Billy Graham, Franklin Graham, and the transformation of American evangelicalism.
August 22th 2005
By Peter J Boyer
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
The father's tolerant message of inclusion uplifted the movement. Will the son be as forbearing?
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark.
Billy Graham's final crusade had reached the midway point, on a sweltering evening last June in
Flushing Meadows, when things took an unexpected turn. Graham, now eighty-six and using a
walker, had slowly made his way to the pulpit, aided by his oldest son, Franklin. As the crowd of
eighty thousand, seated on folding chairs, awaited his sermon (on the subject of making bad
choices), Graham glanced across the platform and acknowledged his special guests, Bill and Hillary Clinton. "They're a great couple," Graham told the crowd. He then recalled a remark he'd
once made about the Clintons when they were in the White House. "I felt when he left the Presidency he should be an evangelist, because he has all the gifts and he'd leave his wife to run the country." At this, Hillary turned to her husband and slapped him a high five.
Bill Clinton joined Graham at the pulpit, and, taking his hand, he said, "What an honor it is to be here as a person of faith with a man I love and whom I have followed. He is about the only person I know who I've never seen fail to live his faith."
Clinton then told a story from his childhood, about attending a Graham crusade with his Sunday-school class in Little Rock. It was during a time of racial disharmony, and Graham had refused
the suggestion by some city leaders to segregate his revivals. "I was just a little boy," Clinton said, "and I never forgot it, and I've loved him ever since."
There was, certainly, an element of politics to the moment. Evangelicals are not a known component of the Clinton base, and a blessing from Graham before eighty thousand worshippers has value, but Clinton is convincing on the subject of Billy Graham. We had talked a few days earlier, and the former President recollected that Graham's long-ago stand on race had occurred
at a moment when young Clinton, a Southern Baptist, was questioning his own faith. "When he gave the call— amid all the civil-rights trouble, to see blacks and whites coming down the aisle together at the football stadium, which is the scene, of course, of our great football rivalries and all, that meant to people in Arkansas— it was an amazing,
amazing thing," he said. "If you weren't there, and if you're not a Southerner, and if you didn't live through it, it's hard to explain. It made an enormous impression on me. I was at that age where kids question everything, you know? And all of a sudden I said, 'This guy has got to be real, because he did this when he didn't have to.'" Over the years, Clinton formed a bond with Graham - friend of Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes— and when Clinton's personal troubles emerged Graham publicly counseled forgiveness. "He took sin seriously," Clinton told me. "But he took redemption seriously. And it was incredibly powerful, the way he did it."
For Franklin Graham, sitting next to Hillary on that hot evening in Flushing Meadows, hearing
his father and the former President exchanging praise must have stirred some discomfort. He
had unreservedly condemned Clinton's liaison with Monica Lewinsky, summoning the Old Testament example of David's carrying on with Bathsheba, and the wrath of God it had produced.
"Mr. Clinton's months-long extramarital sexual behavior in the Oval Office now concerns him and the rest of the world, not just his immediate family," Franklin wrote in a 1998 opinion article published by the Wall Street Journal. "If he will lie to or mislead his wife and daughter, those with whom he is most intimate, what will prevent him from doing the same to the American public?"
In addition to the family religious enterprise, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which has some five hundred employees worldwide, a hundred-million-dollar operating budget, and a fifteen-hundred-acre training center in North Carolina, Franklin Graham has inherited his father's chiseled features and his deep Carolina timbre, but politically and theologically the son wields a much sharper sword. Billy Graham has steadfastly avoided pronouncing judgments as he nears his own end (writing that "sincere Christians may differ on whether or not abortion is ever justified," and telling Larry King that God loves even Satan), but Franklin is quite willing to voice what he deems harsh truths. Just that morning, he had told me that the United Nations will fail, because it is a godless enterprise. Abortion is murder, he said, and
homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God. After the attacks of September 11th, Franklin declared
that as a religion Islam was "wicked, violent, and not of the same God" - an assertion from which he has hardly retreated.
Predictably, Billy Graham's praise of Bill Clinton and his apparent endorsement of Hillary Clinton's political aspirations excited dismay among evangelicals. Several days later, when the Graham organization issued a "clarification," it was in the name of Franklin Graham. His father had only been joking about Bill Clinton becoming an evangelist, Franklin said. "President Clinton has the charisma, personality, and communication skills, but an evangelist has to have the call of God, which President Clinton obviously does not have, and my father understands that." As for Hillary Clinton, Graham continued, his father "certainly did not intend for his comments to be an endorsement for Senator Hillary Clinton."
Yet it was fitting that Bill Clinton played a part in Billy Graham's last crusade. The two men share a real, if not obvious, kinship, an intuitive communion. Long before Clinton fashioned a "third way" in politics, Graham had figured out how to triangulate American Protestant Christianity.
Graham consolidated that effort nearly fifty years ago, when he opened his first New York crusade, on the evening of May 15, 1957, at the old Madison Square Garden, at Forty-ninth
Street and Eighth Avenue. He described himself that night as "fearful," and, indeed, there was
much at stake. It wasn't a question of Graham's establishing himself as a national religious
figure; he'd already been on the cover of Time, had preached to Queen Elizabeth, and had become
a pen pal of President Eisenhower. Graham and his team had every reason to expect a successful
crusade. The organization's fabled promotional machine was fully operational, as evidenced by
the extensive coverage accorded the crusade by the New York press. The Herald Tribune let Graham write a daily column on his reflections on the revival. Nearly a third of the campaign's
initial budget, of a million dollars, was allotted to advertising and publicity, and the old Garden filled to capacity every night. What was at stake
for Graham in that first New York crusade was the evangelist's final break from the
fundamentalist wing that had formed him, and his hope of advancing a new evangelicalism that
would survive, even thrive, in the cultural mainstream.
