Two critiques of the newly-reposed Billy Graham, which I note not just for the record, but because I cannot help but agree.
First, a George Will column I passed over, then returned to because, well, it was by George Will: Billy Graham was no prophet.
Because Will is a veteran writer, he tells us right away what he’s going to tell us:
Asked in 1972 if he believed in miracles, Billy Graham answered: Yes, Jesus performed some, and there are many “miracles around us today, including television and airplanes.” Graham was no theologian.
Neither was he a prophet. Jesus said “a prophet hath no honor in his own country.” Prophets take adversarial stances toward their times, as did the 20th century’s two greatest religious leaders, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paul II. Graham did not. Partly for that reason, his country showered him with honors.
I made the same points — neither theologian nor prophet — yesterday, but not as an indictment, which Will pretty clearly implies.
The problem, to reframe some of the same points Will makes, is that Evangelist Graham often positioned himself in a fundamentally prophetic role by becoming the intimate of powerful men:
Graham’s dealings with presidents mixed vanity and naivete. In 1952, he said he wanted to meet with all the candidates “to give them the moral side of the thing.” He was 33. He applied flattery with a trowel, comparing Dwight Eisenhower’s first foreign policy speech to the Sermon on the Mount and calling Richard Nixon “the most able and the best trained man for the job probably in American history.” He told Nixon that God had given him, Nixon, “supernatural wisdom.” Graham should have heeded the psalmist’s warning about putting one’s faith in princes.
On Feb. 1, 1972, unaware of Nixon’s Oval Office taping system, when Nixon ranted about how Jews “totally dominated” the media, Graham said, “This stranglehold has got to be broken or this country is going down the drain.” He also told Nixon that Jews are the ones “putting out the pornographic stuff.” One can reasonably acquit Graham of anti-Semitism only by convicting him of toadying ….
Yes, if you’re going to get that close to power, you’re surely obliged to don the prophet’s mantle, especially if you’re purporting to “give them the moral side of the thing.” To paraphrase Will, we can acquit Graham of dereliction only by convicting him of toadying — or by assuming that quietly, and in private, he did truly “give them the moral side of the thing” in a way that was at least minimally prophetic.
Is there another alternative?
Second, Darryl Hart (who I likewise passed over at first) makes a subtler point, and one that I probably cannot make strongly enough to heal scotomata: Graham’s itinerant evangelism inherently undermined Churches.
Graham’s work, which was completely independent of a church or a communion, undermined implicitly the work of local pastors who were trying to the best of their abilities to evangelize the locals. Along would come Graham and all of a local pastor or priest’s endeavors seemed paltry by comparison. Here I’m reminded of what H. L. Mencken wrote about Billy Sunday and the kind of appeal a popular (and traveling) preacher had compared to the residential and denominational variety:
Even setting aside [Sunday’s] painstaking avoidance of anything suggesting clerical garb …, he comes down so palpably to the level of his audience, both in the matter and the manner of his discourse, that he quickly disarms the old suspicion of the holy clerk and gets the discussion going on the familiar and easy terms of a debate in a barroom. The raciness of his slang is not the whole story by any means; his attitude of mind lies behind it, and is more important … It is marked, above all, by a contemptuous disregard of the theoretical and mystifying; an angry casting aside of what may be called the ecclesiastical mask, an eagerness to reduce all the abstrusities of Christian theology to a few and simple and … self-evident propositions, a violent determination to make of religion a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern.
… Mencken’s point about evangelicalism and the evangelists who benefited from it stands. Your average pastor cannot compete with the bells and whistles of a mass meeting and the publicity that surrounds it. Nor can your average minister disregard preaching through a book of the Bible or fashioning a homily based on the lectionary and situating that relatively learned speech into the fabric of a liturgy or order of service (for the Puritans out there). In other words, theology, church government, and convictions about worship constrain a pastor, not to mention the responsibilities of ministering over time to a variety of congregation or parish members in all manner of walks of life. Graham could simply give an invitation to receive Christ for seven nights in a row, with a different musical performance or celebrity interview, and then leave town. Your average pastor doesn’t have that pay grade. And if he is actually preparing his flock for the world to come (read death), then a religion that is “a practical, an imminent, an everyday concern” is not necessarily going to cut the Gordian Knot of how sinners become right with the sovereign Lord of the universe.
In other words, not all Protestants were thrilled by Graham’s ministry. In fact, going back to the revivals of the First and Second
Great Pretty Good Awakenings, denominationally and theologically self-conscious Protestants (Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed), have opposed mass revivalism because it undermines the work of the ordained ministry and the local church.
Hart says “undermined implicitly.” I say “inherently undermined.” The two are not the same and I stand by my version, precisely because of two things Hart doesn’t mention:
- Graham did not merely “give an invitation to receive Christ for seven nights in a row … and then leave town.” He or his aides routinely — in my understanding, invariably — told those who responded to his invitation to go back to their churches, provided only that those churches had Jesus and Bible. That was why he caught flak from Bob Jones and a significant number of others: Catholics were sent back into the maw of the whore of Babylon, as the critics saw it.
- But despite #1, Graham’s crusades were ineluctibly parachurch, his Gospel transactional, his salvation forensic. Having lived in his world, I can say from personal observation that a whole lotta folks took their “eternal security” to the golf course or beach on Sunday mornings. That kind of tacit falling away was well known to Evangelists, who lamented it but didn’t know how to deal with it. (Campus Crusade for Christ, n/k/a Cru, came up with a “Spirit-filled life” tract to complement “Four Spiritual Laws,” but even then were frustrated by the crypto-lapsi.)
When I referred to “scotomata,” I was referring to such widespread disregard or disrespect of the “institutional” Church as opposed to parachurch ministries. Of this, too, I have personal experience, even though habitually, and all my life long, I’ve attended church — even when I considered church merely a good idea and in no way salvific.
Those who just bristled at the idea of church being salvific are those with the scotomata. Jesus Christ did not “build [His] Church” just to be the sort of thing you might go for if you go for that sort of thing.
You can look that up.
Hart doesn’t put it that bluntly, but a Calvinistic version of that (i.e., a sensibility that probably doesn’t unequivocally see the Church as salvific) is his sensibility, and I agree that undermining local churches was a weakness Billy Graham’s methods could not avoid.
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