Just As He Wasn’t
The Legacy of Billy Graham: Critical Reflections on America’s Greatest
reviewed by Gerald J. Russello
He has preached to more than two billion people worldwide, and he has been a fixture on the national political scene since the early 1950s. He was one of the most important religious figures of the last century. As the editor of this new collection notes, “no Christian minister, after all, has been more influential in global politics, economics, and faith in the twentieth century” than Billy Graham.
In The Legacy of Billy Graham, Michael Long, a professor of religious studies at Elizabethtown College, collects more than a dozen assessments from religious scholars, including John B. Cobb, Jr., Harvey Cox, and Gary Dorrien, to provide a critical portrait of Graham. The essays are broken down into four sections, covering his preaching and theology, his positions on social issues, comparisons of Graham with his contemporaries, and his legacy.
Writing with a great amount of respect for Graham and an honest approach to his life and ministry, the contributions are nevertheless rather critical. Their criticisms can be grouped into three categories.
First is their critique of Graham as a Christian minister. While he never claimed to be a theologian—indeed just the opposite—his sermons are, on this account, somewhat simplistic. Long argues that they “do not show evidence of significant interpretation of the biblical text at all,” but shoehorn biblical exegesis into “the die-cut sin-to-salvation theological template that dominates almost every sermon.”
Graham, he argues, does not have much time for modern biblical scholarship, preferring to use biblical texts as illustrations of a straightforward, uncomplicated narrative. And he lets others work out the tough questions of linguistic ambiguity while he returns to the rhetorical safety of “The Bible says . . .”, a phrase as common in Graham’s sermons today as it was fifty years ago. What goes unexplored in this book is the possibility that modern biblical scholarship might carry with it ideological assumptions that Graham rejects as incompatible with his understanding of Christianity.
This simplistic theology leads to simplistic ethics, Karen Lebacqz, an emerita professor at the Pacific School of Religion, argues in a critique of Graham’s treatment of sexual sins. Graham, supposedly ignorant of “second wave feminism,” focuses on questions of purity and not enough on contextual power relations, which she believes make the social sin of marginalization more important than chastity.
Ultimately, though, she offers only a humdrum “progressive” attack on traditional Christian ethics, preferring instead academic ipse dixits like “Compulsory heterosexuality is then one of the contemporary forms of sexual injustice.” Well, of course . . . if you already accept the current scholarly paradigm. Graham clearly does not, and so her arguments do not meaningfully engage him or his tradition.
Better on this score is Ellen Ott Marshall’s “feminist response” to Graham’s position that vocations are sex-specific, and that a woman’s role should be almost exclusively in the domestic sphere. He has come close to asserting that biological nature determines destiny, but only for women: modern technology, healthcare, and education open up multiple new paths for men, but women remain circumscribed in the home.
Rather than rely on academic theory, Marshall makes the empirical point that women, including serious religious women, often work outside the home and that a biblical ethics of vocation needs to address that fact, even though it will still emphasize the importance of domestic life.
The second set of charges questions Graham’s role in the nation’s political life. He has long been criticized for his overly close relationship with those in power. In Graham’s political sermons, given at the White House and elsewhere, “one would have to search long and hard,” writes Leslie Griffin, in a comprehensive overview of Graham’s participation in the nation’s “civil religion,” “for any sort of criticism that goes beyond calling the nation to repent of its sins and turn back to God.”
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr—quoted throughout these essays—was an especially vociferous critic of Graham’s frequent visits to the Oval Office. In particular, his friendship with Richard Nixon is cited to argue that he did not sufficiently speak “truth to power” when he had the chance.
Graham counseled Nixon on political matters, especially on how to appeal to religious voters, such as by using religious language in his speeches. But he did not rebuke Nixon (at least, he is not known to have done so) or apologize for himself for offensive remarks caught on tapes recording their conversations in the White House, which were not revealed until 2002.
Methodist pastor J. Philip Wogamon, himself a liberal religious leader active in politics, offers a welcome dissent. While calling Graham’s political legacy an “enigma” and finding his theology deficient, Wogamon provides a corrective account of Graham’s political involvement. He recognizes the difficulties in resisting the allure of the powerful or famous, and believes that, in the end, Graham discharged his duty as a minister and reminded his “presidential friends” of the gospel.
The third criticism is that, especially in the 1960s, Graham’s message did not fulfill what his critics see as the working out of the Christian message in the modern world in a “prophetic” emphasis on “social justice.” So, for example, while he early on desegregated his crusades, he did not use his influential example to promote the civil rights movement among white Southerners, with whom he had influence and whom he might have persuaded to support the movement. Nor did he assist Martin Luther King, Jr., when he had the opportunity to do so.
A Surprising Man
An interesting contribution would have been a Catholic perspective on Graham’s theological and political positions. A contrast with the writings of John Courtney Murray, S.J., on church and state in America would have been welcome.
Murray, who died in 1967, was a principal creator of the modern Catholic understanding of religious freedom, and argued that the protections of the First Amendment were what he called “articles of peace,” designed to permit Americans to assent to the national political order without compromising their beliefs. Graham, especially during the 1960 election, when he appeared to rally Protestants against the “Catholic vote,” came close to treating the First Amendment improperly as the preserve of only one religious tradition.
Unfortunately, the volume’s contributors read Graham through a 1960s-era liberal (albeit religious) lens that was not his own. As a result, they are surprised that this man has such a large following when everyone “knows” he was in the wrong, or at least not as strongly in the right as he should have been, on the issues of the day.
The strongest critiques are those concerning politics. Graham too often seemed merely to enjoy the spotlight, rather than to act as a spiritual adviser reminding princes that they, too, will be judged. But that he seemed uninterested in au courant biblical scholarship or did not take what are seen to be the correct positions on issues during the 1960s do not help to explain the man’s obvious popularity and impact.
He wanted individuals to come to Christ, and literally millions of people around the world are trying to live closer to God because of him and the organization he built, with the inevitable benefits to society that follow. Insofar as there was a connection between the two, Graham thought order in the commonwealth would reflect the order in the souls of citizens. While he may not have combated every injustice, this should be legacy enough.
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“Just As He Wasn’t” first appeared in the November 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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