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30 October 2014 | by Grant Wacker, reviewed by Jon M. Sweeney

America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the shaping of a nation

Not born yesterday

Is it conceivable that Pope Francis would send Billy Graham, who turns 96 on 7 November, a birthday card? It is. But one also imagines that Billy’s son, Franklin, would be unimpressed.

Over the last decade, Franklin has steadily scattered the goodwill his father built up over a half-century. Only two months ago, Franklin wrote that the ebola outbreak may be instrumental to God’s plan for the end of the world. “Beware” and “foreboding” are the tools of a Christian fundamentalist; they were never Billy’s. For all his faults – and he had plenty – the elder Graham didn’t use the Gospel like a birch rod.

Sixty years ago last spring, Billy Graham arrived at Waterloo Station to commotion and excitement. Harringay Arena filled every night from March to May to hear the American Southern Baptist preach. Graham met the Queen, preached at Wembley Stadium to 120,000, and was the most written-about and photographed man in the realm that spring. Two million Britons saw him in person, and many looked with a jaundiced eye. One newspaper columnist referred to the nightly meetings as “a monotony of sensation”. They were indeed, complete with the usual elements of an American revival meeting: Gospel music sweetly sung, massive choirs telling “the old, old story”, and a preacher pounding the pulpit, pleading with his listeners to consider their eternal destiny. It made for a great show, and its predictability was surely part of the secret of its deep appeal.

The 1954 London crusades would make the handsome young North Carolinian evangelist’s reputation as a player on the world stage. By October that year, his face adorned the cover of Time magazine. For the better part of a half-century, until he faded from public attention a decade ago, Billy Graham was consistently named one of the world’s most respected people in surveys and opinion polls, along with the likes of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa. He returned to London in 1966, 1984 and 1989 – but today he sits quietly at home in the mountains of North Carolina.

American church historian Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the shaping of a nation is a timely cultural biography. One of the world authorities on the subject of American Evangelicalism, Wacker makes a strong claim for Graham’s historical importance when he writes: “Graham ranks with Martin Luther King, Jr, and Pope John Paul II as one of the most creatively influential Christians of the twentieth century. One could make a case for others, too, such as Professor Reinhold Niebuhr, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Mother Teresa, but all of them spoke for a more limited constituency and for a briefer stretch of time.”

Wacker frequently returns to the subject of Graham’s complicated relationship with Catholics and Catholicism. Graham’s own 1998 autobiography, Just As I Am (after Charlotte Elliott’s hymn, slowly intoned during the “altar call” of every Graham crusade), told us much we already knew: he opposed Communism, was a friend to Martin Luther King Jr, as well as to President Richard Nixon (remember their taped conversations in the Oval Office?), opposed abortion and enjoyed the media attention he received. There was also a moment in the USSR in 1988 which Graham remembered, “… sitting on the floor talking with Cardinal John O’Connor of New York about the way Protestant-Roman Catholic relations had changed.”

As Wacker notes, “In 1950 evangelicals and Catholics eyed each other with deep suspicion. Most evangelicals felt that Catholicism was sub-Christian at best, and many believed that it was not Christian at all.” Graham risked a great deal with his core constituency when he began building bridges between Evangelicals and Catholics. This began in earnest soon after his 1957 crusade in New York City, at Madison Square Garden, the first time he preached on national television, when local priests warned parishioners against attending. Soon, Graham was reaching out to prominent Catholics in every city as he prepared a crusade, to stand with him as representatives of the Christian faith. By 1961, Graham and President Kennedy prayed side by side at a Washington prayer breakfast (despite Graham’s voiced preference for the Quaker Nixon during the campaign). Billy Graham and Pope John Paul II met on three occasions, and Graham once proudly repeated the Pope’s private words to him: “We are brothers.” 

In Just As I Am, Graham remembered speaking to Rose Kennedy a year after JFK’s assassination, saying, “The only hope for finding common ground among Christians of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints” was “to focus on the Word of God, the ultimate authority for our faith”. That’s the trouble. Protestant tent poles such as sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers are the fuel of the Evangelicalism that made Graham famous – and they depict a world in which what’s true is ultimately determined by each man alone with a Bible. Such tenets make it easy for Christians like Franklin Graham to forget that Billy – whom Wacker says has never had much inclination for introspection – also once said to a reporter from US Catholic magazine, when asked what he would do if invited by the Pope to preach at St Peter’s: “I would gladly and humbly accept … [and] study for about a year in preparing.”





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