The events that brought Graham to that moment, and to a subsequent bittersweet triumph in New
York, had huge consequences, including the marginalization of fundamentalists and the steady
withering of the mainline denominations. It is largely because of Graham's bold course that
evangelicalism— a heterogeneous multi-denominational movement estimated to number more than
fifty million born-again followers, with best-selling books (the "Left Behind" series), megachurches, and the nation's President, George W. Bush— has attained its current place in
American culture as the center of gravity of Protestant Christianity.
In 1918, when Graham was born, to a moderately prosperous Presbyterian farm family in North Carolina, American Protestantism had been a unified faith for fifty years. There were
doctrinal differences among Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians, but the mainline
denominations, to which most Americans belonged, shared an orthodoxy that, in contemporary
terms, might be called fundamentalist. Most professing Christians believed in the divine
inspiration and literal truth of the Bible; the divinity of the Virgin-born Jesus Christ, the
vicarious atonement by Jesus at the Cross for a fallen mankind; Christ's bodily resurrection;
and the validity of Biblical miracles. There once was, in that sense, such a thing as the Christian
nation, for which some religious conservatives still pine.
But the fin de siècle had brought a growing acceptance among educated people of Darwin's theory of evolution, which challenged providential creation; the discipline of "higher criticism"
asserted human authorship of Scripture; scholars investigating the "historical Jesus"
emphasized Christ's humanity rather than his supposed divinity. In 1907, Henry Adams,
recalling the era of his childhood, wrote that "in essentials like religion, ethics, philosophy; in history, literature, art; in the concepts of all science,
except perhaps mathematics, the American boy of 1854 stood nearer the year 1 than to the year 1900."
Some theologians, first in Europe, then in American seminaries, assimilated the new thinking
and reinterpreted Christianity accordingly. Central to the "modernist" theology was the
immanence of God; that is, the notion that the divine will of God could be seen in the progress of
man on earth. In this view— the moral-spiritual companion to evolution— mankind was
essentially good and wholly perfectible, and would eventually progress to the achievement of
God's kingdom on earth. At first, most American Protestants were only vaguely aware of the
modernists, and within the denominations, especially the Presbyterians and the Baptists, they
were aggressively opposed to modernism. An influential series of books called "The
Fundamentals," published between 1910 and 1915, laid out the case for Christian orthodoxy, and provided a body of argument for the opponents of modernism— who came to be called
The fundamentalists succeeded for a time, but by the nineteen-twenties the modernists, though a distinct minority, had gained influence in the schools and the ecclesiastical machinery of the
denominations. As Kevin Bauder, a fundamentalist theologian and the president of the Central
Baptist Theological Seminary in Minneapolis, puts it, "The result was, for a period of about twenty years, there was all-out war in most of the major Protestant denominations."
In the course of that "war," a Manhattan preacher named Harry Emerson Fosdick delivered one of the most consequential sermons ever preached from an American pulpit. Fosdick, a Baptist minister raised in the old orthodoxy, found his faith transformed by a study of the orthodoxy's
hindrance to the progress of mankind. Fosdick was hired as the preacher at the First Presbyterian Church on West Twelfth Street, and on May 21, 1922, he delivered his defense of
the modernist case. Liberal Christians, he said, “have assimilated as part of the divine revelation the exhilarating insight which these recent
generations have given to us, that development is God's way of working out His will. They see that the most desirable elements in human
life have come through the method of development. Man's music has developed from the
rhythmic noise of beaten sticks until we have in melody and harmony possibilities once
undreamed. Man's painting has developed from the crude outlines of the cavemen until in line
and color we have achieved unforeseen results and possess latent beauties yet unfolded. Man's
architecture has developed from the crude huts of primitive men until our cathedrals and
business buildings reveal alike an incalculable advance and an unimaginable future. Development does seem to be the way in which God works. And these Christians, when they say
that Christ is coming, mean that, slowly it may be, but surely, His will and principles will be
worked out by God's grace in human life and institutions.”
Fosdick's sermon, which he titled "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?," posited that "multitudes of reverent Christians," among
whom he counted himself, the Bible as a human record of the progressive unfolding of God's will, not as the literal Word of God. On the "vexed and mooted question of the virgin birth,"
Fosdick explained, it was "one of the familiar ways in which the ancient world was accustomed to account for unusual superiority" of a "great personality." The doctrine of the Second Coming
of Christ, Fosdick said, was an artifact of early Christian hope, explained by the fact that "no
one in the ancient world had ever thought, as we do, of development, progress, gradual change, as God's way of working out His will in human life and institutions."
To the fundamentalists, Fosdick was guilty of rank apostasy, and the following year J. Gresham Machen, a young theologian at the Princeton Theological Seminary, the citadel of Presbyterian orthodoxy, published a book called "Christianity and Liberalism," in which he argued that a theology that denied Christ's divinity and doubted the Bible wasn't Christianity at all but,
rather, a distinct and separate religion. As such, Machen argued, liberal theology had no proper
place in the Christian seminary or in the Christian pulpit. That reasoning became the defining
logic of the fundamentalist movement, and prompted an effort by the Church's national body to
force the New York Presbytery to affirm the fundamentals of the faith from its pulpits. The
issue was bitterly disputed at the national convention, with Machen's position being argued by
the bedrock fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan. One of Fosdick's fiercest allies was the liberal pastor Henry Sloane Coffin, of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. The resolution was passed, Fosdick left First Presbyterian, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., built him a new place in which to preach: the Riverside Church, in Morningside Heights, completed in 1930, which became the home cathedral of liberal theology and social activism.
Machen's formulation - that liberal theology represented a false religion that could not coexist with the true faith— had a scriptural basis in the Apostle Paul's warning to the new Christians in Corinth to steer clear of apostates. ("Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord.") This separatist impulse, however, carried the risk of schism and eventual
marginalization. At the Princeton Theological Seminary, the faculty was soundly orthodox through the nineteen-twenties, but it was divided on the question of whether the Church should
accept liberals in its midst or turn them out, as Machen insisted. In 1929, after Princeton added members to its board who were sympathetic to the liberal movement, Machen left, and founded a new school— Westminster Theological Seminary, in Philadelphia.
