Billy Graham (1918 – 2018)
“For ye shall know the truth,
and the truth shall set ye free.”
Here’s an important truth about Billy Graham: He did much good.
Anybody who can get people to reexamine their lives and turn away from harmful / hurtful / destructive behavior to be kinder / fairer / more generous / more compassionate / more loving has done not just a good thing but A Very Good Thing, and for the hundreds of thousands if not millions of people he helped get turned around for the better, Billy Graham deserves great credit. He also stood early, albeit not consistently, with the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr, and though Graham’s conservative public stance against confronting racism and other injustice caused friction between the two men, they remained friends until King’s assassination.
Here’s an equally important truth about Billy Graham: He did much harm.
Some of it is obvious, viz his toadying up to prominent politicians, ostensibly to “spiritually advise” them but more apparently to self-promote his own brand (and in the process sowing seeds of cynicism and suspicion among the people he claimed to be trying to reach). Some was not-so-obvious, such as his gross misunderstanding and misinterpretation of communism as a justification for ignoring our own country’s faults and wrongdoing, or his ministry’s focus on “getting saved” (which centers the religious experience around what benefits the individual) instead of nonjudgmental service (which sees to the needs of other, like Jesus taught).
Billy Graham broke thru into the public consciousness in the late 1940s / early 1950s when people were beginning to worry about The Bomb, and the idea of the world ending in fire no longer seemed like a far-fetched Biblical prophecy but rather a grim and seemingly imminent possibility. His early Los Angeles crusade -- I don’t believe there was ever any antagonism or irony in Graham’s choice of the word, but neither was there much curiosity or concern with what non-Christians might think of it -- benefitted from being in the right place (media saturated Los Angeles) at the right time (when millions of post-war families buying TV sets) and with the right personality (folksy-yet-telegenic) in an era when TV was exploding.
He broke through the ranks of other evangelists (he was far from the first mass media evangelist, and not even the first TV evangelist) and attracted huge crowds wherever he preached.
And as pointed out, he doubtlessly did a lot of good. Even if only a small percentage of people who heard him changed their lives and behavior for the better in whole or in part due to his ministry, that’s millions of people, and those people touched the lives of millions more.
And for the ill he did, he seems to have been aware of and repentant of those actions in his latter years: "I'm for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice...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."
He leaves behind a family and ministry that can be fairly described as divided on how to pursue what he started, with one faction leaning towards his ecumenical outreach and the other in a more traditional conservative moral direction.
There will be many who will shower praise on him. There will be others who rightly point out his failings.
Let us say he tried, and he failed, and he succeeded, and he acknowledged his errors, and in the end leaves behind a mixed bag.
As do we all…