On Wednesday we all received news of Billy Graham’s passing. There were few figures my mother loathed more than the Rev. Billy Graham. It was the politics that she couldn’t stand, taking the position that given his public support of people like Richard Nixon, he was either a naïve or a despicable person: in either case he shouldn’t be speaking with authority. Intriguingly, she shrugged off the revivals, and may have simply passed them off as sheep being sheep in a culture with stadium-sized pastures. When as a young adult I became the kind of Christian that called Billy Graham a partner; we simply never mentioned his name again.
I was never able to have the kind of ire or idolization for Billy Graham that others have. As a child I felt mild annoyance that his revivals would take evening slots on one of only two television stations, but it’s hard to be reasonably mad about that for long. Given the hypocritical lifestyles of American TV preachers in my early teen years and the predatory traditions of pastors that hit the news ever month or so, Billy Graham looked pretty good in his modest Sears suit with his southern disinclination to bluster.
Later, as a pastor and scholar, my views became more complex. Although I have friends that had their lives changed in the crusades—including some quite recently—working in pastoral support for these events became increasingly disturbing. The preaching was too often about whether or not people were really saved, and less about Jesus. I always enjoyed the music, but working in crowds of 10 or 15 people who came forward, trying to help them process their feelings—it was not something that I saw could build lifelong discipleship. Some of this is that the next generation is now in charge, and the way that Franklin Graham manages his social media profile may be some indication that the organization’s culture has shifted. But the mass-model conversion itself is Billy Graham’s framework.
In scholarly networks I began to hear rumours from people closer to the Graham epicentre, rumours that suggested that at the core, Billy Graham seemed to live consistently with his ideals and that he and his wife shared something special. These are just rumours, and we would expect that a person in power will have flaws, but I used that assumption when I set Graham up as a figure of importance in teaching about Western Christian history.
Graham leveraged early superstardom to do very specific things that shaped American Christianity for the next three generations. In particular, Graham’s insistent and consistent ecumenism, his global interest, and his unapologetic views of racial integration—even going so far as to bail Martin Luther King, Jr. out of jail—are imprinted upon post-WWII American Christianity. In particular, it was Billy Graham who shaped what is now known as evangelicalism, distinct from and overlapping with both fundamentalism and mainstream liberalism. With all the things we may quibble about, for millions of people around the world, Graham made faith personal.
This legacy can be forgotten in the anti-Muslim Facebook ravings of Franklin Graham or in a media franchise insistent on knowing as little as possible about the diverse realities of evangelicalism. In 2012 I opposed Graham’s endorsement of Mitt Romney’s candidacy—not because Romney is Mormon, but because the narrow end-game of choosing an issue or two (in this case same-sex marriage) would mean choosing candidates who were unfit for office in other ways. I was concerned that American evangelicals might sacrifice something greater to a narrow end-game. Given the 2016 election, I think I am right. More importantly, though, a staffer from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association office began a series of conversations with me by phone to try and explain their position and win me to their view of things. Disagreement about politics and strategy aside, that Graham’s organization would invest time in a pretty unimportant Christian leader like myself is indicative of a cultural value that might be transformative to the next generation’s work.
I don’t know what Billy Graham’s passing will mean for the organization, but I do hope that his complicated legacy will include the good that he has done. It was as a scholar of religion that I turned to both Billy Graham and C.S. Lewis, and I think a note about their connections is worthwhile.
I had the pleasure of meeting Billy Graham once. We had dinner together during his visit to Cambridge University in 1955, while he was conducting a mission to students. I thought he was a very modest and a very sensible man, and I liked him very much indeed.
Despite an apoplectic response by sensible Brits in the intellectual elite, the Cambridge meeting was encouraging to the students who had invited him and transformative to Graham’s approach to student ministry. The interviewer’s question to Lewis wasn’t actually about the meeting with Graham, but about what Lewis thought about revivalist preachers like Billy Graham. Lewis was not someone in great sympathy with the revivalist tradition, and this answer could look like a dodge. But Lewis went on to discuss Graham’s ministry in an unusual way:
In a civilization like ours, I feel that everyone has to come to terms with the claims of Jesus Christ upon his life, or else be guilty of inattention or of evading the question. In the Soviet Union it is different. Many people living in Russia today have never had to consider the claims of Christ because they have never heard of those claims.