The "modernist controversy" soon roiled the missionary field, where Christian missionaries like Pearl Buck were confirming the redemptive promise of other faiths. Machen lost the battle to purify the missions, and he left the Presbyterian Church in 1936 to begin a new, militantly orthodox Presbyterian church. Among hard-line fundamentalists, separatism itself became a doctrine of faith, which required "second-degree" separation even from those Christians who held to the traditional orthodoxy but declined to leave their error-stained churches. Once fundamentalists parted from the mainstream, there was nowhere
to search for error but among themselves, where much error was found. (One Baptist group
separated on the doctrine that only the King James translation of the Bible contained God's pure
word.) Within months of its founding, even Machen's new church suffered its own schism, as, eventually, did the new splinter sect.
In the midst of these convulsions, the 1925 prosecution, in Dayton, Tennessee, of the biology instructor John Scopes for teaching evolution actually served to put fundamentalism on trial.
Clarence Darrow's ridicule and humiliation of the aging William Jennings Bryan was so
effective that fundamentalism, born in theological counter-revolt in Princeton, New Jersey,
gained a lasting image of Dogpatch theology. By 1940, it had become an uprooted, disputatious, and contracting faith.
With the Protestant establishment now solidly liberal-more liberal than its congregations— and
fundamentalists ever more strident and fractured, there remained a vast body of believers who
were faithful to the traditional orthodoxy but felt increasingly untethered. By the nineteen-forties, a group of churchmen had emerged who were the theological kinsmen of the
fundamentalists but who were embarrassed by the movement's excesses. They did not share the obsession with separation, and many wished to remain loyal to their denominations and to fight
the modernists and liberals from within. Among these was Harold Ockenga, the pastor of the Congregationalist Park Street Church, in Boston. Ockenga had been a student of Machen's at Princeton, and he had followed when Machen established his own school. But Ockenga became one of fundamentalism's severest critics, castigating its self-created impotence. "Fundamentalism has lost every major ecclesiastical battle for twenty years, Ockenga said in a sermon. Their plan is division in every denomination and every church where Modernism or error appears.
The absurdity of division ad infinitum has become apparent."
Ockenga and other like-minded Protestant conservatives undertook the hard work of forging a
new movement, which they called the New Evangelicalism. They built seminaries that prized intellectual rigor, where coherent apologetics could be written and young ministers formed in the conservative theology.
The New Evangelicals saw no reason that the work of social justice should be abandoned to the preachers of the "social gospel" in the liberal churches. In "The Uneasy Conscience of Modem Fundamentalism" (1947), one of the new movement's founding figures, Carl F. H. Henry, excoriated fundamentalism's failure to address the world's social and intellectual needs. A key reason for this failure was the widely held belief among conservative Protestants in the doctrine of pre-millennial dispensation, which holds that the present age ("dispensation") might well be the last before Christ's return to establish a thousand-year reign on earth. This glorious culmination would be signaled by the "rapture"— the lifting up into the clouds of Christ's living faithful— and a seven-year period of tribulation endured by those left behind. The terrible trials of humankind, in this view, might well portend the joyous conclusion of God's long drama of humanity.
The New Evangelicals didn't reject pre-millennialism or abandon the core tenet of traditional
Protestantism—salvation by faith alone. Rather, they proposed that Christians should undertake
good works, as evidence of their faith, and engage the secular culture.
By the end of the Second World War, which had effectively demolished Harry Emerson Fosdick's assurances about the perfectibility of man, the two camps within Protestantism's conservative wing stood ready to contend for the spiritually hungry. What was needed was some force to galvanize revival, some new voice to renew the mighty faith.
The vessel into which both the fundamentalists and the New Evangelicals ultimately poured their hopes was Billy Graham. His faith, enunciated in that singular Carolina stage English, was unlined by the doctrinal boundaries that might have excluded either wing. "I didn't know one theological position from another," he recently told me in New York. "I just knew that I had come to know the Lord as my Savior."
Graham was raised on a dairy farm near Charlotte amid flinty Presbyterians who held firmly to the tenets of the old faith, and as he made his way to his calling, and then swiftly to the first rank of evangelists, the men who influenced him were fundamentalists.
Graham's own salvation was achieved in November of 1934, on the eve of his sixteenth birthday, when he heard an itinerant preacher named Mordecai Ham, whose hellfire revival, in a wooden-roofed tabernacle, was well into its second month. When Graham speaks of Ham now, he is careful to assert that "there are things I don't agree with today that he said and did," an apparent reference to the fact that Ham harbored delusions of a conspiratorial world Jewry. But those delusions would not have stood out in that particular milieu, certainly not to the young man who answered the altar call that night as a choir concluded singing "Just as I Am." Graham was fixed on the preacher's accusing stare, which had so unnerved him on previous evenings that he tried moving into the choir to avoid it, before finally submitting and coming forward to accept Christ.
Graham's parents rejoiced in his decision, and when he graduated from high school they prevailed upon him to put aside hopes of attending the University of North Carolina, and to enroll instead at the small Christian college run by the fundamentalist Bob Jones, in Greenville, South Carolina. To Graham, the place seemed like a reform school, with rules against speaking to girls or dallying in hallways, and curfews that were fiercely enforced by the autocratic Jones. Graham was so unhappy there that he became ill, and withdrew after one term. But, looking back, he attributes his own preaching style to what he learned from Jones during his chapel talks at school. "They were so simple, almost juvenile," Graham recalls. "But he had a power of the Lord through him."
