The late Billy Graham preached to millions, and reached tens of millions through television and books. He established Christianity Today, America’s biggest religious magazine and his radio show was the most listened-to religious program. More than simply an American phenomenon, his reach was global, attracting crowds rivalled only by the pope. When he toured Australia and New Zealand in 1959, it was the biggest show the country had seen. Australians saw him as curiosity, spectacle, inspiration and, for many, a turning point. He put his finger on a deep need in people.
He was a constant throughout the tumult of the second half of the twentieth century. But he was foremost an American. The half century in which he worked was a particular time in US history, when Graham’s largely middle class, small town, family-oriented audience was enjoying and being seduced by post-war prosperity, yet also fearful of societal change and the Cold War, and, like Abraham Lincoln, Graham was a man suited to the age. He spoke in American terms, of us and them, of Americans and communists. He was also at the right moment to harness the new technologies, from air travel to TV, which saw America lead the way in enabling greater saturation by national celebrities.
It was a time when religious figures could be national figures. Theologians could appear on the cover of Time magazine, and Christianity still had a largely uncontentious place in the American psyche. It was a time when Americans trusted their celebrities and leaders more than today, and Graham routinely headed the list of the most trustworthy. He was the model of the moral American dream. He reassured his audience that one could be Christian and American, and in fact, the two belonged together. George Bush Snr labelled him simply as ‘America’s pastor’. Really the only smear on his character rubbed off from Richard Nixon, when Graham joined in with Nixon’s anti-Semitism and was caught on the White House tapes.
More than America’s pastor, he was the president’s chaplain. He knew them all, and was particularly friendly with presidents as different as Johnson, Nixon and Carter. At times the difficulty of siding with a friend while trying to straddle the bipartisan line caused him to pull a muscle, and he was called naïve. He was intrigued by politics, but insisted he was there in the White House not to influence policy, but because presidents were like everyone else, as sinners in need of Christ, who, as George W Bush famously said, changes your life. The recent portrayal of Graham in the TV miniseries ‘The Crown’ was accurate in that he hung out with world leaders but used it as an opportunity to talk about the universal need for a personal relationship with God. But there were always questions about how much this was evangelism and how much it was an excuse to be seen with the rich and famous.
The simplicity of his message was part of his success, but he is not so easy to pin down. Behind the simple façade are contradictions and paradox, as Grant Wacker writes in a recent book on Graham’s legacy (Billy Graham: American Pilgrim, Oxford University Press). Critics say Graham equivocated; others might see a skilled balancing act. He tried to appear both moral and inoffensive. He used the mainstream media to get his message across. A TV interview with Woody Allen is a fascinating watch: Allen is funny but cynical, Graham is easy-going but insistent, taking the jokes well but always circling back to his core spiritual message.
Although he emphasised the personal decision to accept Christ as saviour, he was also a prophet to America (and the West), denouncing in hyperbolic terms the moral decline of society. He encouraged Americans, over half a century, to view the present as the worst crisis in the nation’s history, and to recover the values of a golden age. America might be Babylon at times, but Hollywood and New York weren’t the real America, which was supposed to be a light on the hill. He didn’t portray Christianity as an alternative to the mainstream, but rather part of the correct state of mainstream America. His ministry to presidents was part of his desire to reform the moral state of the nation.
In his rallies, he emphasised both the public and the private. He would begin with what was wrong with the world, but the righting of everything that was wrong came down to a personal decision. Changing the world flowed back out from this decision. In this he was a typical American individualist. The strength of the individual came first, flowing out to strengthen church, community and country.
The personal decision for Christ was the point of his ministry. In this he was sincere, but of course his ministry also had the trappings of showbusiness. Bob Dylan once commented that Graham was the first rock’n’roller, a master at holding an audience. And his campaigns were thorough. Everything was well planned, with advance teams moving into cities two years before an event took place. But Graham tried not to imitate the flashiness of other crusades; even so he still received criticism for manipulating emotions.
It was often said that he was not a good preacher intellectually, but stirred something in the heart. He spoke often of alerting people to their desire (for Christ). In a way he was an example of American advertising: figure out what the people want and tell them how to get it. In this he was also a student of the religious revivals of American history. But Graham spoke contradictorily about the emotions involved in conversion. He said emotion was important. One accepted Christ with heart as well as head. Yet he would tell his listeners to put their trust in Christ rather than the emotions, and would use the cool word ‘decision’ in his rallies, in order to differentiate himself from more frenzied revivalists. The personal decision was, in the end, the individual’s listening to the still, small voice.
Graham’s style changed over the years, as Wacker also emphasises, moving from theatrical to more sober and subdued, as America went the other way, from the staid 50s to the cacophonous twenty-first century. Graham always said he was on a journey himself, awakening to race relations and global poverty, and moving to more universal views on salvation, which didn’t win him many fundamentalist friends (who were never his key supporters anyway). He became more distrustful of politicians, more focussed on social justice, crusaded against nuclear weapons. He ditched the talk of hellfire and anti-communism. In all this, his core message never changed, though. Central to the life of the believer is their relationship with Christ, which doesn’t go out of fashion. But how that relationship relates to, and how it is conveyed to, the wider world has changed, meaning Graham was a man of his time, and is now a figure of the past.