Billy Graham: The legacy of ‘America’s pastor’
The Rev. Billy Graham “was the closest we had to a national preacher and pastor,” said Douglas Hicks in Fortune.com. For more than five decades, the charismatic evangelical preacher, who died last week at age 99, “proclaimed the good news of the Gospel around the country and around the world.” An estimated 215 million attended Graham’s revival meetings, usually held in packed stadiums. “He was a close adviser and confidant to presidents, Republican and Democratic alike,” from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton. And unlike Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and the other mass-media evangelical leaders who followed him, “Graham steered clear of the culture wars instead of throwing fire on them.” When it came to politics, Graham had one interest: “bipartisan soul saving,” said Linda Valdez in The Arizona Republic. “His death is a marker. An official closing of a past that put a kinder, gentler face to the world.”
“America’s pastor” was no apolitical man of God, said Bob Moser in RollingStone.com. “In truth, he was a Machiavellian backroom operator.” During the civil rights era, Graham tried to have it both ways by supporting the idea of racial integration while also criticizing leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. for moving too fast. An ardent enemy of godless communism, Graham championed escalating the Vietnam War. He never evolved on gay rights, speculating in 1993 that AIDS might be a “judgment” from God. “It’s positively miraculous how Billy Graham’s shiny reputation survived, intact, till the day he died.”
It would be a shame if Graham “is remembered warmly only by his fellow theological conservatives,” said Ruth Graham in Slate.com. Yes, he had his flaws—he was caught on tape exchanging anti-Semitic banter with President Nixon, for which he apologized profusely. But he did much that progressives should admire: He supported contraception as early as the 1950s, visited apartheid South Africa in 1973 on the condition that his gatherings be integrated, and preached to American evangelicals about fighting global poverty. Graham’s son Franklin, who has inherited his ministry, has no interest in his father’s political juggling act, said Mary Curtis in RollCall.com. He has thrown himself behind President Trump, crediting the “God factor” for his victory. The elder Graham was never the “universally revered and uncontroversial” figure he’s often remembered as, but his willingness to cross lines of difference made him beloved by many on the Left and Right. We won’t see his like again.