By Sarah Fenske
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Danny Wicentowski
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
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."
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.)
He also liked seeing people in temporary peril. "When we'd jump into the hay near the pitchfork, he would just laugh that would tickle him if someone came near danger," one of his cousins told biographer Marshall Frady, adding that Billy never seemed to get hurt himself. His behavior was tightly controlled: "I learned to obey without questioning," he writes proudly in his 1997 autobiography, Just As I Am. When his mom talked to Frady, though, she sounded contrite: "Perhaps we whipped them more than we should have. But it was just that we had to work so hard then, we had little time for anything else, we had too little patience. We thought that little disobediences, you know, were terrible things."
At 15, handsome, earnest Billy took to going every evening to hear the revival preaching of Dr. Mordecai Ham, later famous for his anti-Semitism. Billy waited and waited for the Spirit to move him. Finally, one of the town merchants said, "Billy Frank, wouldn't you like to be a Christian?" and urged him forward.
It was a calm conversion no fireworks or thunderclaps, just a quiet decision whose tone he would later carry into Decision magazine; the Hour of Decision radio show; and his famously pensive, patient altar call. The fruit of this sort of conversion was not euphoria but the abiding smug comfort that comes with knowing the password. On the way home, he happily told his friend, "Now I've gotten saved. Now whatever I do can't unsave me. Even if I ever killed somebody, I can't ever be unsaved now."
Later, when he looked for reasons beneath his own behavior, he'd slide from coincidence or character straight to God or Satan. Of his sexual purity, for example, he once said, "I was just shy, actually. It probably wasn't so much morality at all. According to my friends, I simply didn't know what to do. But I was just held back by a force that I don't understand. I never touched a girl in the wrong way, and I thank God for it."
Graham's greatest temptation must have been lively, sensuous Pauline, the one girlfriend he didn't introduce to his mom. She described his early evangelism to Frady: "Can you imagine there he was, he'd gone down there and was just preaching away all by himself on that sidewalk in front of Belk's Department Store to all those people going by, all of them totally ignoring him, businessmen just wanting to get on home and have a cocktail before dinner, and there he stood raving away at them. It was awful "
It was awful, and then it got good. Even in his brief college stint as a Fuller Brush salesman, young Graham outsold everybody else: "Selling those little brushes became a cause to me," he said later. "I felt that every family ought to have a Fuller Brush as a matter of principle."
When Graham turned this eloquence to the Bible, his absolute proof of God's love and Jesus' saving grace, there was no stopping him. Even early on, when strident political and social criticism spilled like lava from his pulpit, Graham glowed with sincerity, warmth and untroubled righteousness.
But he didn't sell himself quite as effectively as he sold God. Pauline dumped him, and so did his next true love. Graham was devastated. Finally, at Wheaton College, he met Ruth Bell, daughter of a famous missionary. This courtship was more idealistic than impetuous; both believed God meant them to be together. And God, to Graham's great relief, had never let him down.
After a brief, unsatisfactory stint as a pastor, Graham began traveling the country as an evangelist, drawing larger and larger audiences, using bolder and bolder strategies. He didn't want to preach to the choir; he wanted to fill secular stadiums. In 1947, when ministers invited him to save the fallen angels of Los Angeles, Graham held out for $25,000, five times what they'd suggested. He was determined to buy enough publicity to splash the Word all over town.
At first, it looked like a waste of cash. Reporters weren't covering the campaign, and the "buzz" he'd intended was about as obvious as white noise. Then William Randolph Hearst heard the young evangelist denouncing communism as the special project of Satan. Delighted, Hearst issued a two-word command to his media empire: "Puff Graham."
Puff they did. The gust blew into the arena that night, filling the seats with quote-hungry reporters and TV crews. The campaign was picked up by the wire services, and Billy Graham hit the pages of Time, then Newsweek, then Life. Soon Henry Luce, founder of his own Time-Life empire, showed up for a personal visit, followed by another spate of national publicity.
