Rev. Billy Graham, whose death at 99 was announced Wednesday morning, helped define nearly a century of evangelical Christianity.
Over the course of his life, Graham was believed to have preached the gospel to more people than anyone in world history, with an estimated cumulative live audience of 215 million people from 185 countries. Graham set the stage for the intense, emotive, confessional rhetoric that came to shape the generations of televangelists, revivalists, and Christian media outlets (like Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network) that followed him.
But in other ways, the prominent figures of the modern religious right could not look more different from Graham. At once theologically orthodox and deeply outspoken on issues of human rights (most notably against segregation), Graham defied the now-ubiquitous “left-right” paradigm.
A traditional evangelical, he unified his politics and his theology: a perspective centered on both the individual human person’s need for the gospel of Jesus Christ, in all its difficulty, and a deeply held compassion for those who fell short or sought grace.
Some of his social views, including his anti-LGBTQ and relatively anti-abortion stances, certainly place him within what would be considered today’s “religious right.”
Although he was far from perfect — he did, for example, suggest in the early ’90s that AIDS was a punishment from God (he later apologized), and anti-Semitic remarks he made in the company of Richard Nixon left an indelible blot on his reputation — he was, for the majority of his career, a religious figure who transcended and unified the political spectrum. He provided a glimpse of a sincerely held faith that, at times, prompted political action, rather than the other way around. In that, he represents a vision of authentic evangelical Christianity drastically different from today’s politicized Christian right, which has become little more than the faith-outreach arm of the Republican Party.
In an increasingly politically and religiously divided country, Graham’s sincere faith was a far better model for evangelical Christianity than that of his successors.
Graham was an advocate for civil rights
Graham’s faith led him to take political stances he saw as just, even when they alienated many evangelical contemporaries. Take, for example, his work on civil rights. A close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., whom he bailed out of jail in the early 1960s, Graham vocally opposed segregation and refused to lead his crusade events in segregated spaces.
In one memorable instance in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Graham removed the velvet cordons separating black and white audience members, telling attendees, “Either these ropes stay down or you can go on and have the revival without me.”
Graham held fast to his views throughout the subsequent decades, despite having made a number of political enemies among white evangelicals for this stance. At a time when white evangelical identity and whiteness itself were all but synonymous (an identification that only intensified through the decades), Graham cleaved that lazy political identification. For him, evangelicalism was about the gospel, not the political self-labeling it eventually became.
It’s important to note here that despite Graham’s support for integration, he was not a radical by the standards of the civil rights movement. His measured approach and willingness to engage in dialogue with some racist Southern leaders led some contemporaries to critique his “accommodationist” perspective as compromise.
Graham’s evangelicalism was hardly progressive, but it was consistent. It blended orthodox theology with open-minded compassion. Like nearly all evangelicals, Graham believed that salvation could be had through Jesus Christ alone. But he was willing to concede that those of other faiths, or no faith, might nevertheless have apprehended Jesus unconsciously and through that faith become “members of the body of Christ.” His language when it came to other religions was largely respectful; in 1997, for example, he told interviewer David Frost, “We’re closer to Islam than we really think we are,” and emphasized Mohammed’s respect for Jesus.
And he resisted the ahistoric evangelical canard that America is by definition a Christian country. When Frost asked him about it in that same interview, Graham responded, “We’ve never been a Christian country. We’re a secular country, by our Constitution, in which Christians live and in which many Christians have a voice.”
That perspective was usually reflected in Graham’s public approach to politics. While Graham did take political stances, his political affiliation was largely independent. A registered Democrat (initially in a time when the majority of Southern voters voted the Democratic ticket), he nevertheless served as a trusted adviser and spiritual confidant for presidents across the political spectrum and met with every single president after World War II, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.
Graham’s record was not unblemished
Still, Graham was hardly perfect. Anti-Semitic remarks he made in the company of Richard Nixon, and recorded during the Watergate era, left a mark on Graham’s reputation, as did some of his more extreme anti-communist views, including advocating for extreme military action in Vietnam that was likely to kill civilians.
