The news of Billy Graham’s death has brought back many memories. My first trip to a football stadium, to hear him speak on one of his tours of England in the Eighties; the ways nonconformist churches emulated his ‘altar calls’ as an invitation to receive salvation; the weekly repetition of those words in John 31 in gospel services: “You must be born again.”
Coincidentally, he’s recently been on our television screens, reminding us of his history with Britain in the Netflix drama, The Crown. He made an appearance in the second series as pastoral adviser to Queen Elizabeth II, while she ponders the meaning of forgiveness. Her Majesty is depicted meeting him a couple of times, inviting him for a one-to-one shortly after she has was told of her uncle’s former affiliation with Nazis.
That Graham engaged in such a way, with such a public figure, was unusual. At a time when conservative evangelicals, especially those in ‘low’ churches, were averse to taking a role in public life, Graham not only met the British Queen, but also had a ‘bittersweet’ relationship with Nixon – and one which he later came to regret. His links to Nixon were messy and complicated – and very public. It deterred many people of faith from engaging in politics.
It was a while before white US evangelicals would leave their separatist lifestyles to engage again with public policy, and even then it was only through organisations such as Moral Majority2 which concentrated on a small number of polarising issues.
Graham’s son Franklin has, however, been very vocal in his support for elements of the Trump presidency. While this will have gone down well with many of his humanitarian organisation’s supporters3, it hasn’t made him popular among more progressive Christians. He has been publicly criticised for his political positions by Jerushah Armfield, his niece and Graham’s granddaughter, who suggested he stick to his charity work.
Graham, though, would certainly not want to be remembered for his political engagement. Quite the opposite. He was widely praised for his humility and would frequently argue that his mission was to point people’s attention to Jesus, and not to himself. He wished fervently that his revival meetings could have been advertised without using his name: “I despise all this attention on myself…I’m not trying to bring people to myself, nor am I trying to interest people in me.”
His dedication to a simple faith, clearly expressed in an invitation to receive the forgiveness available because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, touched the hearts of many. He spoke to millions of everyday folk: people brought their friends, neighbours and colleagues to his tent revivals, city crusades and outdoor arena services.
“In the 2016 election, fully one quarter of all voters, 26% of everyone who cast a ballot, was a white born-again or evangelical Christian and that’s very much on par with what we’ve seen in recent elections…they are a very large, very consequential, very politically powerful constituency in the United States.”
Billy Graham had a huge amount of influence on this, now politically significant, group of people. But the only thing he wanted to do was to point them towards his understanding of the Gospel. Politics didn’t work out for him, and he never saw it as his game.
Graham had a simple unsophisticated message throughout his life, and a few years ago his grandson passed on to the world his grandfather’s simple understanding of the life that is to come:
“Some day you will read or hear that I have died. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will have just changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”