It's not often that the media are accused of doing God's work. But Graham believes to this day that "God may have used Mr. Hearst to promote the meetings." Mr. Hearst certainly used Billy to oppose communism with dramatic results. "What I said was being quoted all of a sudden, and I knew I wasn't really all that qualified," Graham later told Frady. "I didn't really have the experience yet to say the right things, but the people expected me to speak with authority.... I was terrified."
Raised high, looking down dizzily on a swaying field of microphones and notepads and cameras, Billy Graham reached for his own bedrock authority: the Bible. Using his chapter-and-verse knowledge of its teachings and his vivid ability to humanize them, he preached easy, literal answers, and the crowds ate them up.
By 1950, with larger and larger lump-sum "love offerings" pouring in, Graham realized he needed a business structure to keep everything clean. He established the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and put himself on a salary. The same year, through BGEA, he began publishing Decision magazine (by 1964, circulation would pass 4 million) and broadcasting his Hour of Decision radio program (soon the most widely heard religious broadcast in the world). He also got into moviemaking, launching World Wide Pictures to film movie plots about dramatic conversions. In 1951, he started "My Answer," a nationally syndicated newspaper column that would eventually reach 5 million readers. In 1956, he established Christianity Today magazine.
His own media were only half the success story, though; the secular press cooperated beautifully. Headlines read, "GRAHAM CARRIES GOSPEL DESPITE DEATH PERIL" when he caught the flu. A 1950 circulation war in Boston had five dailies sending huge teams of reporters everywhere with Graham. A born-again Christian newspaperman accompanied him to India in 1956, sending dispatches to 600 newspapers back home. In 1957, the New York Times reserved three pages to cover his opening night at Madison Square Garden, reprinting the entire text of his 45-minute sermon.
That year, a full 85 percent of the Americans polled by Gallup knew exactly who Billy Graham was, even though only 4 percent of them had seen him in person. About 26 percent had heard him on the radio, overlapping with the 38 percent who'd seen him on TV, and 28 percent hadn't heard or seen him but still knew who he was.
Alas, in the words of admiring Graham chronicler Curtis Mitchell, "Satan's snares were already set and waiting. The locusts were massing to swarm." In February 1977, a five-part story on Graham in the Charlotte Observer opened with the headline "HE SITS WITH PRESIDENTS AND EMPERORS" and ended with "In a disillusioning world, Billy Graham is the only untarnished hero left to many a lasting example of clean living, self-discipline, and good citizenship." But four months later, reporter Mary Bishop was back on Graham's doorstep, apologetically asking about a $22 million "secret fund" of land, stocks, bonds and cash. The money was part of a separate World Evangelism and Christian Education fund set up to build, among other things, a center for evangelism at Wheaton College. It was all perfectly legal, but Graham had never mentioned any of that money when Bishop asked about assets. "Well, you know," he said, "I actually thought you already had all of that."
The newspapers went briefly crazy. Graham took the episode to heart and began calling for total financial disclosure and independent audits of evangelists. Today, people remember how, in 1979, he helped establish the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. (They also remember his original, oft-disclosed salary figure, $39,500, even though it has since grown to a base salary of $115,500.)
From that day forward, Graham was stringently careful about all money matters. Starved of scams or sexual peccadilloes, the press resigned itself to celebratory reportage. Graham made their job pleasant. He once told a Crusade audience, "I think everybody here tonight ought to write the newspapers a letter and thank 'em for what these fellas have done." When a columnist for London's Daily Mirror, Bill Connor, wrote a "devastatingly clever" (Graham's phrase) critique, Graham wrote to say that "while I didn't agree with him, his column had been very well done." They agreed to meet at the Baptist's Head pub, and Graham proved such a good sport that he won a glowing recantation.
The key, always, was Graham's disarming humility. To this day, he insists on being called Billy or Mr. Graham, pointing out that "the word Reverend is only used once in the Bible and that has to do with God." He gallantly admitted to newspaper editors, "I have read the reports in the press, and I thoroughly agree that I am a very ordinary speaker. I have severe intellectual limitations." On the way to tea with Queen Elizabeth, he heartily grabbed and shook the hand of the butler who was reaching to take his hat. When he met Frady, he said, "Why goodness, man, I'm just like any other fella you'd meet along the side of the road out there." Then he prayed over him: "And Lord, we'd ask you to bless him and bless his family, and be with us in our talk here this morning."
