Billy James Hargis died in 2004 at the age of 79. Billy Graham was still alive then, revered and respected at age 86, and still the figurehead and nominal leader of the vast institutional network he had built to shape and expand white evangelical Christianity.
Hargis outlived most of the ministries and institutions he had founded. By 2004 they were, like the man himself, mostly forgotten or remembered mainly as weird relics of the previous century. When Billy Graham died in 2018 at the age of 98 it was headline news all around the world. Graham’s funeral was broadcast on national television and was attended by the president, vice president, numerous governors and senators, and even the papal nuncio.
News of Hargis’ death was nothing like that. His former fame rated obituaries in the national papers of record, and his hometown Tulsa papers produced workmanlike obits highlighting his regional notability. But by the time of his death, most people had already forgotten — or never knew — that Billy James Hargis had ever been alive.
That was mostly true for me in 2004. I don’t recall hearing the news of Hargis’ death at the time, and I would only have dimly recognized the name as someone older folks vaguely alluded to back in the ’80s during the televangelism scandals that toppled Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart. “You’re too young to remember Billy James Hargis,” I’d been told back then, “but Bakker and Swaggart had nothing on that guy.”
And that, for a long time, was basically how I thought of Billy James Hargis, when I thought of him at all, which was not very often. He was That Guy from the sordid sex scandal that forced him to shut down his fundamentalist Bible College. Hargis’ “ministry,” career, and fame had peaked before I was even a teenager and he had faded into obscurity before I was an adult. He was a fossil, a relic, a footnote, a punchline.
Billy James Hargis’ Christian Crusade ministry is long gone. His American Christian College closed its doors in 1977. I can’t find any trace of his former charity, the David Livingstone Missionary Foundation, although it may still be limping along in some form. The dozens of books Hargis wrote are all out of print. So are the dozen or so albums of Southern Gospel he recorded. It seems like every trace of the man and his ministry has just about vanished completely.
Given all of that, what I’m about to suggest might seem impossible. But I increasingly suspect it may be true. I think Billy James Hargis may be more influential — more historically and theologically significant — than Billy Graham.*
It doesn’t much matter that books are still being written and read about the monumental impact and legacy of Billy Graham, while Billy James is almost wholly forgotten. What matters more, I think, is that white Christianity in America in 2022 looks a whole lot more like the religion of Billy James Hargis than it does like the religion of Billy Graham.
In the 1950s and 1960s, as The New York Times obituary said, “Mr. Hargis appeared to be on his way to rivaling the Rev. Billy Graham and other major evangelists of his time.” But his legal woes and later scandals turned his fame into infamy and, by the 1970s, Graham’s victory over his far-right rival seemed firmly established.
But again, look around. Billy James won. In the end, he even won over Billy Graham himself, who lived long enough to join the 81%. Franklin Graham has his daddy’s eyes and jawline, but every word out of his mouth is pure Billy James.
That’s the bad news. When it comes to white theology and to white politics, Billy James won.
But that’s not the only news or the whole story. Because that’s not the only thing that has changed in the decades since Billy James Hargis disappeared or the years since he died. And some of what has changed — some of what is new — is good news. We’ll come back to that in a bit.
* The problem with this comparison is that it risks exaggerating the contrast between the two men. That contrast is real. Hargis was a white fundamentalist while Graham was a white “Neo-evangelical” — someone who spent years intentionally creating and defining that distinction. In other words, the theological difference between the two was this: Hargis was a Goldwater Christian whereas Graham was a Nixon Christian. That’s a real and meaningful distinction and the source of a fierce disagreement between them. But that disagreement is also, ultimately, a classic example of what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” What the two men had in common may well have outweighed their differences in tone and tactics.