Billy Graham’s death on 21 February, 2018, unleashed a flood of commentary on his life and legacy, much of it positive, some of it sharply negative. Both the length of his career and the historical moment at which he died contributed to the complexity of this discussion.
If his life had ended a decade ago, praise would likely have dominated his obituaries. He ranked in the top 10 on the USA Today/Gallup list of Most Admired Men almost every year since the poll began in 1948. Generations of Americans regarded him as “America’s Pastor,” a unifying figure who befriended presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama, and who soothed the nation’s soul after crises such as the September 11 terrorist attacks. Graham’s fans included the millions who attended his evangelistic crusades and the millions more who watched them on TV. Perhaps they tuned into his long-running radio show Hour of Decision, took advice from his “My Answer” newspaper column, or read his bestselling books, from the runaway hit Angels: God’s Secret Agents (1975) to his last, The Reason for My Hope (2013). (A later book, Where I Am: Heaven, Eternity, and Our Life Beyond, almost certainly was not written by Graham himself). Positive press coverage burnished this image of the perpetually beloved preacher, as Graham and his team cultivated cordial relationships with reporters while avoiding the tawdry scandals that tripped up so many other revivalists.
Scholarship published in recent years has told more complicated narratives about the revered evangelist. For example, Darren Dochuk described Graham’s “middle-of-the-road average” approach to racial integration, which led him to partner with oilmen rather than Civil Rights activists. David King made a similar observation about Graham’s hesitant embrace of anti-poverty initiatives. Seth Dowland touched on ways that Graham’s model of evangelical manhood marginalized women. The specter of Graham’s alliance with Richard Nixon haunts many accounts of the evangelist’s career.
The fact that 81% of white evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump has led many scholars in 2018 to turn an even more critical eye on Graham. Causes that Graham held at arms’ length (Civil Rights, welfare programs, and gender equality) were more vocally repudiated by Trump. Meanwhile, evangelical leaders in 2016 eagerly embraced the Republican candidate, something Graham had vowed not to do after Watergate. Was it Graham’s legacy to leave behind a religious tradition that amplified his flaws? Did the election prove that he had been “on the wrong side of history” all along, as Matthew Avery Sutton argued in The Guardian? Or did the rise of Trump-supporting “court evangelicals,” among them Graham’s son Franklin, mark a turn away from Graham’s essential moderation, winsomeness, and chastened patriotism? If Graham had not been sidelined by illness, could the last decade of American religion and politics have played out differently?
Graham was nearly 100 years old when he died. His views on many subjects, including nuclear proliferation, the environment, global humanitarianism, and women’s ordination, changed over time. Assessments of Graham over the next 100 years will evolve as well, as we move from our current, intensely polarized moment into eras that none of us can predict.
Featured Image credit: Billy Graham by National Archives of Norway. CC-BY-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.