In the same way, we who live in English-speaking countries have never really been forced to consider the claims, let us say, of Hinduism. But in our Western civilization we are obligated both morally and intellectually to come to grips with Jesus Christ; if we refuse to do so we are guilty of being bad philosophers and bad thinkers.
The interview was in 1963 when Lewis was not well, and this is not the grandest vision of preaching that Lewis ever cast upon the world. He took the interview, perhaps, because Decision Magazine was reprinting part of Joy Davidman’s Smoke on the Mountain, and Lewis was grateful to the attention to his late wife’s work. Speaking more generally of revivalist preachers, Lewis contrasted his own vocation with theirs. In response to a critique of Mere Christianity and other words by General Theological Seminary professor Norman Pittenger (see here on the Pittenger debate), Lewis explained what he felt called to do:
When I began, Christianity came before the great mass of my unbelieving fellow-countrymen either in the highly emotional form offered by revivalists or in the unintelligible language of highly cultured clergymen. Most men were reached by neither. My task was therefore simply that of a translator – one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand. For this purpose a style more guarded, more nuanced, finelier shaded, more rich in fruitful ambiguities—in fact, a style more like Dr Pittenger’s own—would have been worse than useless. It would not only have failed to enlighten the common reader’s understanding; it would have aroused his suspicion (“Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger”).
It is not a denial of the role of this kind of preaching, but it is an implicit criticism. The criticism, though, has to do with the quality of the preaching–not the style–and Lewis struck out most often at the high-browed clergy who were not able to translate the gospel into terms that everyone could understand. Lewis suggested a change to that approach:
I sometimes think that all entrants for the preaching office shd. be faced with an exam in which they are set a passage from some standard theological work and told to translate it into language that the People can understand (28 Jul 1962 letter to Walter van der Kamp).
He was also someone who, like Lewis, knew his vocation—and knew it to be radically different that Lewis’, whose role was to invite people into an imaginative and reasonable response to faith, using tools other than revival-style preaching.
Where they differed most, however, was in their approach to social life. While both men built a public career upon social spaces of power, Billy Graham was unique in leveraging his platform for political movements. Graham opposed the USSR and its brand of communism, supported integration and shared a pulpit with Martin Luther King, Jr., and was pastor, friend, or prayer partner to every President from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama. Graham was a member of the Democratic party, stumped for candidates, and openly endorsed people he thought should be President. Billy Graham’s legacy will always include a particular leveraging of power—not just to share the central message of Christ, but to shape what he saw was the best for America.
C.S. Lewis’ approach to politics was quite different. Though Lewis had views that might be shaded as progressive today—such as a critique of Britain’s colonial project, animal rights activism, support for socialized health care, a rejection of teetotalism, his openness to homosexuals as people worth of dignity, his willingness to leverage generous immigration laws, and a rejection of social status as a test for access to justice—his cast of mind was conservative. He loved the past, living in other ages (though not uncritically), and his own father had toyed with political office as a Conservative. Famously, Lewis and Tolkien openly rejected progress for the sake of progress. Later in his life, the post-war Labour government’s bungling of austerity measures and social organization sealed him in as a party man, though he was very private about that status.
A key example of that anxiety about retaining his political privacy came in December 1951, just after Winston Churchill recovered his Conservative party’s position in parliament. C.S. Lewis received a letter from Prime Minister Churchill offering to recommend him for the Honours List of the Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Lewis’ response to the PM’s office is overly-cautious but indicative of his state of mind about taking a public political stand:
I feel greatly obliged to the Prime Minister, and so far as my personal feelings are concerned this honour would be highly agreeable. There are always however knaves who say, and fools who believe, that my religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist propaganda, and my appearance in the Honours List would of course strengthen their hands. It is therefore better that I should not appear there. I am sure the Prime Minister will understand my reason, and that my gratitude is and will be none the less cordial.
