Written by Tylor Standley
It’s hard to picture anyone other than Billy Graham when thinking about “evangelicalism.” The term is notoriously difficult to define, but somehow he embodied it best. Yet, while he may have embodied the Evangelicalism of yesteryear, can we say the same today?
The list of those qualified to be called “Evangelical” gets a little shorter every day. I’ve already mentioned Rev. Graham among a few that should be kicked out of Evangelicalism. Here, we will look a little closer at America’s beloved evangelist to see just how far he falls from the evangelical tree (or, more accurately, how far evangelicalism fell from him).
As noted in my above-mentioned post, Billy Graham is guilty of inclusivism. He believes that God is able and willing to save people in different religions—most notably, Islam. Today’s politicized evangelicalism displays a marked antagonism, often a militaristic hatred, for Muslims. Billy’s own son, Franklin, is one of the most outspoken anti-Muslim Christian leaders in his regular, vitriolic Facebook rants against the religion. In place of his father, he has become something of a spokesperson for modern evangelicalism.
Recently, Franklin controversy surrounding former Wheaton professor, Larycia Hawkins’ decision to wear a hijab in solidarity with Muslims, Franklin rebuked her for suggesting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
Franklin’s rhetoric is no anomaly in modern evangelicalism. More than half of self-identified evangelicals view Islam as “essentially a violent religion” and he successfully rallied his followers to shut down Duke University’s plans to issue a call to prayer for its Muslim students. No small feat.
In short, his words are typical of modern evangelicalism, but a far cry from his father’s.
“I think that everybody that loves or knows Christ, whether they are conscious of it or not, they are members of the body of Christ….[God] is calling people out of the world for his name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world or the Christian world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they have been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light they have, and I think that they are saved and they are going to be with us in heaven.” (This statement starts at 1:18 in this video)
Elsewhere, Graham reaffirmed his belief in a wideness in God’s mercy when he said that salvation is between a person and God. “I think we are told to proclaim Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the light, but God will decide who is saved and who is lost.”
Where Franklin and most other evangelicals believe Islam is an inherently evil and violent religion that worships a different god, Billy sees it—and others—as a possible venue through which God can reveal himself.
Nah. He’s no feminist.
Billy still holds traditional views of women in the home and church for the most part.
However, according to his daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, Billy and his wife, Ruth, initially opposed women preaching until they heard Anne preach. In an interview with 60 minutes, she said that they “…could see that God had called me and I was where I needed to be.”
While Graham does not deviate too far from traditional views of the nuclear family, not a few in the evangelical world frown on the fact that a female’s voice would carry the gospel to masculine ears.
Growing up evangelical, I did not believe that a person could vote Democrat and be a Christian. For the past eight years, few things can more accurately describe the state of evangelicalism than “anti-Obama” (and thus, anti-Democrat). It is assumed that one who claims to be Christian will vote Republican. This is why the Republican nominees battle over the evangelical vote. Nevertheless, Billy Graham shatters the stereotype. In a 2005 interview with Katie Couric, Graham affirmed his political stance.
Not only is he a Democrat, he unreservedly condemned the marriage of evangelicalism and right-wing politics. In Parade Magazine (1981), Graham said, “I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”
Again, Billy’s legacy did not carry over into the evangelicalism of today.
There’s Something About Billy
In the current climate of American Christianity, these beliefs certainly set Billy Graham to the left of center. Personally, I have been labeled a “heretic” merely for being an inclusivist. But somehow Billy remains well within the evangelical fold. Yet, Billy is no “liberal” either. He staunchly opposed gay marriage, affirms gender roles, and reads the Bible very literally. And still, somehow, he remains loved (or, at least, respected) by many progressive Christians.
Whether you are “conservative” or “liberal,” you have to admit that there is something about Billy. I often hear people on both sides of the aisle lamenting the fact that America is being pulled apart by partisan politics. The Right is moving farther right and the Left is moving farther left. Regardless of the accuracy of such a statement, we can at least agree that the whole “conservative”/“liberal” dichotomy is detrimental to productive discussion (and thus, positive change). It has become nearly impossible for a person on either side to identify with some perspective held by the other side.
In other words, it is impossible to be a “Billy Graham” in current American Christianity, on the left or the right. Anyone who does not toe the party line gets chewed up and spit out.
Billy was embraced by both sides and hated by both sides. His beliefs did not neatly fit into categories. His beliefs were not fed by ideologues, but by his commitment to the crucified and risen Christ he preached so passionately. Whether or not we agree with his conclusions, we can all respect and learn something from his willingness to take unpopular stances and build bridges between people divided by dogma.