A few people have asked if I have any thoughts about the Reverend Billy Graham, who died this morning at 99.
I really don’t, except to echo the standard interpretation that Graham had more integrity than any of his evangelist contemporaries, and certainly more than the politicized element of conservative evangelicalism.
When critics questioned his decision to not use his immense platform to advocate on the great justice issues of his day, Graham famously said, “I’m not an Old Testament prophet. I’m a New Testament evangelist.”
I think this distinction is wrong, badly obscuring both the prophetic and evangelical imperatives of Christianity.
I once heard a preacher observe, speaking of Graham, “You give up your prophetic voice for a place at the table with presidents and kings.” The fact that Graham had access to powerful men does not seem unduly disturbing, in my view. But the question of what he did (or did not do) with that access is something that we have debated and will debate.
The idea that you can have personal conversion without any attendant social responsibility or concern is an error that, unfortunately, fit in perfectly with Americanism’s radical individualism and consumerism. It fit particularly well with the Religious-Right incarnation of evangelicalism.It also irks me that few commentators note how dismissive Graham and his generation of neo-evangelicals was of Mainline Protestantism. I am not saying this was all malicious or even conscious. But it lay just beneath the surface of his ministry. Untold millions of those he converted were probably baptized members of the historic denominations. Was Billy Graham a sheep stealer? Not exactly, perhaps. And he avoids that charge by telling his converts to find a good, Bible-believing church. But this carries an implication that a certain kind of church may not be good or Bible-believing. I think this is a dastardly and undeserved insult of mainline Protestantism.
These are my main critiques of Graham’s ministry. I don’t hold it against him that he never spoke out publicly against his obnoxious son, Franklin, even as the younger Graham may have sullied the good name that his father labored long to establish.
But why critique, today of all days?
There will be plenty of time to discuss and debate Billy Graham’s legacy.
For now, I simply wish comfort for his family and friends.
Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. -Matthew 25:23