The remarkable life of Billy Graham, now dead at 99, cannot be reduced to numbers.
Still, numbers give at least a hint of this nomadic, apocalyptic preacher’s omnipresence: Over 60-plus years, he preached to more than 200 million people in 185 countries in 417 “crusades,” according to the reckoning of Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy in their 2007 book about Graham and his relationships with 11 American presidents, “The Preacher and the Presidents.”
So, yes, he seems to have been everywhere — including several appearances in Kansas City. And he seems to have had close relations with the most powerful men in the Western world — though, truth be told, Harry Truman was an exception.
As the 33rd president from Independence once explained: “I just don’t go for people like that. All he’s interested in is getting his name in the paper.”
That was an understandable reaction to Graham’s early and naive enthusiasms, but it turned out to be an unfair judgment. To be sure, Graham got lots of publicity, and knew how to attract it. But all he wanted to do was preach his understanding of the Christian gospel.
Graham was, at heart, a super salesman who had a product that was not for sale but was, rather, to be given away. And he believed that he was a spokesman for the best gift imaginable — abundant and eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.
As he said, “I didn’t have any other motives throughout my life but to proclaim the gospel.”
And yet the image of Graham as a one-dimensional North Carolina country boy who could preach the devil into hiding is too simplistic. He was much more than that.
Billy Graham was a promoter, a businessman, an opportunist, a counselor, a politician (no matter how much he might protest the label) and a sinner, as he would say, of God’s own redeeming. In the words of Bill Clinton, who knew something about needing redemption, Graham “was wise, trustworthy, politically astute and generous in spirit.”
Martin E. Marty, a prolific author, Lutheran theologian and careful observer of the American religious scene, says it best: “If we had a Mount Rushmore of evangelists in America, he’d be secure there with Jonathan Edwards, C. G. Finney and Dwight Moody.”
To which Ron Benefiel, former president of Nazarene Theological Seminary of Kansas City, adds: “Billy Graham represented evangelical legitimacy.”
A relentless revivalist, Graham sought to engage Americans in spiritual renewal, and he thought it would help if he had the current president — Democrat or Republican, it really didn’t matter — on his side.
Well, in one sense it didn’t matter. In another, he was in harmony with politically conservative Republicans for much of his life, and it cost him some of his credibility.
Graham’s defense of Nixon in the Watergate period proved a disastrous misjudgment that came back to haunt the evangelist 30 years later when a tape was released of Nixon and Graham sharing clearly antisemitic remarks. Graham was horrified at his old words and apologized profusely.
As Gibbs and Duffy write: “It didn’t matter that Graham’s entire career refuted the charge of anti-Semitism. … If the whole point of maintaining his access to the Oval Office was to bring the gospel in with him, then surely that required that he return evil with good. But in this case, he didn’t.”
An irony of the antisemitic controversy was that over the years, Graham devoted a good portion of his ministry to breaking down barriers between and among groups of people, including Jews and Christians as well as blacks and whites. Richard Land, a prominent Southern Baptist leader, has written this truth about Graham and race: “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.”
As Graham explained when questions were raised about how racially integrated his early crusade events were, “In church there is no color line.”
Graham’s commitment to this progressive stance did not mean he was some kind of political liberal. Far from it. Rather, in reading the Bible in a clear, straight-forward way, Graham could find no warrant there for racism. But as author Michael G. Long argues in his book “Billy Graham and the Beloved Community,” that conclusion did not make him a close ally of such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., nor did it mean he bought King’s vision.
Just as Graham could not justify racism by using the Bible, he also found there no warrant for communism. Especially in his early days, he preached against it with consistent vigor.
But he didn’t get stuck as a cold warrior. He grew. He backed away from hard-right political positions and began to adopt a more internationalist view both of Christianity and of politics. For instance, later in his life, he advocated another political position popular with the political left — nuclear disarmament.
The Rev. Robert Lee Hill, former senior minister of Community Christian Church of Kansas City, says it this way: “While he clung with utmost confidence to a Christian world view there developed within his demeanor toward others a graceful embrace of the humanity of one and all.”
But as Stephen P. Miller, who wrote his Vanderbilt University doctoral dissertation on Graham, has written, “A key difference between Graham and the Christian Right was that he embraced Christians in politics, rather than Christianity as politics.”
Still, Graham’s relationship to politics was complicated and sometimes contradictory.
In 2011, for instance, he told Christianity Today magazine that if he had it to do over again, “I … would have steered clear of politics.” And yet before the 2012 election, he met with, encouraged and all-but-endorsed by name Mitt Romney, including in a full-page ad that ran in various newspapers, including The Star.
But Graham’s appeal across racial and political lines meant that, unlike many religious leaders, he was in a position to speak words of comfort to much of the nation at times of crisis, as he did after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing or the 2001 terrorist attacks.
He was, de facto, the nation’s chaplain, even as it was becoming much more religiously diverse and even as Protestants, such as Graham’s Baptists, were losing their position as the majority of the population.
And surely part of the reason he could fill the role of national chaplain was, as Marty says, that Graham simply was not “mean. If he had been mean, America would have been in terrible trouble, because he had so much power. But while he was strident at first, he showed there’s not a mean streak in him.” (Many religious observers are unwilling to say something similar about Billy Graham’s son, the Rev. Franklin Graham, who has engaged in lots of nasty rhetoric, particularly about Islam.)
As the years went by, Graham began to grasp and appreciate the changes in the American religious landscape and, while never softening his proclamation of the gospel and his belief that the Second Coming was imminent, he was increasingly willing to say he didn’t know the answer to this or that theological question. He became more comfortable with mystery and ambiguity.
Graham came on the scene at a time when a charismatic preacher could command the media’s attention in ways simply not possible today, despite the fame of such current preachers as Rick Warren and Joel Osteen.
As former New York Times religion columnist Peter Steinfels says, “I believe his greatest significance was in bringing conservative Christianity out of a largely self-imposed isolation.”
Graham’s transcendence into a beloved American phenomenon always amazed him because, as he said late in his life to reporters, “I just tried to be myself.”
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see anything like a Billy Graham again.