That prayer produced "an unexpected little interior bloom of gratitude," Frady admitted later. "It's as if his simple presence has the effect of a kind of blessing." You can hear the same effect when Michelle Bearden, religion reporter for the Tampa Tribune, talks about her interview last year with Graham: "I had an incredible opportunity to sit with him for almost two hours you can't even get to the pope. He speaks in very plain language; he's not full of himself like a lot of religious leaders. He's sincere too many people say so for it not to be true! I remember him telling me that he hasn't prayed enough, he hasn't done enough for God. And afterward, he wrote a letter to my bosses and thanked them! He thanked me for interviewing him!"
In an Oct. 24 commentary, Bearden wrote about how graciously Graham treated each one of her questions, how "his eyes shone as he spoke." His marriage, she insisted, was "a match made in heaven." She asked him to sign his autobiography for her, saying later, "He won't remember our time together. But I will never forget it." Bearden wrote thousands of words about Graham before and during the Tampa Crusade, including a chronology of his life that appeared in a special 16-page section of the Tribune, "Billy Graham's Lifelong Crusade." "All he did," she ended one feature, "was let God use him."
Coverage of Billy Graham expands like cotton candy. Here in St. Louis, 30 radio and TV spots aired from Sept. 15-29, packed with such hard news as the choir-rehearsal schedule; Crusade staff's prediction of a crowd; Graham's grandson's being upset about violence. The topic is self- justifying, the audience eager, the content overwhelmingly positive. After all, Billy Graham is almost 80, with Parkinson's disease, so each Crusade could be his last. "Our publisher mandated overwhelming coverage," recalls a non-Christian journalist from one of the recent Crusade cities. "But you do essentially have someone I mean, his view is that, if you do not accept Jesus Christ, you are condemned to eternal damnation. Are we supposed to just blithely ignore that?" Sighing, she answers her own question: "We don't challenge beliefs anymore. We are not allowed."
Billy Graham doesn't challenge beliefs either, not anymore. Long gone is the preacher who vilified communists, who urged a buildup of armaments, who said in a radio broadcast of 1953, "I thank God for men who, in the face of public denouncement and ridicule, go loyally on in their work of exposing the pinks, the lavenders and the reds who have sought refuge beneath the wings of the American eagle." Today, Graham says things like, "The church needs to be very wary about becoming deeply involved in political and social issues.... There are many very, very difficult and complex issues in this world, and we do not necessarily know the answer to them just because we are preachers or Christians."
This is his Catch-22: He is criticized for not taking a strong moral stand on virtually any complex secular issue yet if he did take such stands, he would not be Billy Graham. More to the point, he would cease to enjoy the approval ratings that make people yearn for him to take a stand.
So he dances. Takes the Fifth. Plays it safe. And ends up conveying his inadvertent blessing on wars, bigots, greedy politicians and fools. In 1963, for example, Graham refused to join Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington, saying the civil-rights movement was going "too far, too fast." Four years later, when King cried out against the Vietnam War in his famous sermon at New York's Riverside Church, Graham labeled the criticism "an affront to the thousands of loyal Negro troops who are in Vietnam." King said things like, "If America's soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read, Vietnam." Graham, returning from a 1966 trip to Vietnam at the invitation of Gen. William Westmoreland, assured Americans that the troops were "extremely religious" and later spoke of "the victory they are almost certainly winning there." To this day, analysts wonder how far the tide of public opinion would have been diverted had Graham spoken out the way King did. Instead, in 1970, he mounted a rah-rah, Christians-proud-of-their-government Fourth of July celebration in Washington, D.C.
Two months earlier, when President Richard Nixon joined Graham on his Crusade stage at the University of Tennessee, about 300 students screamed protests against the bombing of Cambodia. Many were arrested, a few actually convicted of disrupting a religious service. (One man reportedly blurted, during the melee, "Let's get out of here before these Christians kill us!")