Simplicity was the key, Graham realized, and as he began his own preaching, taking a pulpit wherever he could as he made his way through the Florida Bible Institute and then through Wheaton College, in Illinois, he seldom burdened his sermons with nuance or layers of subtext. You're a sinner, Graham preached, but God so loves you that he's given you a way to save yourself, if you'll only say yes. A Billy Graham sermon was not, in itself, the feature that distinguished his ministry; what set him apart was his uncanny ability to achieve conversions at such a consistently high rate. He'd spent a summer as a door-to-door Fuller Brush salesman, and outsold every other Fuller man in two states. Evangelism is measured in won souls, and Graham's productivity at the altar call was unmatched.
At Wheaton, Graham met his future wife, Ruth Bell, who had grown up in China as the daughter of missionaries and would become his most trusted adviser. Within a year of graduating, he had been given a church pastorship in Chicago and a weekly local radio broadcast, both of which he surrendered in order to become the chief evangelist of a nationwide movement called Youth for Christ, founded by a Chicago pastor to minister to servicemen and young people. In 1947, Graham was summoned to Minneapolis by one of fundamentalism's pioneers, William Bell Riley, who made a deathbed plea that Graham agree to take over Riley's Northwestern Schools, a complex that included a Bible college, a seminary, and a four-year liberal-arts college (now Northwestern College, in St. Paul). And so Graham became, at twenty-nine, the youngest college president in America.
Graham, whose theology doctorates are honorary, has always claimed that his greatest regret is his lack of higher education, and when he found himself in a learned forum he would routinely protest, "I'm not a theologian." That demurral was perhaps justified. The one time that Graham undertook a serious theological inquiry, it nearly took his faith.
The source of his crisis was his close friend and fellow Youth for Christ evangelist Charles Templeton, whom Graham has characterized as one of the very few men he loved. Graham met Chuck, as he called him, onstage at a Chicago rally, and they quickly became the organization's dynamic personalities. The two young men were very different; Graham, with his rawboned amiability, was the essence of
country-boy ingenuousness. Templeton seemed to have already lived a full life; a high-school dropout from a broken home in Toronto, he had made his way on his own, starting a successful career as a newspaper cartoonist while he was a teenager. Templeton was Graham's equal, if not his better, as a sermonizer, though he couldn't match Graham's conviction and his power at the altar. As preachers, and as friends, they were perfect complements; they roomed together on an evangelistic tour of Europe, swanking around the war devastated Continent in their loud suits and hand-painted ties, lifted by the promise of their shared gift.
Templeton had a burning intellectual curiosity, which played at Graham's one insecurity; his middling intellectual firepower. For Templeton, however, that searching began to have a corrosive effect on his faith, and he hoped for resolution by applying for admission to the Princeton Theological Seminary; Despite his incomplete education, Templeton was admitted there in 1948. The skeptical ethos of the school, which by then had become firmly liberal, pulled at Templeton's uncertainty, and gradually his faith began to unravel.
In the winter of 1948-49,Templeton and Graham often met at the Taft Hotel in New York, and for hours Templeton would bombard him with the new hermeneutics he'd learned at Princeton, needling him about his simple certainty; Graham would listen, and try to argue, eventually falling back on his default position - he was no theologian. As Templeton later recalled, Graham told him, "Chuck, look, I haven't a good enough mind to settle these questions. The finest minds in the world have looked and come down on both sides of these questions."
But Graham began to have his own doubts. Modernism had given way to neo-orthodoxy in fashionable theology; and Graham started to read the leading neo-orthodox thinkers - people like Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr - with their new definitions of the divine "inspiration" of the Bible. It was a critical moment in Graham's career, because the biggest campaign of his life, a 1949 revival in Los Angeles, was looming.
On the eve of that campaign, Graham attended a fundamentalist retreat in the mountains near Los Angeles, and among the young preachers there was Chuck Templeton. He told Graham, "Billy, you're fifty years out of date. People no longer accept the Bible as being inspired the way you do."
"He said, 'I'm not even sure I believe in God," Graham recalls.
Graham's gathering doubt was tormenting him. "I just began to doubt certain passages in the Bible that I couldn't reconcile in my mind," he told me.
Graham knew that he couldn't conduct a revival on such an unsteady spiritual premise, and that he probably shouldn't be heading a Christian school or seminary if he didn't believe what it proclaimed. In crisis, he grabbed his Bible one night, and headed into the woods.
"I had my Bible, and I opened it on the tree stump," he says. "I opened it, and I said, 'Lord, I
don't understand all of this Bible. But I accept it all by faith. I accept it.' And at that moment I just had a tremendous conviction, and faith."
The Los Angeles revival was a triumph, helped by a series of fortuitous events. Among the seekers who came forward at Graham's invitation inside the six-thousand-seat revival tent
("the Canvas Cathedral," he called it) was the radio star Stuart Hamblen, who began touting Graham's revival on his broadcast (he also lost a cigarette sponsor by urging listeners to quit tobacco). Another convert was an associate of the mobster Mickey Cohen. William Randolph Hearst, for reasons that he never explained, gave the order to "puff Graham," and his two dailies played the Graham crusade for every angle.
The Los Angeles campaign made Graham a national figure, and was followed by a similar success the following year, in Boston. There, one of his sponsoring churches was the Park Street Church, whose pastor was Harold Ockenga, the father of the New Evangelicalism. Ockenga had nursed doubts about Graham and mass evangelism, but Graham's success in New England convinced him that the movement had found its voice.
One afternoon in the summer of 1955, as Graham was playing golf with the Duke of Windsor on a course near Versailles, he received a telegram from George Champion, the executive vice-president of Chase Manhattan Bank, asking him to hold a crusade in New York in 1957.
Accepting the invitation, as Graham did, meant forcing the issue between the New Evangelicals and the fundamentalists once and for all. Champion represented the New York Protestant Council, the defining institution of the liberal establishment Church. The council's sponsorship of the crusade meant Graham's cooperation with liberal churchmen who not only purveyed adventurous theology but, in some cases, denied the very fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy.
