Joe Bob's America

Making My Peace With Billy Graham

February 22, 2018

Multiple Pages
Making My Peace With Billy Graham

NEW YORK—Back in the bad old days of the cocaine epidemic, there was a sheriff in Jasper County, Texas, who was visited one morning by four federal agents—two from the FBI and two from the Drug Enforcement Administration. It was a courtesy call. They didn’t really need his help. They’d already made a case on two brothers living in a trailer outside of town who were running a drug operation, and they were about to surround the house with armed officers, break down the door with a no-knock warrant, and make the arrests.

The sheriff asked for the names of the drug dealers, then said, “I know those boys. Let me call ’em first.”

The federal agents freaked out. Absolutely not. The takedown wasn’t ready.

But the sheriff was undeterred. Amidst threats from the lead FBI man, he picked up the phone, got one of the brothers on the line, and said, “You and Billy need to come down to my office, we know what you’re doing and you have to go to court for it.”

Fifteen minutes later, both brothers arrived at the county courthouse to turn themselves in.

That’s called knowing your people—knowing them so well they never fear you even when they have something to hide, because they know you’ll be fair to them.

“He was like the big brother you could always talk to because he would never judge you.”

Billy Graham knew his people. He constantly called them to live a life they thought they were incapable of, then showed them how to get there. When they screwed that up, he told them how to get back to it. When they wandered away for years and years, he showed them how little it mattered in the grand scheme of Christ. He was like the big brother you could always talk to because he would never judge you. He was the epitome of the old John Knox admonition to condemn the sin but never the sinner.

This is why he was out of fashion in the Baptist Church, and in evangelical Christianity generally. People wanted him to preach about Communism, but he wanted to preach about Christ. People wanted him to preach about Watergate, but he chose to preach about Christ. People wanted him to preach about the sexual revolution, and especially about AIDS, but he kept hammering away: Come to Christ, come to Christ, come to Christ, it covers all situations.

I don’t really want to add to the billions of words being written about Billy Graham today—his life and career are well chronicled, and his impact on Christianity firmly established—but I do want to make three points about his message that should make 90 percent of the modern Christian world ashamed of itself.

Numero Uno: Billy Graham never built a megachurch.

From his first crusade in Los Angeles in 1948, held in a tent on a downtown street corner, to his last one at the old World’s Fair site in Queens, where he preached for three days at age 86 and seemed to be gaining strength, he always had local pastors present to take charge of the people who made that long walk to the altar. He knew that the gospel is worked out in small groups, face-to-face, man-to-man, not in basketball arenas outfitted with Jumbotrons. It’s an irony of his legacy that the man who preached to more people than anyone in history—his foundation says about 215 million—believed in the Jewish idea of the minyan, the small local church, the autonomous group of people who make up the body of Christ.

Billy Graham could have founded the largest church in the world, rivaling those million-member congregations in South Korea, but he didn’t think being a pastor was his office. In fact, he always sought counsel from his own pastor—in recent years, Don Wilton of First Baptist Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Churches that play a numbers game, even going so far as to build sermons around real estate acquisitions, represent the very essence of confusing mammon with God.

Numero Two-o: Billy Graham was considered too liberal—and too conservative.

At the Southern Baptist Convention he was considered soft. To the so-called “mainstream” denominations, he was thought of as a fire-breather. To anyone attempting to move the culture toward secularism, he was an anachronism. This is perfectly in line with the expectation of Christians since the first century that the gospel, when preached, will be a comfort to some but an affliction to many.

A few years back I was invited to a conference on Christian-Muslim relations, held at an old castle in Vienna, and one of the seminars was led by Anglican theologians from Oxford University, and another was led by faculty members from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. The Baptists listened politely to the Oxford divines droning on and on about the cultural demographics of Manchester, but when the Baptists chose to talk about “the living Christ” and His absence from the empty cathedrals of Europe, the Anglican divines became infuriated. They felt somehow personally attacked, even though nothing the Baptists said went very far beyond the simple message of Billy Graham that he had repeated millions of times in thousands of sermons. The fact that this simple altar-call message now seemed strange to men who had dedicated themselves to a life serving Christ struck me as odd then and still strikes me as odd. It’s as though they were saying, “We’re post-Christian.” Well, if you’re post-Christian, please remove the vestments and go run a hedge fund.

Numero Three-o: Billy Graham was multicultural, ecumenical, a believer in the big tent that includes all, but he was never universalist, in the sense of “there are many paths to God and they’re all equally valid.”

Count the number of times Billy Graham said “Jesus Christ” in any sermon, always talking more about Christ the messiah than Jesus the man. The fact that he was even allowed on network television, given the sensitivity of executives to religious partisanship, is some evidence of how powerful his pulpit presence was. There were plenty of people who didn’t like him—Harry Truman thought he was a bit of a self-promoter—but the nameless ones whose lives were changed at those rallies and crusades saw beyond the curly hair and the chiseled features and the smooth velvet tone of his voice and the “counselor to presidents” image, and just heard Billy trying to help them out. In a world where the pregame prayer at the football game had become a sort of pagan paean to Zeus, Billy Graham kept saying Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, only Jesus Christ.

And they came in droves, and they believed, and that’s his legacy, nothing else.

Daily updates with TM’s latest