Evangelist Billy Graham, who died today at age 99, was one of the great figures of the last century, of America and the history of Christianity. He preached to millions globally, helped make Evangelicalism America’s largest religious group, and knew every USA president since Truman. Indeed, he knew almost every major world leader and celebrity of the last 70 years. An episode of the recent Netflix series The Crown focused on his 1950s visits to Queen Elizabeth. He’s the only major character from that series, except for the royals themselves, who was still alive at its broadcast, highlighting his incredible longevity.
Graham of course was deservedly much admired and loved as evangelist and humanitarian. But he had his controversies. Among them was his closeness to Richard Nixon, which included a taped White House conversation in which the two men disparaged Jewish influence. Decades later upon its revelation Graham, who always worked for strong interfaith relations, apologized profusely.
In the early 1980s my organization, the IRD, then freshly founded to rebut Mainline Protestant support for anti-democratic Marxist revolutionary causes, critiqued Graham for going to Moscow and praising the Soviet Union’s supposed religious liberty. Here’s a May 13, 1982, New York Times quote:
Another critic of the evangelist’s comments was Dr. Edmund Robb, a Methodist clergyman who heads the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
”I am more than a little perplexed,” said Dr. Robb, who considers himself a friend of Mr. Graham. ”His statement that he has not seen any evidence of religious persecution is just not believable. We all know of the plight of religious dissenters who are in prison this very day.”
The Methodist minister was also disturbed about comments Mr. Graham made in a sermon in Moscow when he said Soviet believers should obey the laws of their Government.
”I think it is presumptious for an American living in a free society to go to a totalitarian society and exhort those people to respect their government and obey the laws,” Dr. Robb said.
He said the evangelist might have misinterpreted Chapter 13 of the Book of Romans in the New Testament, where Christians are told to obey secular authorities.
The IRD also criticized Graham’s similarly uncritical visits to North Korea in the 1990s in which he schmoozed with then dictator Kim Il Sung as he had with Soviet chieftains. A few years ago I visited the Billy Graham Museum in Charlotte and was a little startled by the large display celebrating Graham’s friendship with Kim.
Graham, who was a fierce critic of communism in the 1950s, justified these friendly visits and others to Communist bloc countries as means for delivering the Gospel to audiences who may not otherwise have the opportunity. If a church in Pyongyang or Moscow was full of stooges for the regime, then maybe the Holy Spirit would convert them with his preaching, he reasoned. Graham recounted that even as the Reagan Administration publicly was alarmed by his Moscow trips, his friend President Reagan privately wished him success.
Now in heaven, Graham hopefully has meet some souls converted by his preaching in imprisoned societies. Was reaching them worth praising or at least minimizing the crimes of their tormentors? God is the judge. Perhaps those trips were his calling, just as others were called to public witness against those murderous regimes.
His controversies aside, Graham was exceptional for not compromising Gospel essentials in his proclamation while befriending countless nonbelievers who were impressed by the sincerity of his service to God and humanity. He never claimed to be more than he was, not a towering intellectual, but a rural North Carolinian dairy farmer’s son summoned to preach. His gifts were courage, magnetism, savvy, perseverance, energy and, above all, faith. May the fruits of his labors be blessed for many more generations.