Graham accepted the invitation precisely for that reason. He liked the New Evangelical program of engaging the culture, and, especially, of ecumenical fellowship with Christians with whose doctrines he disagreed - even including Catholics. Associating with Rome was, for Protestant conservatives, an error of the most serious kind, for reasons that were foundational to the Reformation: evangelicals believe in sola fide, salvation by faith alone, and in sola scriptura, that the Bible is the lone source of authority for Christians. But, in the years after the Los Angeles campaign, Graham had gradually decided that doctrinal differences weren't that important among Christians." I just loved all those people whoever they were," Graham recalls. "They reached out for me. And I responded. I didn't say to them, but I felt, I love these people.
They're people of God."
There was, of course, great practical value in Graham's ecumenism. His evangelistic enterprise, based in Minnesota, had branched into publishing, broadcasting, even films, but the core of it all was the crusades, and mass evangelism, as Graham practiced it, required a broad
base of local support. "Because Bill was true to his conviction, and didn't criticize people who maybe didn't believe theologically like the others did, but he accepted them all with love, there was a greater willingness to cooperate together," Cliff Barrows, who has been Graham's music director and master of ceremonies since the organization was started, says. "We wouldn't have had some of these great citywide meetings that we've had if he hadn't done that." It was an arrangement that benefitted all parties. Typically, the Graham people would send an advance team to stay in the city a year before the event, and they would persuade local churches to promote and help organize the crusade. In return, Graham's organization would assiduously direct harvested souls into the local churches.
In New York, the Protestant churches were in urgent need of new life, which is why the council had extended its invitation to Graham, despite much reluctance in the liberal establishment.
Reinhold Niebuhr, dean of the Union Theological Seminary and the most prominent theologian in
the United States, actively opposed the Graham crusade in New York. Graham's message, Niebuhr wrote in Life, tended to "negate all the achievements of Christian historical scholarship. "Niebuhr worried about "life's many ambiguities," and concluded that Graham's message - Jesus as the answer to life's problems - was "rather too simple in any age, but particularly so in a nuclear one with its great moral perplexities."
Graham, still seeking intellectual respectability, tried to meet with Niebuhr, certain that he could change the theologian's mind, or, at least, temper his criticism. Niebuhr refused to see him. "I had such great respect for him," Graham says now.
Graham's 1957 Madison Square Garden campaign, which had been scheduled to run for two months, lasted nearly the entire summer, culminating in a rally in Times Square, in September, before a crowd the size of a New Year's Eve throng. Later that year, Harold Ockenga
declared that the new moderate movement had indeed found its voice - "Billy Graham, who on the mass level is the spokesman of the convictions and ideals of the New Evangelicalism."
To the fundamentalists, however, Graham had become Belial, an Old Testament term embodying godless evil. One fundamentalist has written that Graham, in meeting with the liberal church leaders, "was actually locking himself into a room with the Devil, because these men were certainly the Devil's ministers." Key fundamentalist leaders, such as John R. Rice, the publisher of the fundamentalist periodical Sword of the Lord, had kept their claim on Graham until his New York "compromise," as the conservatives called it. "It was an obscuring of the very boundary of Christianity itself," says Kevin Bauder, of the Central Baptist Theological Seminary (the descendant of the seminary that Graham once headed at Northwestern Schools). "What he was doing, from a fundamentalist point of view - from my point of view - was taking religious leaders who had no legitimate claim, properly, to the name Christian, and he was saying to the world, 'These men are good Christian leaders.' And, in doing
that, what he was doing, I think, was obscuring the importance of the very Gospel that he was at that time preaching. I think that what Dr. Graham did, and what the Neo-Evangelicals did, is the worst thing a Christian can do."
Graham was deeply troubled by such criticism at the time, but looking back he says, "It doesn't bother me too much anymore." In fact, he had begun to redefine himself as "a theological conservative but a social liberal," as he terms it now. The social liberalism of the New Evangelicalism appealed to Graham, and even Niebuhr allowed that Graham had "sound personal views on racial segregation and other social issues of our time." At that New York crusade, Graham invited Martin Luther King, Jr., to the platform to lead an opening prayer, introducing him as a leader of "a great social revolution going on in the United States today."
Such gestures alienated many conservatives. "Dr. Graham has declared emphatically that he would not hold a meeting anywhere, North or South, where the colored people and the white people would be segregated in the auditorium," Bob Jones said, "and I do not think anytime in the foreseeable future the good Christian colored people and the good Christian white people would want to set aside an old established social and religious custom."
Graham had embarked on a long, inexorable march to the middle, from which he never retreated, and through the years he has progressively softened his views, even on matters touching on core doctrine. As early as his 1949 Los Angeles campaign, when he'd emerged from his battle with doubt, he had decided that Hell was not necessarily a bottomless pit of fire and brimstone but the everlasting punishment of "separation from God." He has stopped worrying about whether pagans are cut off from salvation, and has even come close to syncretism, suggesting that devout believers of other faiths have found ways of "saying yes to God."
Dogmatic fundamentalism had been consigned to the margins, and, with the culture wars and the eruption of international terrorism, the very word became anathema. Even Bob Jones III, the president of the university founded by his grandfather, suggested in 2002 that fundamentalism
drop the name. "Instead of 'Fundamentalism' defining us as steadfast Bible believers, the term
now carries overtones of radicalism and terrorism," he wrote." 'Fundamentalist' evokes fear, suspicion, and other repulsive connotations in its current usage. Many of us who are separated unto Christ feel it is appropriate to find a new label that will define us more positively and appropriately." Jones's suggestion was "preservationist," a term that, so far, has failed to catch on.
