George F. Will: Billy Graham, neither prophet nor theologian, leaves mixed legacy
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 Martin Luther King and Pope John Paul II. Graham did not. Partly for that reason, his country showered him with honors.
So, the subtitle of Duke Divinity School professor Grant Wacker’s 2014 book “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation” is inapposite. American television and celebrity culture shaped Graham.
Graham was a marvel of quantities. He spoke, Wacker says, to more people directly — about 215 million — than any person in history. Yet Graham’s effects are impossible to quantify. His audiences were exhorted to make a “decision” for Christ, but a moment of volition might be (in theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phrase) an exercise in “cheap grace.” Graham’s preaching, to large rallies and broadcast audiences, gave comfort to many people and probably improved some.
Regarding race, this North Carolinian was brave, telling a Mississippi audience in 1952 that, in Wacker’s words, “there was no room for segregation at the foot of the cross.” In 1953, he personally removed the segregating ropes at a Chattanooga crusade. After the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation ruling, Graham abandoned the practice of respecting local racial practices. Otherwise, he rarely stepped far in advance of the majority.
The first preacher with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame was an entrepreneurial evangelical who consciously emulated masters of secular communication. Graham, says Wacker, would warn that all is nearly lost and the only hope is Christ’s forgiveness.
Graham frequently vowed to abstain from partisan politics, and almost as frequently slipped this self-imposed leash, almost always on behalf of Republicans. His dealings with presidents mixed vanity and naivete. He applied flattery with a trowel, comparing Dwight Eisenhower’s first foreign policy speech to the Sermon on the Mount and telling Richard 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, with Graham unaware of Nixon’s Oval Office taping system, Graham said, when Nixon ranted about how Jews “totally dominated” the media, that “this stranglehold has got to be broken or this country is going down the drain.” He also told Nixon that Jews were “the ones putting out the pornographic stuff.” One can reasonably acquit Graham of anti-Semitism only by convicting him of toadying. When Graham read transcripts of Nixon conspiring to cover up crimes, Graham said that what “shook me most” was Nixon’s vulgar language.
Graham, Wacker concludes, had an attractively sunny personality and was “invincibly extrospective.” This precluded “irony” but also “contemplativeness.”
George F. Will is a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post.