The other day I saw this 20/20 special called “Pastor to Power: Billy Graham and the Presidents.” The hour-long special coincided with the release of the new book, The Preacher and the Presidents, authored by Time magazine reporters Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. Both the book and the special take an in-depth look at Rev. Billy Graham’s unprecedented connection to every U.S. president since Harry Truman. No one else in American history could claim the confidence and intimate friendship of over ten U.S. presidents.
During the television special, Charles Gibson interviews all the living ex-presidents (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, the two Bushes), as well as their wives (most prominently—and tellingly—Hillary Clinton). They all tell the same story: Graham had unprecedented access to the most powerful office in the world, but he was never there for any other reason but to pastor, comfort, love, and minister. He had no interest in wielding political power or using his unique position for personal gain, and even when he brushed up against corruption (Nixon and Watergate), he managed to take the high road and escape largely unscathed.
I often think about Billy Graham, and about how he embodied all the best things about the evangelical boom in the twentieth century. He graduated from the college I went to (Wheaton), and immediately jumped into a life fully driven by Wheaton’s motto: Christo et Regno Ejus (For Christ and His Kingdom). He packed out stadiums all over the world because he was someone people would listen to—not because he was a stellar speaker or mind-blowing theologian (he was a lanky backwoods hillbilly), but because he had authority. He spoke the truth and people knew it. Something about him was indescribably sincere.
When Billy Graham dies, I think a phase of evangelical Christianity will die with him. Not that Christianity will no longer evangelize, but perhaps it will just not ever do so in the way that Graham did. And perhaps this a good thing. Billy Graham has led countless thousands (millions?) of people to Christ throughout his 60+ year career of preaching, but what is he being honored for (and gushed over) on primetime news specials? His personal, one-on-one ministry. It is telling that this, more than anything we might praise Graham for, seems the most remarkable. He loved people, unconditionally. This was his authority. It was both the end and the means of his ministry.
I was talking to someone the other day about evangelism today, and this person suggested that “evangelical” as a word was so prohibitive to the actual process (because of all the baggage it carries in culture) that perhaps it’d be best to just rid ourselves of the label. I’m not sure if this is necessary or even possible, but I understand the reasoning. Whatever “evangelical” was when Graham started his amazing ministry has since become a four-letter word in culture—commonly associated with bigotry, political conservatism, anti-intellectualism, narrow-mindedness, and other rather negative “isms.” People like Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker, and Pat Robertson have brought “evangelical” down into the dirt of corruption, scandal, and hate, and it’s time to draw a line in the sand.
From no fault of his own, Graham’s way of spreading the gospel has become a casualty to the overriding suspicion now held against mass-scale proselytizing. And it’s a shame. Though the culture (and the media, surprisingly) still treat Graham with the utmost deference, it feels as though they are simply waiting for his death—and the subsequent death-knell for old school, evangelical Christianity. As the “old guard” is dying off in rapid fashion (Jerry Falwell, Tammy Faye, Ruth Graham), it seems the secular world waits with bated breath to see if evangelicalism survives in its present state. And I, for one, certainly hope not. That’s right, you heard correct: evangelicalism has got to change.
The 20/20 special, while ostensibly an ode to Billy Graham (and a PR piece for the Clintons: “yes, we are Christians too!”), contained a pervasive unease about the pastor’s brushes with political power. Images of him in the White House no doubt sent shivers up liberal spines: the pictures represent the power of evangelicals in politics. And even though they have no reason to fear (because Graham was never a Ted Haggard, power-seeking opportunist), these liberal reactionaries are the reason Billy Graham will soon be a relic. They are the reason evangelicalism must change.
As long as evangelicals are feared, we will be ineffective. Evangelicals became a massive political force in the twentieth century, and as a result, we became known less for being followers of Christ and more for being a political interest group. THE political interest group. The demographic of all demographics.
Our authority is tarnished, because “evangelical” no longer has anything to do with love, goodness, joy, peace, humility, or Jesus (at least in the minds of most people you try to evangelize). It has to do with power and provincial thinking—trying to convert the neighbor, the nation, and eventually the world, to a monolithic, cult-like exclusivist religion. Sounds very Nazi-esque. Sounds like 1984.
We must change this. We must lose any pretense of power-seeking or political posturing and get back to the heart of following Jesus: denying ourselves and loving others. This was Billy Graham. God used him for great things because above all, he was a man of love. He was self-effacing when most people in his position would be self-congratulatory. He was rigorously bent on remaining marginal in Washington, even though he could have easily been a major player. He was a simple man with a singular purpose: spread the Gospel to every nation.
His life has been purposefully the opposite of what the world expects of a talented young man. And that is how we should live. We must purge all the baggage, drop the ambition, lose the ulterior motives, and just live out Christ’s love.