Liberal establishment Protestantism, meanwhile, has found itself driven by flashpoint social issues like same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexuals. Even as over-all church membership in the United States continues to grow-by fully one-third since 1960-the mainline churches have seen their numbers shrink
by twenty-one per cent. The trend is noticeably evident in New York City. The First
Presbyterian Church continues its ministry in the liberal tradition of Harry Emerson Fosdick, but the most vital Presbyterian church in New York is an evangelical church, Redeemer Presbyterian, that was founded in 1989 and meets in rented spaces, such as the auditorium at Hunter College. Redeemer Presbyterian was begun by Timothy Keller, a graduate of Machen's Westminster Seminary, as a ministry for evangelical city professionals, and has grown so prodigiously that the church actively shuns publicity for fear of overgrowth and an influx of
"church tourists." Its Sunday meetings at Hunter attract a capacity congregation of twenty-eight hundred worshippers, and that is just one of Redeemer's three Sunday services. The church has spun off more than a score of "plant" churches in the city and elsewhere, including one, the evangelical Emmanuel Church, that holds its weekly services in the James Chapel at the Union Theological Seminary-formerly presided over by Reinhold Niebuhr. Evangelical churches and organizations have experienced remarkable growth - owing, in large part, evangelicals say, to the doctrinal latitude and character of moderation established by Graham and the New Evangelicals. "I think it put a friendly face on what was thought of as fundamentalism," Greg Laurie, the senior pastor of the mega-church Harvest Christian Fellowship, in Riverside, California, and a member of the Graham association board, says. "It was appealing, it was engaging, there was a cultural connection. Yet, at the same time, it did not compromise the essential Gospel message, or the Biblical emphasis."
It is telling that Graham, for his final crusade, chose as his New York chairman Dr. A. R. Bernard, of the Christian Cultural Center, in Brooklyn. Bernard, a former Black Muslim, began his ministry with a storefront church that has grown into a Texas‑size mega-church (with a restaurant, fish ponds, and gardens) that is attended by twenty thousand worshippers each week "We hold to Christian orthodoxy" Bernard says. "We hold to the authority of Scripture, and we're very conservative in our views. But we're not antagonistic to the culture. We believe that we can be a prophetic voice in that culture, understanding that culture, adjusting to it, without compromising our convictions. For too long, Christians tended to speak in a language that only other Christians could understand."
Endorsement of the New York event was hardly unanimous among black church leaders. A few weeks before the crusade, Dr. Calvin Butts, the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, said that he'd heard several complaints from his parishioners about Graham's promotional effort in Harlem, which included a huge billboard on 125th Street. "I believe he has the right to come to New York and preach the Gospel‑we do have religious freedom in this country," Butts told me. "Having said that, I personally believe that he's been an apologist for political right-wingers his whole career."
Although Graham came to avoid political pronouncements, his orientation early on reflected the conservatism of his native region. His particular closeness with Richard Nixon stained his reputation, not least because of tape transcripts recounting a White House conversation in which Graham denigrated Jews (for which he has apologized, often and abjectly, offering to crawl on his knees for forgiveness). Yet Graham, a longtime registered Democrat, did not cultivate only Republican political leaders. When the first President of his acquaintance, Harry Truman, shunned him at a 1952 crusade in Washington, dismissing him as just another religious huckster, Graham importuned him (unsuccessfully) with flattering pleas. Through the years, Graham assiduously pursued the favor of men of high office, winning his way into the Presidential circle with his Fuller Brush salesman's cheery persistence. He golfed with President-elect Jack Kennedy in Palm Beach and with former President Gerald Ford in Palm Springs‑and prayed with every President. For politicians, association with Graham brought a very particular sort of public endorsement, as well as the private solace proffered in low moments, such as those endured by Lyndon Johnson and Nixon. For Graham, his association with world leaders satisfied his need to be seen as "somebody who stood in the circle of other somebodys," as his biographer William Martin phrased it.
But Graham also achieved another purpose in becoming the preacher to Presidents. He became the symbol of Protestant Christianity in America ‑ in effect, branding evangelicalism as the mainstream American faith. The feat made him welcome not only in Nixon's White House but in Kennebunkport, Maine, in the high Episcopal home of George H. W. Bush. It was on a 1985 visit to that vacation home that Graham, walking on the beach with Bush's prodigal son, George W., posed the question, Are you right with God? For the younger Bush, it was a life‑altering moment. ("Billy Graham didn't make you feel guilty," Bush later wrote. "He made you feel loved.") Graham had found a soul perfectly suited to the simple faith.
William Franklin Graham III was also, through much of his young life, a devoted heller - the embodiment of "preacher's kid" syndrome, magnified by the fact that his daddy wasn't just any preacher. Franklin smoked, drank, rode motorcycles, and once led the local police in a car chase, safely escaping at the last moment by dodging through the Graham estate's electronic gates. (His father let the police in, and Franklin was warned that he'd go to jail next time.) He wanted to fly, and got a pilot's license, and then crashed a plane while making an ill‑advised landing. He was urged to leave two Christian schools, where he was inclined to fighting and breaking the rules, and as for church he says, "I found it kind of boring."
When he was twenty-two, his father approached him one day and, as Franklin recalls it, said, "I sense there's a battle for the soul of your life. You're going to have to make a choice ‑ either to accept what Jesus Christ did on Calvary's Cross, or reject it. You can't ride the fence. You, Franklin, are going to have to make a decision. And I want you to know that your mother and I are praying for you, that you'll make the right decision." Franklin says that he got on his knees that night, threw away his cigarettes, and surrendered his life to God.
In the space of a few weeks that summer, Franklin graduated from a local two-year college, married his boyhood sweetheart, Jane Austin Cunningham, and took up studies at a Bible college in Colorado. At his wedding, he had publicly vowed to devote his life to God's service, but he was determined to avoid any calling that might invite comparison to his father. This became the central tension of his new life; yet, a year later, in the summer of 1975, he and his wife were living with his parents and the only work he had was helping in his father's crusades. A way out appeared one day when Franklin received a phone call from an evangelist named Bob Pierce, who was, by nature and by calling, something like an anti-Billy Graham.