Graham never could keep religion and politics separate. Maybe you can't. Maybe he's had too much fun golfing with presidents; chatting, towel-draped, in a locker room with Eisenhower. Or maybe he can't forget his deep yearning for "a theocracy, with Christ on the throne and the nations of the world confessing him." Graham eventually blamed all the anti-war demonstrations on "a Satanic spiritual power of evil ... stirring up all the hatred and dissent." He also tried to minimize the war's toll, saying: "I deplore the suffering and the killing ... but we also have to realize that there are hundreds of thousands of deaths attributed to smoking."
Did he ever reevaluate? Well, in Graham's 1997 autobiography, the chapter on Nixon is titled "My Quaker Friend" and describes "a modest and moral man with spiritual sensitivity." (The admiration was mutual: When Nixon worried about IRS audits of his supporters, he mentioned Billy Graham and John Wayne by name.) The Watergate tapes came as a rude shock to Graham but not because of all the spying, hatred, stealing, lying and vicious anti-Semitism. "The thing that surprised and shook me the most was the vulgar language he used," Graham wrote. "Inwardly, I felt torn apart."
Later in the autobiography, he calls Ronald Reagan "one of the most winsome men I have ever known"; Ross Perot "one of the smartest men I had ever met"; and Paul Harvey his "best friend in the American media." Last year, he said of Clinton's sexual exploits, "He has such a tremendous personality that I think the ladies just go wild over him." Graham may condemn non-Christians for the unforgivable sin of rejecting Jesus, but he sure does look on the bright side for Christian celebrities.
It's a tacit vote of approval. On the eve of the Persian Gulf War, Graham blessed the bloodshed by praying, Bible in hand, at President George Bush's side. After Bush addressed the nation, Graham said, "I think you clarified the situation," and Bush said, "I know in my heart I've done right." These are the exchanges we cite when we call Graham a spiritual adviser to presidents. Yet Graham admits that Bush never asked for his opinion about the Gulf War, and Graham never gave it.
"Perhaps he too easily fulfills this iconic role of the national chaplain," suggests William Shea, professor of American religion at St. Louis University. "Personally, I think the president ought to take religious counsel in private, and when there is something to be said about policy, the religious leaders ought to speak up in the public arena where they can take a hit for it. Too often, Billy Graham has slid into the Oval Office, had his picture taken and slid out."
It's left him a consummate diplomat, choosing to take a stand only on "issues that have a very clear biblical answer, where it's black or white," explains Crusade director Scott Lenning. In the heat of the Bosnia controversy, the Indianapolis Star wrote, "Although he would not say whether he supports or opposes the campaign, Graham clearly laments the violence there." As for partisan politics, Graham said in Tampa, "I'm for all of them. I think we have some wonderful leaders."
That's the mature Billy Graham, a man who refuses to criticize, clash or even react to confrontation. As a result, anyone who challenges him looks churlish. "In my district," said one politician, "you can be against motherhood, but you cannot be against Billy Graham." In 1994, a North Carolina candidate saved the Billy Graham trump card for his last TV commercial: "It's bad enough he doesn't pay his bills," the voice-over said scathingly of the guy's opponent, "but there's no excuse for attacking Billy Graham."
Fiddling While the Pagans Burn
The first Crusades weren't exactly conducted in a spirit of religious tolerance. But as long as you leave out the entire non-Christian chunk of the world, Graham has been remarkably open. Denomination never did mean much to him: Child of a Presbyterian and a Methodist, he underwent his third baptism a full immersion only as a courtesy, in order to pastor a Southern Baptist church. When he hit the road, he announced, "I intend to go anywhere, sponsored by anybody, to preach the Gospel of Christ.... The one badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy, but love."
This willingness to set aside theoretical differences initially won him enemies, but it soon built into a generous ecumenical movement that made anyone who held back look petty. Shea, who spent time at the Billy Graham archives researching a book on the oft-strained relations between Catholicism and evangelicalism, says, "Graham had a great deal to do with changing that bitterness. He is never disrespectful of people's freedom in religion." Well, no except that implicit in every statement is the hellfire awaiting Jews, Muslims and the Dalai Lama. "You have got to go for that, though," grins Shea. "He's really careful. He does not come out and say, "Muslims will burn in hell,' or "Catholics will burn in hell,' the way his predecessors did."
