You can hold debatable beliefs with passion and conviction without being at war with those who disagree. You can promote a potentially divisive message without alienating those who don’t buy it. You can be an evangelist for your cause — religious or otherwise — without being an obnoxious zealot.
The late evangelist Billy Graham demonstrated this. We can all take a cue from him and his long, history-making career, wherever we are on the religious or political spectrum.
Since Graham’s death, I have read the torrent of articles about him and recalled conversations I have had with those who knew him. It’s Graham’s smile that stands out in their memories. Despite the pressures of his work and the criticism that goes with the territory when you’re a famous evangelist, he exuded remarkably little anger or defensiveness. His trademark was his uncomplicated joy and confidence in his message and faith.
Compare that with the public voice of evangelicalism most often heard today — more of a growl than a song. This, of course, is mainly due to partisan politics, which has become an area of intense focus for the evangelical movement. Graham, by contrast, maintained a wise distance from politics even while providing personal counsel to presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.
The country is just a year clear of a rancorous presidential contest in which a strong majority of white evangelicals, and many of their highest-profile representatives, lined up with Donald Trump. This followed a chaotic Republican primary campaign in which several evangelical candidates tried to outdo one another with their absurdly overblown claims about Christians being under attack in America.
This divisiveness takes vivid form in Graham’s own son, Franklin — a man who has done good work with his Samaritan’s Purse global relief organization, but who has alienated gay people, Muslims, atheists and liberals across the board with his white-hot rhetoric. If only the apple had fallen closer to the tree.
Billy Graham’s career could have gone in a similarly divisive direction, given his fundamentalist origins. Fundamentalists, in fact, became some of Graham’s fiercest critics when his ministry took a decisive turn in the run-up to its 1957 New York City crusade. Defying the fundamentalists’ insistence on working only with those sharing a strict view of the Bible, Graham enlisted several different Protestant denominations to organize and fund the event. He worked that way the rest of his career.
This more inclusive spirit was apparent, too, in Graham’s insistence on integrating his crusades as early as the 1950s, again incurring the wrath of critics who wanted blacks and whites kept separate.
It would be foolish, of course, to add these up and pronounce Billy Graham a liberal. His theology was conservative and simple — even simplistic, as his critics saw it. He certainly made no friends in the gay community, speaking of homosexuality as a sinful perversion.
There were a few missteps. He admitted to being tarnished by his too-close association with Richard Nixon, including being caught on one of Nixon’s infamous tapes deploring a Jewish “stranglehold” on the country.
These will be part of his legacy. But they are overshadowed by the jaw-dropping success of his crusades, which reached hundreds of millions of people around the world; by his pioneering use of media and technology; by personal conduct that consistently lined up with his public piety; and by his ability to raise people up without, for the most part, tearing other people down.
That last part of the Graham legacy is something to remember, and emulate, even if your beliefs (like mine) are light years apart from Graham’s. Words like “humble” and “statesmanlike” pop up often in the innumerable tributes since his death. Graham appeared a whopping 61 times on Gallup’s most admired people list, but presented himself as just a modest farm boy from North Carolina.
As Graham’s transcendent popularity suggests, he knew how to be diplomatic and avoid being dogmatic. Even though his brand of faith says you’re in or you’re out when it comes to Jesus and the ultimate fate of your soul, Graham seemed to understand that it was God’s job to do the sorting, not his.
We can learn from his example that it’s not only the content of our convictions and message that matters, but how we represent it and what we emphasize. Graham, like other great statesmen, demonstrated the importance of tone and gesture, of transcending us-versus-them tribalism, of treating others with decency even if they aren’t likely to accept our message or advance our career.
In these days of passionate debate, many of us are out on the metaphorical hustings and circuits arguing our cases and promoting our causes. Liberal or conservative, religious or not, we all seem to be evangelizing these days. If we can do it more like Billy Graham, we will make a lot fewer enemies in the process.
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