Billy Graham: Gratitude and Warning


The death of Billy Graham provides an opportunity for reflection. A near-saint to some, another religious huckster to others, I personally take him as both a model and a warning. A model in his commitment to transcendent truths, his integrity, and, not least, his humility. He genuinely believed, as do I, that the Incarnation is true and that it is quite literally the “good news.” He preached that gospel with simplicity and tried to live it in his own life.

My wife, Jayne, went to a residential Christian high school in Florida with one of his daughters and saw him when he visited. My father met Graham when my father was a young pastor/evangelist and Graham prayed a blessing on his ministry (a flawed ministry but only God knows its ultimate effects). We took our young children to a Graham rally in Minneapolis later in his ministry, wanting them to experience one of the great religious influences of all time. And yes, we sang “Just as I Am” and watched the people stream forward by the hundreds and perhaps thousands. And son Matthew, who started his career as a graphic designer working for the Billy Graham organization, remembers him poking his head in the cubicle one day to see the ongoing work on their website. I imagine it felt a bit like Gandalf looking in.

The warning I take from his life—a view he came in time to adopt himself—is against aligning the gospel too closely with temporal power, in his case politics. Graham was friend and advisor to multiple presidents, most problematically with Richard Nixon (though he had a long meeting with LBJ as well). Although it was not likely his intent, these close relationships encouraged some to think that political power is beneficial in furthering God’s kingdom (which Christ made clear transcended this world, though it also shapes our participation in this world). It isn’t.

I’m not proposing a particular philosophy or theology of Christian participation in political and social movements. I do think it is a mistake, however, to believe that a key to God’s shalom in the world is getting just the right people and party in power (left, right, or otherwise). I vote and I pray that more wise people than fools win elections, but I harbor as few illusions as I can manage about human nature, the human condition, and the nature of social systems. Billy Graham has said he wished he had spent less of his social capital on presidents and more on things like the civil rights movement. Social movements of course have political dimensions, but I think I know what he meant. He said he should have gone to Selma rather than so often to the White House. He would have joined religious people there, some of whom had bad theology but who at least understood part of the implications of the gospel.

One more story – the most important one for our family. Jayne’s father was a world-class scientist sent over by the British government to work on the Manhattan Project during WWII. He was also a resolute atheist. Science and the scientific method were everything. In the late 1950’s an acquaintance asked if he wanted to hear Billy Graham. Fred said, “Sure, I’ll go hear that psychological deviate.” Graham preached on Nicodemus–the intellectual who came to Jesus in the dark to ask questions. Fred realized he was Nicodemus. After a few days of struggle and smoking in the garden, Fred decided to treat the question of God as he would a scientific experiment. He would accept Christ as savior and see if it proved itself true in what we now call his “lived experience.”

He did and it did and it dramatically changed not only Jayne’s father but the entire direction of their family. One story among millions that link to Billy Graham and what God accomplished through him.

Well done, Billy Graham. Enter into your rest.