Grateful, non-Christians mainly keep silent. But back in 1973, Jewish leaders did approach Graham, politely expressing their resentment of all this public Christian evangelism. He responded by explaining his commitment to "establish contacts with all men concerning personal faith in Jesus Christ" but he did denounce coercion, intimidation, gimmickry and the singling-out of Jews and other groups. Even Graham's volunteers sign cards promising they will not proselytize for their own denomination; they are taught never to argue, pry, overemphasize the negative, run down another's faith or scowl. The entire approach is so warmly positive that, when the BGEA Web page defines prayer itself as "the special privilege of those who have become children of God through faith in Jesus Christ," nobody notices that they've just sweetly barred the rest of the populace from any spiritual connection with God.
"A personal relationship with Jesus is what transforms your life," explains Joani Akers, outreach and prayer pastor at Abundant Life Church in Des Peres. "You know that God loves you and has a plan for your life. It gives you greater purpose, and hope. It fills the void." Akers, who has volunteered to counsel during the Crusade, is eager for others to know that Jesus is the only way to salvation a belief she sees as coming from faith, not arrogance. "I think that's why Jesus also said, "The way is narrow," she notes. "And why he commissions us to love people. That's the last thing he said: "Go into all the world and make disciples.'" Accordingly, Akers and her husband traveled to Indonesia and Bali this summer. She says "the people there are wonderful, but they believe in many gods that cannot help them. The God that I serve speaks to me, provides, heals. The Muslims and the Hindus serve a God who is dead. That's the difference in being a born-again Christian: You are serving a living God."
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?
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.
The Power, the Glory, the Simplicity
Graham's hallmarks are a deliberate and constant simplicity ("I preach to people very much like everybody is a child or a teenager," he told the Indianapolis Star in May) and a reassuringly positive message ("God loves you, God loves you, He loves you, He loves you") delivered with absolute conviction. "He has a marvelous voice, a tremendous fluency with prose; his enunciation is perfect, and he speaks with tremendous vigor," notes Shea. "He has a sense of the drama that engages people in this process of salvation and brings them up to the front."
The drama works because he doesn't ... er ... get bogged down in the details. "A thousand years went by, and no Christ," he once declaimed. "Two thousand years rolled by, and no Christ." He kept going until, in the dramatic pause after 7,000 years, a friend hissed, "Shut up." The friend later explained, "According to Archbishop Ussher's chronology of Genesis there have been but six thousand years since Adam was created." Graham just grinned. "I was going to at least ten thousand years, because that was good preaching!"
Good preaching is cosmic in scope, cataclysmic in consequence. But it's also as reassuring as falling back into bed when you're woozy with the flu. Asked about her husband's rocklike faith, Ruth Graham once observed, "Of course he has doubts, but not for long because he never really entertains them."
He did hold a sleep-over one night, though, back in his college days. His friend and classmate Charles Templeton who tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Graham to attend Princeton's top-flight seminary with him was beginning to question the fundamentalist approach. "The arguments you make, Chuck, no, I don't know how to answer them, I can't answer them," Graham reportedly responded. "But wiser men than you and I will ever be, they have already encountered and examined all those arguments, and they have concluded that the Biblical record can be completely trusted."
Still, Templeton's questions kept Graham awake that night. Finally, sheets hot and tangled and his head whirling, he resolved the dilemma by deciding that when he preached, it wasn't Billy Graham speaking but God speaking through him. Certitude settled soft as a cape around his shoulders, and, with full evangelical powers reborn, he began to disdain "the so-called intellectuals." "I don't care what any scientist says. It doesn't make the slightest difference to me," insisted Graham. "The Word of God is enough."
The famous theologian Reinhold Niebuhr finally braved a public criticism. He challenged Graham's 1957 Madison Square Garden Crusade (which yielded the all-time high for souls saved, 61,148 by one account) for promising new life, not through dark nights of the soul or painful daylight struggles but by signing a decision card. This approach, said Niebuhr, ignored the "ambiguity of all human virtues, the serious perplexities of guilt and responsibility ... which each true Christian must continually face."