Indeed, Graham’s relationship with Nixon marked the one time his relationship to a powerful political figure seems to have gone to his head: At the 1969 presidential inauguration, Graham’s rhetoric in praise of the president sounded like a preview of the pro-Trump Christian nationalism espoused by Robert Jeffress and Paula White. Graham exhorted America to “recognize, O Lord, that in Thy sovereignty Thou has permitted Richard Nixon to lead us at this momentous hour of our history.”
But Graham learned from his mistakes. Disillusioned after the Watergate scandal, he later vocally repented for getting too involved in politics, and in 2011 told Christianity Today:
I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.
It’s vital not to lionize Graham. At the same time, however, it’s equally vital to recognize that he frequently owned up to, and apologized for, his failings. For the majority of his life, he did seem to live up to his stated values and was willing to reflect publicly and with sincere repentance upon his behavior when he did not.
Despite his high net worth and fame, Graham avoided the sexual and financial scandals that dogged many of his peers, and his reputation lived up to the commitment he made in his “Modesto Manifesto” to live his life in accordance with the biblical principles he espoused.
The most well-known leaders of the Christian right that followed Graham’s footsteps ended up being controversial for their politics and their personal lives, from the embezzlement scandals that dogged Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker to Ted Haggard. From the late 1970s onward, Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and influential 1980s evangelicals like James Dobson and Pat Robertson sought to make Christianity an explicitly political force associated with the Republican Party.
Far from preaching a gospel-based message when it came to issues like civil rights, the politicized Christian right of the 1980s and beyond coalesced, in part, as an explicitly white nationalist entity. Long before abortion became the cause célèbre of the 1980s evangelical, the group was marked by its opposition to racial integration. While Graham’s Christianity was, at times, challenging to both liberal and conservative mores, he was willing to speak what he saw as gospel truth to power along the political spectrum.
For contrast, consider Graham’s son and the heir to his commercial ventures, Franklin Graham, whose deeply political (and pro-Trump) stance contrasts sharply with his father’s approach. While Billy Graham distanced himself from the Moral Majority-era Christian right, Franklin embraced them wholeheartedly.
The younger Graham promulgated Donald Trump’s “birther” rumors about then-President Obama and since then has been a consistent advocate of Trump. Earlier this year, he praised the president in starkly partisan terms: “The left is trying to destroy this man,” he told Fox & Friends. “It is a digital coup d’état. They’re wanting to force him out of office. They’re wanting to take control of the government. And we need to pray for this man.”
Graham’s evangelicalism is not the evangelicalism of his successors
As white evangelical Christianity in America comes to look more and more like Christian nationalism — a blend of GOP policy platforms, jingoism, white supremacy, and Christian rhetoric — it’s worth recognizing Billy Graham’s legacy as a spiritual leader who balanced a stringent, even uncompromising approach to his own faith with a ferocious independence from the American political arena. While today, faith and politics seem irredeemably intertwined (after all, 81 percent of white evangelicals famously voted for Trump), for Graham, political activism was — with the exception, as he himself recognized, of his disastrous friendship with Nixon — secondary to the faith principles he espoused.
In 2007, Graham defended his decision to distance himself from Falwell’s Moral Majority and its political successors:
I’m all for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.
In that regard, if he resembles any contemporary political figure, it is the Catholic Pope Francis — another figure whose theological convictions allow him to embrace perspectives and approaches from both sides of the secular political aisle, and who transcends the easy binary of left and right. Francis’s ferocious environmentalism, anti-capitalism, and commitment to eradicating income inequality, for example, have been lauded by the left, even as his views on abortion, say, place him in line with the “right.”
But Francis, like Graham before him, is a religious figure, not a political one, and words like “left” and “right” mean little. Both figures saw themselves as “pro-life” in the broadest sense of the word, a faith-based ethos that encompassed a variety of positions on the political spectrum.
Mike Pence famously caused controversy when he referred to himself as “A Christian, a conservative, and a Republican — in that order.” But almost the same must be said of Graham.
A religious leader whose convictions informed his politics, and not the other way around, Graham showed America that theological convictions and a deep religious faith could exist for their own sake, and not be made subordinate to Republican partisan aims. And in an increasingly religiously polarized America — in which political and religious identity have all but fused — a spiritual leader who rejects those binaries is exactly what we need.
We need, in other words, another Billy Graham.