Billy Club

A simple, happy message helped him become the nation's favorite preacher. Thanks to a Popsicle-slick PR machine and a talent for dodging tough questions, we've forgotten what Billy Graham is really all about.

 Way back in 1949, Billy Graham warned his audiences, "This may be God's last great call!... Unless the Western world has an old-fashioned revival, we cannot last!" In 1954, he announced, "America at this moment is under the pending judgment of God, and unless we have a spiritual revival now, we are done as a nation." By 1960, he was hawking the Vietnam War: "Christianity needs a show of strength and force.... We must maintain the strongest military establishment on earth." The goal, of course, was to defeat the communists: "The Devil is their God.... Civilization stands at the crossroads."

Civilization must have jaywalked, because in 1973 — the year we withdrew from Vietnam — Graham insisted that "some sinister force has taken hold of our country and is ripping it apart." His urgent calls for spiritual revival continued right up through the '90s, a decade he pronounced "one of the greatest openings for the Gospel in the history of the church." During recent crusades in Tampa and Indianapolis, he even hinted of the Second Coming, warning yet again, "As a nation we are in danger of leaving God out of our lives. We need a spiritual awakening."

We really need one this time, because, as the slogan for St. Louis' own imminent Billy Graham Crusade reminds us, "The Beginning Is Near." (Actually the theme's a hand-me-down from the Indianapolis Crusade. Because we hadn't heard it, and the beginning was still near, they figured they could save some money on "creative.") "With the millennium coming, they want to take advantage of the excitement about Y2K," explains Steve Hughes, the vice president at Hughes Advertising who's in charge of the Billy Graham account. "It's the beginning of the new millennium, of the Crusade, of a new life in Christ." Emphasis on beginning, because "a lot of people are seeing this as the end, and they're anxious."

A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s
Archive Photos
A portrait of Billy Graham from the 1950s

It's that ancient human fear — the fear of the unknown. And Billy Graham knows exactly what to do with it. Accept Jesus, he preaches, and you triumph instantly over sin, fear, evil, death and apocalypse. In six decades, he hasn't changed (or questioned, or deepened, or studied) that message. All he's modulated is the expression, souping up the technology; restraining his long, excited windmill arms; trading the lime-green jackets and white bucks for easygoing ball-capped denim. Instead of stapling his own fliers ("outstanding 19-year-old evangelist will preach") to telephone poles, he now has journalists vying to describe his humility. He's gone from railing against the satanic forces of communism to dodging even mild questions about divorce, abortion or the death penalty.

He's learned how to save the country from hellfire without getting burned in the process.

In gratitude for Graham's adroit diplomacy, his unmistakable sincerity, his freedom from scandal and his message of hope and love, we've burnished the man into an icon. He's been called "America's Protestant pope"; "the nation's pastor"; "the conscience of America"; "the greatest influence on 20th-century evangelism." The first evangelist allowed behind the Iron Curtain, he's delivered his message to more people than anyone in human history. He's made Gallup's list of the 10 most admired men in the country a record-breaking 40 times, usually landing just behind the current president and the (other) pope. Best of all, he's escaped the pitfalls of greed and the pratfalls of lust, emerging in a 1988 Gallup Poll as the only televangelist Americans still trusted.

And now — you've seen the signs, blinked at the pink-and-purple bumper stickers — he's coming to the Trans World Dome, Oct. 14-17. It's being hailed by local clergy as the most important evangelical event in 25 years — in other words, since Graham's last St. Louis Crusade. As a Baptist preacher once put it, "To most churchgoing folks in this country, Billy Graham has become nothing less than the nearest thing to Jesus on this earth. He's sort of like Christ's American son."

It makes him tough to criticize.

The media issue thousands upon thousands of celebratory words every time Graham comes to town, but rarely, if ever, do they address the implications of his words; the reasons behind his success; his deft glossing-over of theological complexities, his past political stances and recent refusals to take any moral stance whatsoever — not to mention the calm benevolence with which he consigns a huge chunk of the world's population to eternal hellfire.

How can you question Billy Graham?

Billy the Kid

The icon's grandfather, Crook Graham, was named for an itinerant preacher but spent more time with raw whiskey than with Holy Writ. The icon's father, Franklin Graham, was a mild-mannered Methodist who turned fervently religious after losing all his savings in a 1933 bank collapse, and his mother, Morrow Coffey Graham, was a refined but hardworking Presbyterian who picked beans the day she delivered him. William Franklin Graham Jr. entered this godforsaken world on Nov. 7, 1919 (a classic Scorpio, born to mountain-hard Southern Scots who shunned such nonsense). Growing up on the family dairy farm near Charlotte, N.C., Billy Frank loved goats and dogs, Tarzan and Zane Grey novels, the Bible and, quite literally, clean living (his mom used to scrub him vigorously while reciting Scripture, and as an adult he sometimes took four or five showers a day, saying it got the poisons out.)

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