Graham responded, "If I tried to preach as he writes, people would be so bewildered that they would walk out." In his autobiography, he wrote, "Brilliant writers such as Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr really made me struggle with concepts that had been ingrained in me since childhood.... The new meanings they put into some of the old theological terms confused me terribly."
He preferred bold outlines, stories with obvious morals and a Jesus who was, as he assured Frady, "no sissy. I have seen so many pictures of Jesus as a frail, sad-faced weakling with a soft, almost feminine figure, that I am sick of it. You can be sure he was straight, strong, big, handsome, gracious, courteous.... His nervous system was perfectly coordinated with the rest of his body. He would have been one of the great athletes of all times. Every inch a man! I can believe in that Christ! I can follow that Christ!"
The same certainty seeps through all Graham's sermons and publications. "There can be no real conflict between the facts of the Bible and the facts of science," says the BGEA Web page, "since God was the Author of both." Even life after death isn't much of a mystery: "Yes, we will recognize our loved ones in Heaven," says Graham, "and they will recognize us." The booklet for the St. Louis Crusade's Operation Andrew (named for the disciple who evangelized his brother, Simon Peter) even has fill-in-the-blanks after Scripture verses: "What happened when you received God? I became one of God's ____ (children)."
Is there anything wrong with going to the core of the Good News and staying there, avoiding the muddles at the edges by taking it all, quite literally, on faith? "There is a blessed simplicity in Jesus, in the Gospel, in Buddhism, in all the great traditions," remarks Belden Lane, professor of theological studies at St. Louis University (and an expatriate from the same Southern revival tents that formed Graham). "In conversions of any kind, when you come to a point of profound change, there is a deep sense of having recovered the simplicity of things. But part of moving beyond that is recognizing the new complexities that emerge; asking yourself how this new way of ordering your life affects your family, your political involvements, your social engagements...."
That part, Graham leaves to the individual churches. "He's restricted his job to breaking the ice," notes Shea, "and you don't break ice with subtlety. He stays simple; he stays very close to the formula; he shuns difficult questions. But all itinerant preachers are simple: They have only a shot or two, and then they move."
In his advance publicity in San Francisco, Graham issued an open invitation to homosexuals (reserving his speech about heterosexual marriage for the sermon) and targeted sports ads to youngish males ("It won't be the first time you've gone to the Coliseum expecting a miracle.") In Ottawa, Graham appealed to the cynical secular types with slick slogans from advertising superpower Chiat/Day ("In a town where it's left versus right, let's talk up versus down"; "He's in town to address the real deficit"). In churchgoing Tampa, where most everybody has a pool, Crusade ads showed a guy walking on the water of his pool. Publicists deep-sixed the pictures of Billy in a suit; too stuffy for a shirt-sleeves community.
Graham's organization has demographic research down to a science. But to understand their strategy, we have to spin backward in time to the Third Great Awakening, the religious revival at the start of this century. The icon of that awakening was evangelist Dwight L. Moody, and it was he who began the saturation publicity; paid ads; cooperation across denominations; volunteer ushers, choirs and counselors; public auditing and disclosure of all numbers. Graham learned from his predecessor, just as he learned from evangelist Billy Sunday's prayer groups, work committees, businessmen's lunches, team associates, stagecraft, celebrities and reservations for prepackaged delegations to ensure a full house.
What was different about Graham, practically speaking, was the way he devoutly exploited technology satellite dishes to broadcast to Korea; Web pages and banner ads on the Internet. What was different about Graham ideologically was his openness to culture. In the 1940s, starting with a famous meeting here in St. Louis, conservative Protestants from many different denominations formed the National Association of Evangelicals. Leading fundamentalists had reached the unsettling conclusion that fundamentalism, as it was being practiced, was an intellectual dead end, too isolated to make any difference. They'd decided to try engaging with culture. And just as that backdrop shifted, Billy Graham came onstage.