Pierce had been a contemporary of Billy's at the beginning, another young evangelist in the wartime Youth for Christ movement. It was a boom time for evangelism, but somehow Pierce, who had attended a small religious college in California, struggled in his ministry even as Graham and Chuck Templeton soared. (Templeton eventually left the ministry and returned to Canada, where he took up journalism and rose to become managing editor of the Toronto Star.) Pierce showed up one day at the Youth for Christ Chicago headquarters in a deep gloom, determined to quit the pulpit; but the organization sent him to the West Coast, and eventually to Asia, where he found his calling. In China, Pierce encountered social disorder, poverty, and human misery of a magnitude he could scarcely register; but there was also a deep spiritual hunger amid that squalor, and the combined effect was strangely exhilarating. He wrote home that, after his experience in Asia, he couldn't imagine a return to preaching in America again, "to just go through the motions of evangelizing."
One day, a missionary thrust a Chinese girl into Pierce's arms, saying that the child had been beaten and thrown into the streets by her father, who was angered by the attentions she'd received from the Christian missionaries. Pierce immediately handed over all the cash in his pocket, and vowed that he would personally see that the child's education was paid for. It was a rash promise that Pierce had no rational expectation of keeping, but China had somehow tilted his senses. When the Maoist triumph brought the eviction of Christian evangelists, in 1949, Pierce found other locales, and new exhilarations. Making rash promises became his standard mode of operation; yet he also began to make good on such promises. On trips back home, he toured churches and Christian organizations, showing movies of the distant sorrows he'd promised to ease, and the central feature was almost always a hungry child. People responded beyond Pierce's hopes, and through the nineteen‑fifties he built an organization, World Vision, that became the largest Christian aid enterprise in the world.
Pierce was driven in his mission by a kind of reckless zeal, praying for the ability to personally experience God's own heartbreak for his most broken people, to take on their suffering - and then gambling that God would somehow make good on Bob Pierce's promises to them. The method exacted a toll. Pierce was given to bursts of pique, followed by remorse, and, as World Vision grew, his personality and operating style unsettled the Christian enterprise. After a bitter dispute with the World Vision board in 1967, he was forced to resign from the organization. His personal life was no less unsettled. He suffered a mental breakdown, and was undergoing insulin shock treatments. A few years later, he learned that he had leukemia.
It was in this low period that Pierce came to believe that there was something of himself in Billy Graham's prodigal boy, Franklin. He knew that Franklin was newly married and at loose ends, and in that phone call he invited Franklin to take an Asian tour with him that would be nothing like the overseas journeys Franklin had experienced with his father. Franklin agreed, and over the next two months the dying Pierce pitched Franklin Graham on the great adventure of doing God's work, but on an entrepreneurial level. Pierce had built a small aid organization, Samaritan's Purse, whose mission was to fly into the world's emergency zones, assess the need, and then somehow raise the money that Pierce invariably had committed. In one particularly fitting episode on the trip, the small entourage, in a Cessna 185, landed on a narrow strip cut into a mountain in the jungle of Borneo, halting at the edge of a steep ravine. Pierce's thrill‑ride evangelism spoke to Franklin, and he took over Samaritan's Purse shortly after Pierce died, in 1978.
One of Franklin's early aid trips took him to a remote missionary hospital in Kenya, an overtaxed facility where patients were treated two to a bed. Before leaving, Graham promised to try to raise the four hundred thousand dollars needed to build a new wing. He told the story of the hospital on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's "Praise the Lord" television broadcast, raised four hundred and nine thousand dollars, and then later returned the extra nine thousand to Bakker. Graham wanted Samaritan's Purse to be unlike any other organization, and certainly distinct from a Christian aid bureaucracy, and his ideas were sometimes impractical or misbegotten. He once tried to transform the compound at Jonestown, Guyana, where in 1978 hundreds of religious cultists died in a mass suicide, into a resettlement camp for Southeast Asian boat people. During the first Gulf War, he sent thousands of Bibles, translated into Arabic, to American soldiers encamped in Saudi Arabia - a move that infuriated the commanding general, Norman Schwarzkopf, who said that it threatened to unravel the fragile coalition.
But Graham began to apply a disciplined hand and sound practices to Samaritan's Purse, and the organization has become a highly regarded two‑hundred‑and‑fifty‑million‑dollar enterprise. (Less than four per cent of its annual revenues go to fund‑raising expenses.) It carries out substantial relief operations in more than a hundred countries, including Iraq, India, and Sudan. Preoccupied with his work, Franklin stoutly resisted any suggestion that he take up the pulpit. "I was afraid that if I did preach, people would compare me to my father," he says. "I'm not my dad."
In his way, Franklin Graham had at last answered one of his father's severest critics, Reinhold Niebuhr, who had long ago written that the trouble with Billy Graham was that he talked the talk of social progress but his simple ministry of soul conversion did little to help the wretched of the world. "I believe that my father has been called to the big stadiums of this world," Franklin told an interviewer. "God has called me to the ditches and to the gutters along life's road."
Franklin's resolve not to preach began to weaken in the nineties, as his father started to grow infirm. He finally received the divine call to preach, although he concedes that God's beckoning to him was more clearly heard by others (including his mother) than by him. He started out shakily. "There was a tentativeness," says Anne Graham Lotz, Franklin's older sister, who is also a preacher (deemed the best in the family by her father, though she had no desire to succeed him). "He hadn't got the delivery, and the style, and all of that down. He was a little uncomfortable. But you could hear his heart. And I believe he has a heart for the Gospel."
