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By Scott Culpepper
I remember sitting in a seminary class in 1997 discussing revivalism. One of my fellow students fancied himself a bit of a comedian and excelled at impersonations. Assuming his best Billy Graham voice, he intoned with great solemnity, “There’s still time to come forward. Don’t worry; if you’re riding on a bus, they will wait for you.” The instructor, a local pastor with a graduate degree in something or other, fixed my friend with a shocked stare and said, “I’m reminded that I’m dealin’ with a new generation. Back in my day, we didn’t make light of the Reverend Billy Graham.”
With this statement, he diagnosed the incurable sarcasm of our generation and highlighted a phenomenon I like to call the Graham Paradox.
For many Americans, Billy Graham remains accessible and ethereal at the same time. Admirers portray him variously as one of us, the North Carolina farm boy whose urgent call to repentance captivated the world, and as a protestant super-saint who came as close as anyone could to being a default American protestant pope during the peak years of his influence. However, Graham’s true story unfolded in a more complicated, one could say paradoxical, fashion than either of those legendary tales suggests.
Graham centered his ministry on the proclamation of the basic gospel message of redemption through Jesus Christ. He seldom deviated from that basic message into more intricate theological or social debates. Like most revivalists, Graham chose the big tent and the lowest common denominator in a bid to reach the largest audience possible with the gospel. Those choices shaped both the strengths and weaknesses of Graham’s legacy as well as the evangelicalisms (with a heavy emphasis on the plural) that he leaves behind.
Neo-Evangelical Christianity reengaged with American culture due to the influence of Billy Graham and other young leaders of his generation. They received criticism from fundamentalist leaders such as Bob Jones, Sr. as they sought to reinvigorate a conservative Christianity that had adopted an antagonistic posture to American culture. Jones took issue with their openness to working alongside a diverse array of Protestant and Roman Catholic groups. Graham encouraged wary fundamentalists to pursue a more redemptive approach to sharing the gospel with the world while reminding progressive Christians of the fundamental grounding of Christian social ethics in the saving power of the gospel. The complexity of Graham’s legacy is reflected in the fact that both ends of the evangelical political and theological spectrum as well as every stop in between owe a little something to Graham’s public ministry.
Evangelicals at their best have grown beyond some of the revivalist methodologies of Graham while adapting the spirit of his approach to new opportunities and changing cultural situations. Graham joined a long tradition of independent parachurch ministries in American history when he founded the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1950. He went on to establish Christianity Today in 1956 under the editorial leadership of Carl F. H. Henry and promoted his simple gospel message through a variety of media outlets. The evangelical media subcultures born during the Jesus People movements of the late sixties and early seventies owed much to people who were either converted at Graham’s crusades or influenced by people who were. Explosive numerical growth, at least in terms of recorded public decisions, issued from Graham’s worldwide crusades while some critics questioned the sincerity and depth of those public conversions. Reformed traditions have benefited from some of this growth as people who experienced an evangelical conversion grew to embrace Reformed views as they matured in their faith.
Evangelicals at their worst have emulated some of his mistakes in the political and social realm such as allowing themselves to be coopted by political leaders using evangelicalism to serve their own interests. Graham’s fawning support of Richard Nixon continued long after most Americans accepted the evidence of Nixon’s corruption. He expressed astonishment at Nixon’s coarse language on the Watergate tapes as other Americans expressed astonishment at Graham’s naïveté. Graham admitted in later years that his unwavering support for Nixon was one of his worst mistakes. He was more circumspect in his later relationships with presidents as a result of the lessons learned from that episode. However, Graham’s evangelical heirs often repeated and amplified his mistakes without learning the same valuable lessons from them.
Evangelicalism includes greater diversity today than it did when Graham first entered the arena. One ironic aspect of Graham’s legacy is the fact that the evangelicalism he leaves behind is so diverse that it is unlikely that one single figure could ever dominate evangelical life and discourse today as Graham did at his peak. That diversity proliferates so much today that evangelicals themselves question the utility of the term as a useful category for describing who they are.
The Graham Paradox runs through the very heart of American evangelicalism and American culture. It rests on the same paradoxes that define all of us to some degree–that in our strengths there also lies the seed of our weaknesses.
- Graham’s appeal to the lowest common denominator enabled gospel outreach to the masses, while also increasing an undermining of institutional and intellectual authority among evangelicals that had its roots in colonial American revivalism.
- His creative use of media encouraged the rise of evangelical subcultures that ministered to the needs of millions of Christians, while also increasing the chances that those media subcultures would become intellectual silos walling evangelicals off from ideas outside the camp.
- Graham’s conservatism preserved and defended essential elements of the gospel of grace, while sometimes failing to extend that grace to those marginalized by society.
I suspect in the final equation that Billy Graham would have laughed as heartily as anyone that day when my friend engaged in the sincerest form of flattery. Graham often made light of the hype surrounding him by reminding everyone that he was himself only a sinner saved by grace. That is all any of us are. Graham knew no one needs a plaster protestant saint. Christians need real examples of women and men who are faithful in the midst of their flaws.
The best way to remember Billy Graham and any other inspiring religious figures is as the paradoxical human beings they were, celebrating their strengths and learning the lessons of their weaknesses.