Correspondence with American fans and his students throughout the world would help Lewis put politics in a more global scale, but after his WWII-era controversialist period, he resisted any opportunity to allow his name to be linked with divisive politics.
Lewis is not a total recluse from society, but after WWII he appeared in public very few times. In the summer of 1956, he attended a garden party given by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, and he gave a couple of short literary talks on the BBC in his last decade of life. After WWII, though, his most significant public event was his inaugural lecture at Cambridge in 1954, where he cast himself as a dinosaur. Though he is being cheeky, and his own political views would challenge the comfort of those both on the left and the right, it is a decidedly anti-public stance to make. In 1939 Lewis wrote that,
“no inference can be drawn from [my theology of creation] to any political proposition whatsoever” (Problem of Pain, ch. 7).
I think he was wrong about his theology, but his desire to distance himself on the verge of WWII—when “left” mean communism and “right” meant fascism—is not a terribly bad move.
Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.
While Lewis breaks that rule often enough in his speculative theology, he never plays denominations off one another and he never equates his faith with political ideology.
Billy Graham’s approach is much different, and he felt duty-bound to apply his theological perspective to his political place of power. This might be rejecting same-sex marriage in 2012, standing opposed to the Moral Majority of the late 70s, or making this now famous statement to a Ku Klux Klansman in the 50s:
“The ground at the foot of the cross is level, and it touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross.”
Graham and Lewis were quite different as public figures. Intriguingly, what unites the two is the story of what shapes evangelicalism in America. Graham shaped American evangelical culture as it emerged from fundamentalism after WWII by public preaching and organizational activities, like founding Christianity Today. Though less important in Britain, Canada, and Australia, Lewis’ books—and Mere Christianity in particular—were essential to building faith in those that wanted to root themselves in Scripture but rejected the narrowness of fundamentalism.
Indeed, Christianity Today’s list of the “Top 50 Books That Shaped Evangelicals” places Mere Christianity 3rd behind Donald McGavern’s book that has dominated the way evangelical churches function in North America, and Rosalind Rinker’s book on intimate prayer (which few have read but it has changed everything about the way evangelicals pray). Also telling on that list of books is that #4 is Francis Schaeffer—a disciple of Billy Graham’s—and #5 is J.I. Packer—a disciple of C.S. Lewis’.
While great divergent in public platform and vocation, Lewis and Graham shaped English-speaking evangelicalism in North America like no one else. And because of their commitment to ecumenism over other dividing lines, American evangelicalism is today a surprisingly big tent. As a historian, it is difficult to ignore their impact.
In addition to best wishes to the Graham family and the many that have been touched by his work, I will close with Graham’s own account of his meeting with C.S. Lewis, drawn from his autobiography. I think the excerpt is telling of both C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham.
On Saturday I spoke to the senior members of the university in the afternoon and to the CICCU in the evening. Among the professors I met privately with that day was C.S. Lewis. A decade before, he had captured the imagination of many in England and the United States with his remarkable little book The Screwtape Letters; in 1947 he had been on the cover of Time magazine.
John Stott [who helped organize the meetings in Cambridge] was very anxious for me to meet Professor Lewis and went with me. Lewis was not as well known in the United States as he would become in later years, particularly after his death in 1963. But I had read Screwtape, and Ruth would later read the Chronicles of Narnia series.
We met in the dining room of his college, St. Mary Magdalene’s, and we talked for an hour or more. I was afraid I would be intimidated by him because of his brilliance, but he immediately put me at my ease. I found him to be not only intelligent and witty but also gentle and gracious; he seemed genuinely interested in our meetings. “You know,” he said as we parted, “you have many critics, but I have never met one of your critics who knows you personally” (Just As I Am, 258).