The Billy Pulpit

Graham's career in Mainline Protestantism

BY: Grant Wacker

From the Nov. 15, 2003 issue of the Christian Century

Billy Graham and I hit New York City at the same time, the summer of 1957. He was 38 and about to clinch his reputation as the premier evangelist in Protestant history. I was 12 and about to taste freedom. But not yet. Night after night my parents packed themselves and me into a steamy subway to go down to Madison Square Garden to hear the Great Man preach. Soon our first family vacation to the Northeast was over, and we headed back to the bucolic quiet of southwest Missouri. I couldn't figure out what the big whoop on Graham was all about.

If the Graham sensation left at least one adolescent bemused, it left the men and women in the tall steeple churches of the Protestant mainline divided. Many deplored the evangelist's success, but many others-perhaps a majority-cautiously welcomed it. It is the second group, the cautious welcomers, that chiefly attracts our attention. Figuring out why Graham won at least measured approval from them illumines both the complex structure and the persisting strength of the mainline in modern America.

But first the deplorers. Though the critics on Graham's theological left represented diverse voices-serious theologians, denominational leaders, academic elites and practiced journalists, among others-they sounded similar notes of dismay. As far back as 1952 the British Council of Churches, which spoke for the majority of British Christians, refused to join the British Evangelical Alliance's invitation to Graham to speak in London. When he arrived two years later, one newspaper judged that he displayed "all the tricks of the modern demagogue."

In 1956, during a trip to India, Graham suggested that the U.S. government might give Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru a "white air-conditioned Cadillac." That recommendation prompted the Christian Century to conclude that Graham "hasn't a glimmer of a notion about what is really going on in the world." A Filipino paper likened him to a religious Liberace trying "to sell American friendship to India in the same manner that she sells, say, toothpaste or brassieres." When Graham visited Yale in February 1957, the Yale Daily News judged him "embarrassingly overdramatic" and "clearly underintellectualized." His insights, it said, were "banal" and his message irrelevant to the Yale undergraduate.

By then Graham was getting used to being snubbed by theologians and intellectuals, or at least he should have been. Reinhold Niebuhr's biographer Richard Wrightman Fox tells us that Niebuhr was "angry" when the New York City Protestant Council of Churches invited Graham to hold crusade meetings in the summer of 1957. Writing in March of that year, Niebuhr acknowledged that Graham was a "personable, modest and appealing young man," but he dreaded Graham's "rather obscurantist version of the Christian faith."

The crusade opened May 15. After watching the preacher's performance on the job for a month, Niebuhr remained unmoved. Mass evangelism's success, he grumped in the July 1 issue of Life, "depends upon oversimplifying every issue," but Graham's version "offers . . . even less complicated answers than it has ever before provided." Niebuhr concluded that Graham's bland message "promises a new life, not through painful religious experience but merely by signing a decision card. Thus, a miracle of regeneration is promised at a painless price by an obviously sincere evangelist. It is a bargain." When Graham tried to meet with Niebuhr to talk things over, Niebuhr refused. "Graham Ballyhoo Cheapens Ministry, Niebuhr Says," was how a New York Post headline summed up the professor's view of the preacher.

Others followed Niebuhr's astringent path. Writing in 1959, William G. McLoughlin, Graham's first scholarly biographer, tried to be fair. Even so, McLoughlin found that as a "rallying center for many persons in a state of confusion, he was a typical revival figure." McLoughlin allowed that "Graham's decline might be gradual . . . or it might be precipitous." Either way, professional evangelists like Finney, Moody, Jones, Sunday and Graham were "not likely to provide the key to [America's fourth great awakening] or to stand long as a symbol of it."

Graham failed to slip out the back door as predicted, and doubts about his theological timbre persisted. In 1973 he preached to a half million people in one service in Seoul, South Korea-reportedly the largest religious gathering in history (a figure later eclipsed by John Paul II and doubled by Graham himself). Still, some pastors criticized him because, as he put it, "I did not have enough theological content to my messages."

The evangelist's perennially cozy relationship with the rich and the powerful did not help matters. In the 1970s his very visible friendship with President Richard Nixon, coupled with his ill-disguised support for Nixon's political aspirations, probably marked the nadir of his reputation in the mainline seminaries, old-line universities and establishment press. In 1990 the Catholic polymath Garry Wills charged that politicians had "somewhat cynically" manipulated Graham. That Graham was the kind of lightweight who allowed himself to be manipulated seemed plausible; elsewhere Wills described him as a creator of the "golf-course spirituality" of the 1950s.

So it went, year after year. In the late 1990s Graham's flowing white hair still did not protect him from withering critique, especially from academics and intellectuals. When his 760-page autobiography, Just as I Am, came out in 1997, Columbia University's Andrew Delbanco acknowledged that Graham-the "Elvis of the evangelicals"-seemed sincere, "winsome" and "genuinely enlarged by his travels." But Delbanco found the book "monotonous" and short on insight. Its humor was mostly "unwitting" and its writing never rose above "genial banality." The book was, in short, "little more than just another celebrity autobiography-the fluff one expects from most politicians, newscasters and movie stars."

And then there was 9/11. In Graham's memorial talk at the National Cathedral on 9/14, he sought to comfort the grieving by saying that many of the victims were now in heaven and would not want to come back. "It's so glorious and so wonderful," he urged. Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic, pounced. "We should not have to choose between being imbeciles and being mourners," said Wieseltier. "But mourners can be imbeciles, too." He offered Graham's remark as Exhibit A. "It is not consoling, it is insulting. We are not a country of children. Nothing that transpired on September 11 was wonderful, nothing."

Such sour reactions to Graham should not surprise us. After all, for many years he came across as a North Carolina farm boy distinguished by little more than hand-painted ties, a southern accent and a degree from the (then) fundamentalist Wheaton College-not propitious credentials in midtown Manhattan.

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