The Washington Post, which features religion coverage well above average, asks as some length “Would Billy Graham be disgusted by evangelicals today?”
My short and immediate answer was “If he was, we’d never know it.” I stand by that after reading the article. A Rice University professor gets it right:
Bill Martin, a professor emeritus at Rice University who wrote a biography of Graham, saw a sharp divergence [by Franklin Graham] from the elder Graham. “It was always hard for Billy not to like people. Franklin was always willing to draw lines,” Martin said. “His father was willing to erase or blur lines and widen the scope of people he was willing to associate with. I doubt he would’ve expressed plainly that he disliked Trump. He was polarizing for liking Nixon; Nixon was one of his closest associates. Billy always thought the best of people.”
He repented (I use that word deliberately) of his own at-times excessive political involvements, specifically after Nixon, and he was very much an evangelist — a preacher of the Gospel (as he saw it), and neither a theologian nor (most relevant for purposes of the WaPo question) a prophet.
He didn’t aspire to be a political “player,” and the press that doesn’t get that just doesn’t get him at all. That so many Evangelicals today do so shamelessly forsake a higher calling for that servile one is a damned (I use that word deliberately, too) shame.
[UPDATE: “He saw his calling as above public affairs. Urged in 1958 to run for the Senate, he realized, ‘Why should I demote myself to be a senator?’’’ Mark Feeney, Boston Globe.]
Michael Gerson recalls a wonderful example, from fairly early in his career, of how irenic Billy was becoming as well:
There was initial resistance to Graham’s work among mainline Protestants. As Graham announced more and more crusades, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was not amused. Graham, Niebuhr warned, would “accentuate every prejudice which the modern, ‘enlightened’ but morally sensitive man may have against religion.” Graham responded: “I have read nearly everything Mr. Niebuhr has written and I feel inadequate before his brilliant mind and learning. Occasionally I get a glimmer of what he is talking about . . . [but] if I tried to preach as he writes, people would be so bewildered they would walk out.”
Maybe “subtle” would be a better term than irenic, but I really think not. Again: Graham was not a theologian whereas Niebuhr was that (and more), but not an evangelist. Billy knew his role, and knew that Niebuhr’s brilliance would be worse than useless if he aped it.
Once Billy stopped speaking for himself, I lost interest, and so overlooked how Franklin may have stage-managed his father to make him appear a Trump partisan. The WaPo article sheds some light on that. It’s probably somewhere in Shakespeare, too.
Memory Eternal to one of The Greats.
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