July 7, 2005
Billy Graham's Final Crusade
-- James L. Evans
Two weekends ago, Billy Graham preached what has been predicted to be his final American evangelistic campaign -- perhaps his last campaign ever. If this proves to be true, his career will have concluded where it began, in New York. His first nationally recognized crusade was held at Madison Square Garden in 1957. In 2005, however, Madison Square Garden was far too small to accommodate crowds that approached 90,000 on the evening of the event, which was held at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, in Queens.
Billy Graham, now 86, has served as America's unofficial preacher at large for over six decades. His life and ministry have tracked alongside some of our country's most dramatic moments. And in more than a few instances, Graham was a player in the drama.
He rose to national prominence during the height of the Cold War, preaching vigorously against the evils of "godless communism." In fact, it was his staunch anti-communist message that brought him to the attention of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Impressed with Graham's message, Hearst ordered his editors to "puff Graham." That puff ignited the preacher's national identity.
Apart from communism, however, Graham was reluctant to speak directly to social issues. For instance, the 1957 crusade at Madison Square Garden took place the year after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had gained a national reputation for his leadership, and the civil rights movement was building momentum. Rather than address the issue of segregation directly, Graham invited Dr. King to lead in prayer during one of the services. Some Christian leaders criticized Graham for what they saw as his failure to use his own national reputation to help advance the cause of civil rights. But sympathetic historians argue that Graham's willingness to reach out to Dr. King sent a clear signal of support, and Graham was reported to have said that a Christian racist is an oxymoron.
During the Vietnam era, Graham did not speak out against the war. In fact, there is reason to believe he was in favor of the conflict. One reason for his support, at least initially, was related to his strong anti-communist sentiments. Vietnam was sold as a war against communism, and Graham considered communism to be the antithesis of Christianity.
But critics also point out that during this time Graham gained unprecedented access to the Johnson, and later the Nixon, White House. These close connections may have affected Graham's willingness to criticize administration policies. The experience of Watergate, however, and the revelations of Nixon's corruption were sobering epiphanies for Graham. Indeed, during the early days of the rise of the Moral Majority -- the early flagship venture of the Religious Right -- Graham warned of the dangers of linking faith's reputation to political parties.
But politics has always had a way of finding Graham. During the first night of this most recent crusade, Graham was introduced by former President Bill Clinton. Senator Hillary Clinton was also present on the platform. After the introduction, Graham quipped that he always thought that Bill Clinton should have been an evangelist. After citing the many gifts that would allow Clinton to become a successful evangelist, Graham then said, "And Hillary could stay home and run the country."
Several conservative Christian leaders took serious offense at this remark, accusing Graham of endorsing Senator Clinton for a presidential run in 2008. That was not the only time Graham ran afoul of members from his conservative base. In an interview just prior to this most recent evangelistic campaign, Graham said he would not preach about any of the political issues important to evangelical conservatives, including abortion, homosexuality, and stem cell research. "I'm just going to preach the gospel and am not going to get off on these hot-button issues," Graham told the New York Times. "If I get on these other subjects, it divides the audience."
This desire for unity has been an important theme for Graham. Three years ago, taped conversations emerged with Graham and Nixon engaging in anti-Semitic banter in the White House. After the revelation, Graham quickly met with Jewish leaders and apologized to the Jewish community. In preparation for the present evangelistic campaign, Graham again met with Jewish leaders and pledged anew his opposition to all forms of prejudice.
For the most part, Graham has traveled a middle course between liberal and conservative evangelicals, with a focus on changing people by means of a unifying message rather than changing laws to reflect evangelical social concerns. Over the years, this middle course has brought criticism from all sides. But in a time of shrill and divisive religious rhetoric, Graham's simple message of faith rings with refreshing authenticity.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church, Auburn, AL.