"America's pastor," the Rev. Billy Graham, died on Wednesday at 99.
The son of a North Carolina farmer, Graham went on to become an adviser and friend to US presidents, meet face-to-face with dictators and bring the Christian message to millions around the world. At the same time, he had fierce critics and made comments that would be outside the mainstream today. He said AIDS was God’s punishment, though he later apologized, and made anti-Semitic comments to Richard Nixon that he later tried to explain away.
The World's religion correspondent Matthew Bell talked about Graham's legacy with Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Commission. The following is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.
Matthew Bell: How do you even begin to explain the life and legacy of someone like Rev. Billy Graham?
Dr. Russell Moore: Well, I think Billy Graham was uniquely gifted as the greatest Christian evangelist since the apostle Paul, in terms of influence all around the world. Behind that was the sense that Billy Graham so obviously believed his own gospel and his own message. He spoke with authority. You could hardly hear him speak for more than three minutes without hearing the words "the Bible says" over and over and over again. At a time when many people are cynical and skeptical not just about religious figures, but about any authority figures, Billy Graham was the real deal. I think that was obvious for people to see.
Comparing Graham to Paul is pretty huge. How do you point to Graham's legacy, especially internationally, and talk about it in those terms?
You can hardly be around any gathering of Christians anywhere in the world, literally anywhere in the world, and not find at least some of them who either came to faith in Christ by listening to Billy Graham in person, or on television, or on some other some other media platform, or at least find people who were led to Christ by those who first encountered Jesus through the preaching of Billy Graham. So, the sheer ripple effect of his ministry is unbelievable across the world.
I was just watching a video of Graham speaking back in 1994. He had just returned from his second trip to North Korea, and I thought, this is sort of a Quixotic mission here, to actually try to talk about the Christian gospel in a place like North Korea. How do you explain that?
Of course, he was doing that in many places over many years. Graham would go behind the Iron Curtain and preach the gospel in the former Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. And he did so as someone who was completely unafraid. I think that's because he really did believe that his ultimate accountability was before the judgment of Christ. He was granted freedom to be able to preach in places that others weren't. But when he arrived there, he never cut back on the message. He never tailored it out of fear of what people would think. He preached the exact same gospel message in Madison Square Garden in New York as he did in North Korea or in the Soviet Union.
But should we be at all cynical about Graham's ability to break through in a place like North Korea? This is a regime that, to put it mildly, just isn't compatible with the message of the New Testament.
No, I don't think we should be cynical at all. We see examples of this throughout the history of the church, of Christians who have been able to speak truth to power in places that were that were not welcoming of Christian truth at all. And what Billy Graham was able to do when he would walk into settings such as North Korea or Soviet Europe was to give a shot of confidence to Christians who were facing persecution under hostile regimes all around the world. He was speaking often not just to the people gathered in front of him, but to those who were in very difficult situations all around the world. In that sense, what Billy Graham was doing was very similar to what we saw for instance with Pope John Paul II. Speaking to those in the Solidarity movement in Poland and elsewhere, Billy Graham was doing the same thing. And frankly, he had done the same thing long before his ministry was global. When Billy Graham was preaching in the American South during the era of Jim Crow, he said, "We're not going to have segregated arenas. The gospel is open to all people. The cross is not segregated by race and neither should our evangelistic rallies." That was an extraordinary move to happen at the height of Jim Crow. And that was the exact same sort of message that he would take into apartheid South Africa and to other hostile places around the world.
Billy Graham started the humanitarian organization Samaritan's Purse. How important is this part of his story for other international Christian humanitarian aid groups?
It's very important because Billy Graham believed that human beings are to be loved and cared for, in the whole person, body and soul. It's very difficult to find any major Christian humanitarian ministry, or evangelistic ministry for that matter, anywhere in the world that's not related to Billy Graham's work in some ways. He was calling on the church to preach the gospel and also calling on the people of the church to love their neighbors. He would do that at major gatherings concerned about evangelism, saying, "We need to also care about people's bodies. We need to care about hunger. We need to care about poverty," and all these sorts of things. He would say, "Let's do that, and let's also be concerned about people's spiritual relationship to God."
There are a lot of stories about evangelists caught up in scandals — financial scandals, sexual scandals, for example — not just here in the United States, but elsewhere. That sort of thing is something that just wasn't part of Billy Graham story. Is there a lesson here for evangelicals today?
Billy Graham so believed his own message. He was so concerned about the lives of people all around the world that he worked at maintaining his own personal integrity, not only the reality of that personal integrity, which was there but also to free himself or his ministry from even the appearance of evil. If one looks at the way in which, from the very beginning, Billy Graham was working to put into place all of these mechanisms of accountability for himself, one understands that he saw ahead of his time what could happen when there are those in religious leadership who are seen to be hypocrites, or those who fall. And that's the reason why the Elmer Gantry caricature never applied and never could apply to Billy Graham. In that sense, I think that really is a model not just for those of us who are in religious ministry, but really for all people. Let's start out our lives whatever our callings are, recognizing where there's a potential for falling and work to prevent that from happening.
One of the regrets that Billy Graham mentioned in recent years was that maybe he shouldn't have gotten involved in politics in the ways that he did. What do you take from that admission?
I think he was right. And I think one of the inspiring things about Billy Graham is that he was willing to look back and to say, "Here are some ways that I did things that I wouldn't do that way now." Take the tapes of Billy Graham with Richard Nixon, for instance, during Watergate, that he later came to regret. Not only were these things that Graham would say he wished he had never said, but he also used them as an opportunity to teach the rest of the church not to make this mistake. In reality, the temptation for the church is often to do far worse, even to become wholly identified with some political or cultural movement. Billy Graham said, "No, let's recognize that our primary allegiance is to the kingdom of God and to the gospel of Christ."
We found some interesting audio from Billy Graham from a trip he took to apartheid South Africa, in which Graham says he was against racial segregation and that "apartheid won't work." Did he talk about these issues here in the United States too?
Yes, he did. He was doing that very early in the era of Jim Crow, and he was doing that in a way that was speaking to the conscience of white Southerners, in order to say, "If you really believe the gospel that you claim to believe, then that entails the equality of all people created in the image of God. And it entails a common destiny together in heaven, which means that the church should be reconciled and united right now." These are things that were very unusual at the time. But he had the sort of gravity and already that people were willing to listen to it.
He got some pushback about this?
[He] got quite a bit of pushback. Billy Graham received pushback for almost everything he did. Some people look back and see the fact that Billy Graham is universally loved for the most part right now, but they realize just how controversial he was when he was innovating with new technologies, when he was speaking to integrated audiences. Really, at every step of the way, there were people who were coming against him, but he didn't back down. He had a very keen sense of who he was and what his calling was, and so he pressed forward.
We updated this story to add a reference to Graham's controversial views on LGBT people and statements about the Jewish faith.