriotism was rooted in our collective national will to more perfectly forge a republic with liberty and justice for all. “We’re a strong country,” he told me. “We have a tremendous amount of spiritual and moral reserve in this country that I think some of these people overlook.” And he made no claim that it existed only south of the Mason-Dixon.

Both of Graham’s grandfathers fought for the Confederacy. The only thing Southern about me was the South Bronx. I was a Jewish white boy growing up in the projects as a minority within a minority, and my earliest encounter with Christianity was the fear that a crucifix triggered in my immigrant grandmother who had fled the Russian Orthodox Cossacks who slaughtered Jews in reliably periodic pogroms. Then came the rocks hurled at the cracked windows of our ramshackle synagogue by street kids eager to chase and punch Jews, victoriously slamming our Hebrew scriptures onto sidewalks scrawled with the two-millennia-long justification: Jews Are Christ Killers.

Graham took his revivals to every major city up North, rejecting the racism that pushed my black friends into the impoverished projects. But he was not immune to bigotry. So I was not startled to hear his fawning embrace of Richard Nixon’s delusional rantings in the Oval Office, with Graham cheering on as Nixon hyperventilated about a secret cabal of Jewish journalists intent on destroying his presidency and undermining Christianity.

Many of us have shameful private prejudices, but few have the honesty to admit them, and the courage to overcome them. Graham’s remorse was public and profound. “I was trying to please,” he confessed, lulled by his proximity to power. “I felt so badly about myself,” he recalled. “I went to a meeting with Jewish leaders, and I told them I would crawl to them to ask their forgiveness.”

We are all sinners, Graham believed. He did not exclude himself. But he believed that our redemption comes from an open and humble heart. That’s where God’s grace resides. He could rehabilitate his reputation because his contrition was determined and sincere. He had none of the ugliness of pastors who boast of their intolerance, buoyed by the vanity of their self-proclaimed holiness and the disparagement of others.

Graham’s conviction that his religion is the true one was not threatened by the recognition that there is goodness in those who take a different path.

Graham’s conviction that his religion is the true one was not threatened by the recognition that there is goodness in those who take a different path. When I pointedly asked him if someone could achieve salvation without accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, his reply revealed his piety. “That’s entirely up to God,” he said. “I think we are told to proclaim Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Light, but God will decide who is saved and who is lost.”

Evangelical leaders like Billy Graham could help heal this country. Imagine what a single tweet from a Billy Graham denouncing the white nationalists in Charlottesville might have done to help staunch the racism enflamed by Donald Trump and his accomplices.

Where is the Southern Evangelical leader of today who reaches out to conservatives who feel marginalized within mainstream culture and are inclined to see all condemnations of the president’s divisiveness as liberal ploys? Where is the leader who can bring the message that such criticisms are often meant as nonpartisan appeals to human decency by patriotic Republicans and Democrats?

Which prominent big-city liberal Democrat is ready to journey across the South, explaining the San Francisco version of patriotism to conservative churchgoers in GOP strongholds like Mobile and Biloxi?

Mixing red and blue may seem like a fool’s errand today, but it’s one that Billy Graham undertook when the country’s divides were more intense and the consequences of attempting to bridge them were more dangerous. In Billy Graham & Me, President Carter provided a telling example.

I first became associated with Billy Graham about forty-five years ago, when I was in Sumter County, Georgia. Anyone who knows anything about Georgia would recognize Sumter County, and particularly Americus, as having the strongest John Birch Society in the South. In those days it had almost 100 percent membership among white men and the White Citizens’ Council. Andy Young and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. both said that Sumter County was the worst place in the United States to be put in jail.

Someone called me on behalf of Billy Graham and asked if I would lead a Billy Graham Crusade. I said, “Yes I will, if Billy Graham comes.” The representative replied, “Well he’s not coming, but he’ll send a motion picture, and we want you to put the event together.” Then he added, “And the first thing you have to realize is that all over the world, the Billy Graham Crusades are absolutely and totally racially integrated.” I somewhat reluctantly agreed to do it, knowing the South as I did. Then we tried to find a place where we could have a biracial planning meeting. However, and I hate to report this, not a single one of the Christian white churches would let us meet on their premises. So we had to find some secular place to meet, but the planning went on.