Franklin's decision to preach did not settle the issue of succession at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and in some ways complicated it. Franklin, who is fifty-three, says that some in the organization questioned his commitment before he took over as C.E.O., in 2000. "There were a lot of internal struggles," he says. "There were people at that time who did not want me doing it. It was a challenge .... They had legitimate concerns and questions." Part of the difficulty was Billy himself, who had always run the organization with a light hand, ruling by consensus, and he did not want to appear to be steering the enterprise toward his son. He wonders now, he says, whether Franklin thinks he didn't do enough. "I feel sometimes he may be disappointed because I don't intervene," Billy says. "I haven't talked to anybody about him, to try to get something for him in the organization." Franklin's management style is more direct than his father's, and he is less inclined to consensus. He has consolidated the workforce and moved the organization's headquarters from Minneapolis, where it had been since Billy Graham's days at the Northwestern Schools, to Charlotte, where the Grahams live. (Samaritan's Purse, which he still runs, is also headquartered in North Carolina.)
Although Franklin's preaching style is cooler and more conversational than his father's, he is much less willing to smooth the edges of the faith. If Billy's theme, especially in his later years, was the saving grace of God's love, Franklin's is more elemental. "My message is very focused," he says. "My message is to call on people to repent their sins." Franklin believes in a sulfurous Hell, and has no doubt about who is going to be there. "The Bible says every knee under the earth, every knee that's in Hell, one day is going to bow," he says. "And every tongue is going to confess Him as Lord one day. Now, either you're going to do it voluntarily and submit your heart to the Lord Jesus Christ, or you're going to be forced. And when you're forced it's going to be too late then."
Franklin Graham's strongest trait is certitude, which extends to the divisive issues that Billy chose to avoid. Regarding Islam, Franklin says, "The global war on terrorism, let's give it the name it's Islamic. That's who we're fighting. We're not fighting the Maoists. We're not fighting the Hindus or the Buddhists. It's Islamic." As to the refrain that a peaceful religion has been "hijacked by terrorists" - a refrain sounded even by his friend the President ‑ Franklin scoffs. "They haven't hijacked it at all. I think that's what people are wishing. And listen, there are millions of Muslims out there who are good people, who do want to live in peace. But you have to look at the government of Saudi Arabia; this is what true Islam is. There is no tolerance of other religions or other faiths. True Islam, just look at Saudi Arabia, that's it. Or look at the Taliban, that's it. Or Sudan. That's what this is all about."
Abortion, Franklin asserts, is not about a woman's reproductive choice. "I believe that abortion is murder," he says. "Now, that has nothing to do with politics, left wing, right wing. I believe that when a woman's right to choose takes the life of another person, that's a sin against God. The state says you can do this, it's legal. O.K. It's still a sin against God. And that blood of that child, God will hold you accountable, That blood is on your hands." Homosexuality is likewise a sin against God in the younger Graham's system of faith, and he disputed the justification that homosexuals are created that way by God. "Listen, sin is sin, O.K.? The Bible says that we're all sinners. We're born with it. We all have this desire to sin, to disobey God. Now, we try to make excuses as a society .... For the gay, I mean, it's 'Well, I have no choice. I was born this way.' Well, we were all born sinners, with the desire to sin.”
Such pronouncements have led some people to dismiss Franklin Graham as just another right‑wing Jeremiah. Yet he may well emerge as the most important political figure in the evangelical sphere. In his aid work, he is as tough and insistent as he is in running the Graham organization, or in laying out his theology. Some on the left see a neocolonial missionary impulse in his motivations, and Graham is unrepentant about the fact that his do‑gooding is solely a means of bringing people to Christ. One of his inspirations was to put wells on church property in a parched zone of India: "Have people come to church to get their water. Why not?"
But it was Franklin Graham who brought Christian zeal to the struggle against the world AIDS pandemic. Samaritan's Purse had become deeply involved in trying to stop the slaughter of Christians and animists in Sudan, and in the course of this political effort Franklin had awakened to the realization that fighting AIDS was also God's will. He began to sound the alarm among evangelicals, chastening Christians for their past reluctance to fight against a scourge that somehow offended their moral piety.
For the last three years, Richard Holbrooke, Bill Clinton's former Ambassador to the United Nations, has asked Franklin Graham to speak at the annual fund‑raiser for the Global Business Coalition on H.I.V./AIDS. There was some awkwardness on the first occasion, in 2002, because Graham was seated at a table with Secretary‑General Kofi Annan and Bill Clinton. Hoibrooke recalls telephoning Clinton before the event and asking if he thought it would be all right. "Sure," the former President said. "It's a smart thing to do."
At that event, Graham offered the benediction, praying, as he always does at public events, in the name of Jesus. And, as always happens at public events, some people complained. "I'm not going to betray the blood of Jesus Christ for political correctness," Graham says.
But Holbrooke counseled forbearance. "Some people were upset," Holbrooke recalls. "They said, 'Why do you have that guy there?' And I said, 'If we want to beat AIDS, we need to build bridges to people in areas that we agree on."
Holbrooke says that Graham has been "enormously important" in the fight against AIDS abroad. "Samaritan's Purse created one of the most important new developments in American foreign policy in the last generation - the entry of Christian conservatives into American foreign policy as pro‑foreign‑aid people."
Billy Graham says that he approves of Franklin's public stands, theological and political. He adds that, even if he doesn't agree with his son, "he's strong."
It is, perhaps, a case of the son finding his own way to a middle ground. Franklin Graham has managed to win the admiration of a former Clinton Administration official, even while his public positions have some old‑line fundamentalists listening, hopefully, for the return of an evangelist Graham to their fold. "He intrigues me," the hard‑line theologian Kevin Bauder acknowledged recently. Though he still condemns the elder Graham's 1957 "compromise" as "the worst thing a Christian could do," Bauder said, "I think we're still getting to know Franklin Graham. I don't think we've quite figured out who he is yet. But I'm very interested to find out. Franklin, every time he says something publicly, my ears pick up. I want to chart this guy. I want to see where he's going."