He placed billboards of his own face alongside the neon nightclub marquees of Las Vegas. He hired searchlights to crisscross the sky for the premiere of Mr. Texas, a film about the conversion of a rodeo rider. In the early '90s, when crowds stopped responding to simple posters of Graham's visage, BGEA started hiring such top creative talent as New York's Bozell Worldwide and Saatchi & Saatchi. Recent ad campaigns have bought space next to sex-shop ads to promise, "Jesus will love you for free." They've bought air time during The Simpsons and Melrose Place. They've run ads in the obituaries that read, "Is it the End? Or Just the Beginning?" In the Bay area, they borrowed from a Microsoft campaign and, finger pointing to the sky, asked, "Where do you want to go tomorrow?" Answer: "Billy Graham." (Microsoft was not amused. But suing Billy Graham was not an option.)
The ad strategy is twofold: Use the culture that's out there, and make 'em smile. Evangelism lite, designed not to deliver the real Message but to create a three-beer buzz they call "water-cooler conversation." In Toronto, ads billed "the world's largest lost and found." In the Bay area, it was, "50,000 sinners in one place, and you don't think you'll have fun?" "Holy Cow," for San Francisco's Cow Palace. A bungee-jumper in a free fall: "Why do so many Californians wait until the last minute to talk to God?" And in the New York subway, "Is the whole world going to Hell? Or is it just you?"
What about us, here in the wholesome heartland? Sorry, St. Louis. No new creative's been created, and the only "target marketing" is a push for African-Americans. Apparently we're a no-brainer: Midwestern, already pretty conservative, fond of church and family. BGEA is simply recycling their Indianapolis stuff, inserting the image of the Arch in the predesigned bumper sticker, dubbing "St. Louis" and "Trans World Dome" into the TV commercial. (They even used the same form letter to the media, forgetting to change "Indianapolis" in the body.)
After all, we only became a destination after Sterling Huston, director of North American ministries for BGEA, attended a prayer gathering here nearly three years ago. Impressed by St. Louis' spirit and the Trans World Dome's cavernous capacity, Huston asked a St. Louisan, the Rev. Harold Hendrick, whether he would ask local pastors to invite Graham.
They eventually did, and BGEA employees started moving here last January to train local church leaders and their flocks; canvass for a volunteer corps designed to reach 25,000; arrange simultaneous interpretation of Graham's sermons in Bosnian, Cantonese, Creole, Korean, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese; and rent high-tech media equipment (including the "image amplification" that helps make Billy Graham larger than life).
BGEA set the $2.6 million budget, but the local churches are raising the money, paying the florists, distributing the posters, etc., and a local agency, Hughes Advertising, is handling the media. "It wasn't a creative pitch where we had to battle it out with anybody," explains account executive Steve Hughes. He catches sight of his father in the hall of the ad agency. "Dad, do you have a second?" he calls. "How did we get the Billy Graham account?" Hughes comes back: "Through Larry Collett, who's chairing the St. Louis Crusade committee. He and my dad are friends."
Their budget is $350,000 (comparatively low for a Crusade of this size), and it's mainly to buy the 13 big billboards; 90 bus posters; an ad that flashes on movie-theater screens; newspaper ads; time on radio stations all over the dial; a TV ad created for Indianapolis, emphasizing the frenetic pace of modern life. The outdoor boards went up in mid-September; everything else started last week, and it's about to crescendo.
Billy Graham, meanwhile, has been reading our local newspapers for the past two months, learning our sins. He's glad to come to such a religious, family-centered community; after all, in 1996, Billy and Ruth Graham became the third couple since 1776 to receive the Congressional Gold Medal for "outstanding and lasting contributions to morality, racial equality, family, philanthropy and religion."
Family? This was a husband who, when his wife was about to deliver their first baby, ignored her pleas and left for a speaking engagement in Mobile, Ala. "She said "Bill, the pains have already begun.' "No, I don't think so," I replied confidently," wrote Graham in his autobiography. "I predicted it might take another two or three weeks." He left, and would continue to leave, spending most of his life on the road, swept by handshakes and public appearances from one euphoric sermon to the next.
