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.

Here in St. Louis, 70 denominations (more than 1,227 churches) are on board with Billy, and the habitually reserved, painfully thoughtful Episcopalians actually say they're learning from his model of evangelism. This leaves Roman Catholics as the only real holdout.

"It's sort of a delicate situation," confides the Rev. Vincent Heier, director of the Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs in St. Louis. "I did meet with representatives of the Billy Graham organization, knowing that Archbishop (Justin) Rigali was going to direct more of its efforts toward re-evangelization within the diocese. The statement that the archbishop would put out is that we are not going to be actively involved" — their newspaper, the St. Louis Review, even turned down the Crusade ad — "but we are not necessarily saying that Catholics can't go."

Is It ... Satan?

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

Years ago, at San Francisco's Cow Palace, Graham painted one of his finest portraits of the evils of escapism: "Personalities are warped by frustration, fear and nervous tension. Thousands read cheap novels and get vicarious, imaginative thrills out of the experiences of others. There is the flight into passion, appetite and desire. Poor, frustrated, deluded souls run like frightened beasts into the jungle of worldly pleasures only to emerge more miserable than ever before." The description cut straight to the psychological core.

But he meant it as an indictment of Satan.

"When I hear people doubt the existence of the Devil, I shudder," he once wrote. "The Devil is real and that he is wielding unholy power and influence, there can be no doubt." He sees Satan in the crime rate, in drug addiction, in schizophrenia. He writes of a Crusade in Altoona, Pa., where an "unfortunate woman in the choir had mental problems and shouted out repeatedly in the middle of one sermon.... We could not help but sense that Satan was on the attack." He once told of a man who left a revival service cursing it — and soon thereafter, the man's wife and daughter died. Then there was the unnamed U.S. senator who turned away a man eager to speak about eternal things, snapping, "If Jesus Christ wanted five minutes with me this morning, he couldn't have it. "The Senator," finished Graham, "was dead that night."

Back in the '50s, Graham said that communism was "master-minded by Satan. I think there is no other explanation for the tremendous gains of Communism in which they seem to outwit us at every turn, unless they have supernatural power." Later, he said, "Now Cambodia, that's a Satanic thing happening over there. The Khmer Rouge, that's Satan's power at work." After Watergate, he explained his friend Nixon's fall as the work of sleeping pills and demons. "I think there was definitely demon power involved.... all those sleeping pills, they just let a demon-power come in and play over him."

More recently, Graham blamed the tragedy at Columbine High School on Satan, noting that supernatural forces of evil "send a blindness" that produces violence. As a guest on CNN's Larry King Live on April 28, he talked to grieving parents about the Bible's accounts of satanic demons, "how they could come in and occupy a person's life, and heart, and harass them and make them do all kinds of terrible things." He then said that we are to put our trust in God, that God will not let anything happen that is not in his hands. (Graham later clarified the balance of power: "God is all-powerful, and the devil has tremendous power.") As for searching out answers, Graham reminded his audience that Jesus' answer to Satan's temptation was not to argue or analyze but simply to repeat, "It is written.'"

So ... if violence comes from Satan ... how do non-Christians resist it? And what about other forms of violence — say, an unwinnable war? And why should we bother with psychiatric care, or scrutinize the subtler violence in families and schools? Graham declined a request for an interview — Crusade organizers cited his frail health — but to gain a better understanding of his thinking from people who've been close to him for decades, we sent a list of questions weeks in advance. His spokesman fielded some with Scripture quotes and said the rest were too "deep."

We also wondered how Graham's reduction of all reality to a Jesus-vs.-Satan contest strikes all those mild liberal Christian denominations that haven't talked about the devil for years. Turns out that most end up weakly conceding that the same theology runs through their own traditions. They just haven't dealt with it recently. (In the 600 pages of Vatican II documents, Satan's not even indexed; there are only two vague references to the devil, both more figurative than literal.) In short, Graham is forcing Christians out of the closet, and the laypeople, at least, come out clutching his concept of Satan like a blankie. "It's on the emotional level that we apprehend evil," remarks Shea. "Naming it this way is a relief."

The danger, he adds, is that relegating all the darkest parts of human nature to Satan "is like saying someone's possessed. You don't ask any more questions." Evil is external, a foe to battle in the old-fashioned way, with prayer and church. Nothing else need change.

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