The name of the movie was The Restless Ones. During the Crusade, we showed that film in the movie theater, two hours each night, and at the end of the film, I gave a short presentation about the gospel message. During the completely integrated ceremony, 650 people accepted the call to accept Jesus Christ. This event, sponsored and orchestrated by Billy Graham, was a major breakthrough in severing the distinctive separation between our African-American and our white citizens. It helped to integrate our county in a major way, because whenever anyone went forward in that theater, black or white, to accept Jesus Christ, they were embraced by the leaders of the segregationist churches as Christian brothers and sisters.

Who among today’s Evangelical leaders would so courageously challenge members of their own communities?

Too few, because Billy Graham is not a brand or a franchise. His message is not a legacy to be capitalized on by those who preach an alarmist gospel of grievance and animosity. It belongs to those who fear nothing but hatred and violence, a sensibility that holds kindness at its core. In Billy Graham & Me, the popular televangelist, James Robison, testified to his own conversion from demonizing others to attempting to understand them:

When it came to theology, I was always confrontational. Jerry Falwell used to say that I made even conservative Baptists look like a bunch of liberals. He once commented that I even made Bob Jones and Rush Limbaugh look like liberals. And I was often too harsh and angry. I was abrasive and seemed to lack compassion. I later realized that Billy recognized that characteristic, but he would never confront me about it. He was such a gentleman and so kind. I would persist, however, by challenging and asking him, “How can you associate with all these different people who, in my opinion, have some theological beliefs that are just plain wrong?” There I was, challenging a true giant in the faith, saying things that were so immature, and yet Billy responded with such gracious encouragement. He never confronted me directly about my attitude, but one day a simple conversation with Billy transformed my life. He asked me if I knew the people I was telling him to stay away from. When I replied that I did not, he simply said, “I suggest you get to know people you’ve been taught to avoid.”

I then understood how wrong I was, how we can take our differences to such extremes. We don’t have to compromise our beliefs, yet sometimes in defense of our faith, we compromise God’s love. In the simplest way, Billy drove home the point that Jesus taught everything in the context of love — for everyone. Through the outreach this lesson inspired, it not only changed my life, but also the lives of many religious leaders who have differing theological positions but have now joined together, seeking common ground to discuss our common concerns. They are also joining together in soul-winning and mission outreaches. I would never have ever been able to speak to them about spiritual harmony and unity without Billy’s example and influence.

The simplicity of Billy Graham’s belief was his greatest asset. Unencumbered by the abstractions of exegesis and the idolatry of the conceptual, the instinctive authenticity of Graham’s affable optimism captivated the skeptical and the gullible, inspired the powerful, comforted the dejected. Human decency was more important to Graham than complex theology.

Graham was not unaware of the philosophical paucity of his convictions. Charles Templeton, his partner in the formation of Youth for Christ International in 1945, confronted his young friend after being accepted to Princeton Theological Seminary. “We need to grow, to develop some intellectual sinew,” he implored. “Come with me to Princeton.”

Graham demurred. “I don’t have the time or the intellect to examine all sides of each theological dispute,” he explained, “so I’ve decided, once and for all, to stop questioning and accept the Bible as God’s Word.” Templeton called his decision “intellectual suicide.” Eventually, Templeton concluded that his own Christian faith should be replaced with objective scholarship. “Much of what he says in the pulpit is puerile nonsense,” he later wrote about Graham. Yet he was still moved by the purity of his friend’s devotion. “There is no feigning in him: he believes what he believes with an invincible innocence. He is the only mass evangelist I would trust.”

For many, Graham’s assertions were unconvincing, but his good nature was persuasive.

There were many others who would scoff at Graham’s fundamentalism while admiring his trustworthy passion for goodness, impressed by the striking mix of humility and unwavering confidence. “I am not a great man,” he wrote in his afterword for my book. “But I do serve a great God, and I give Him all the glory for whatever my associates and I have been able to accomplish over the years.”

For many, Graham’s assertions were unconvincing, but his good nature was persuasive. Perhaps the time will come when those with blue big-city profiles similar to mine will not be written off as political enemies by rural red-state conservative Evangelicals, who instead choose to heed Billy Graham’s call for kindness rather than mere worship. And let’s hope that we secular liberals in turn will learn to cherish rather than condescend to those who favor intuitions about a loving divinity over polarizing distinctions of belief.

I did not share Billy Graham’s theology, but I knew that his preaching was true. “Get to know people you’ve been taught to avoid,” he told us. That’s how a Jewish liberal from the South Bronx wound up writing a book celebrating a conservative Baptist preacher from the Deep South.

Steve Posner is the author of Billy Graham & Me and teaches Advanced Writing for International Relations & Global Economics at the University of Southern California.

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