Frady writes that, when Graham returned from one prolonged trip, his baby son William Franklin shrilled, "Who's him?" His youngest daughter, Bunny, remembers, "When Daddy was there, we weren't allowed to have friends in the house." She told writer Curtis Mitchell, "There were many forgotten anniversaries, and certainly many forgotten birthdays, because Daddy's mind was on so many other things that it was easy for him to forget those special days." Ruth Graham sheltered her husband from any upset when he was home, admitting softly, "I should like to see Bill oftener, to cook his favorite dishes and help him buy his clothes but all that sort of stuff is done by the staff." As daughter Anne Graham Lotz told a reporter from the Houston Chronicle last year, "We were in one sense raised by a single parent."
Yet the Grahams represent the ideal American family.
"Men Wept and Children Leaped"
At First Evangelical Free Church in Des Peres, the ministry is expanding so fast that there's scaffolding outside, the beginnings of new rooms for the House of God. One of the 30 sites for BGEA's five-week Christian Life & Witness classes, First Evangelical happens to be the spiritual home of Larry Collett, chairman of both Cass Commercial Bank and the Crusade committee. On the evening of the first class, the parking lot is packed, and an overflow crowd watches closed-circuit TVs in the lobby. Inside, Christian music blares triumphant, and the more charismatic wave their hands in the air, open to the Spirit. Others clutch Bibles and Daytimers, awaiting direction. Rules beam from overhead projectors: Get booklets from your usher; pray about how much money to donate; be obedient.
After a hymn, Art Bailey, BGEA's longtime director of counseling, excitedly describes the event's headliners including Mary Lou Retton, Lou Brock, African-American surgeon Benjamin S. Carson, the Charlie Daniels Band and, in Saturday night's "Concert for the Next Generation," dc Talk and Kirk Franklin. "We want to give you a legitimate invitation for your friends who do not go to church," he explains, promising a supply of 1.5 million invitations.
Graham's Crusades works chain-letter style, using the churched to reach the unchurched. (In the end, a total of 13,500 people attended these classes, and they're now charged with rounding up the unfaithful and transporting them to the Trans World Dome.) "The purpose," continues Bailey, "is to win this city for Christ. And everyone here knows it takes a lot of money to win souls for St. Louis!" Next, he announces the triumphant news that they've already passed out all 700 instructional booklets. (This happens regularly: In Tampa, they made the news by running out of publicity materials early.)
Bailey's main job is to invite the volunteer counselors who will work the altar call. ("This is not rocket science," he says later. "We send them on the field with read-through handouts." For each soul saved, a decision card is forwarded to the appropriate church for the all-important follow-up.) "God needs to come and sweep into this community," Bailey exhorts the crowd. "We have the opportunity for the greatest open window for evangelism that may ever exist in the St. Louis area." A minute later, he injects even higher purpose: "This crusade could be the last major event for evangelism in America in this millennium, the last opportunity we have to really call in souls." People stand a little taller, clap more vigorously. Cosmic significance swells their hearts.
Last year, Billy Graham told reporters he'd fallen short of his ultimate goal, "to turn the entire world to Christ." Still, he's changed the face of evangelism, and by doing so, helped elevate conservative Christians into a socially and politically powerful force. Now: Will he change St. Louis?
During the Golden Gate Crusade in '59, "strong men wept and little children leaped for joy ... habits were broken, cold hearts were melted and homes were restored," according to reporter-turned- minister Sherwood Eliot Wirt. As for actual conversions, added Wirt, "Only God Himself carries the true statistics of His Kingdom." BGEA churns out numbers after every Crusade: costs, expenses, attendance, altar-call conversions. "Because we're not in a city long-term, we don't have statistical information that tells us how long someone stays," explains Bailey. A 1988 BGEA study concluded that 70-80 percent of inquirers remain steadfast. But then, between 80-85 percent of the people who come forward already have a church affiliation.
So what? So Graham's preaching to an already Christian middle class eager to be saved. So the nation's icon of morality is a bit simplistic. So he avoids confrontation and controversy and mess, makes it all look a little too easy, condemns a huge chunk of the world to hell. Is there any harm in it?
If there is, blame Satan.