November 9th, 2013
08:00 AM ET
Opinion by Molly Worthen, special to CNN
(CNN) – Under ordinary circumstances, Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch are probably not in the habit of attending the birthday parties of elderly Christian preachers in the North Carolina mountains.
But they were both among the hundreds of well-wishers at the party on Thursday marking Billy Graham’s 95th birthday.
Graham spent his career leading revivals around the globe, following a long tradition of evangelists who have traveled far and wide to urge sinners to accept Christ. But his birthday guest list shows that he is no ordinary preacher. He is a cultural icon, the most famous face of traditional Protestant Christianity.
“We need Billy Graham's message to be heard, I think, today more than ever," former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin told the crowd.
What, exactly, is that message—and what accounts for its mass appeal? Now that Billy is 95, I wonder: is there anyone who can fill his shoes?
Graham rose to success in the God-fearing years of the early Cold War. In 1949, the year of Graham’s first big revival in Los Angeles, President Harry Truman told Americans that “the basic source of our strength as a nation is spiritual. ... Religious faith and religious work must be our reliance as we strive to fulfill our destiny in the world.”
Five years later, Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. By the end of the decade, 65% of Americans belonged to a religious institution, and 90% told pollsters they believed in God and the power of prayer: they were ready to hearken to Graham’s call.
Tall, handsome, “like Gabriel in a gabardine suit” according to Time magazine, Graham appealed to Americans’ hunger for spiritual direction.
His sermons contained just the right mix of patriotism and reproof. He urged Americans to stand strong against “godless communism” but also criticized American hubris.
“We have an idea that we Americans are God's chosen people, that God loves us more than any other people, and that we are God's blessed,” he told an audience in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1958. “I tell you that God doesn't love us any more than He does the Russians.”
Graham urged his listeners to acknowledge their sins and embrace Christ; to quit making excuses and go to church. But he abandoned the strict fundamentalism of his youth for a less doctrinaire theology.
His crusades mobilized hundreds of volunteers from local churches—not just evangelical churches, but liberal Protestant and Roman Catholic parishes as well.
Graham had plenty of theological quarrels with these collaborators.
He accepted the assistance of New York Catholics during his crusade there in 1957, but three years later he helped organize Protestant ministers to oppose John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign.
However, when it came to evangelism, he was a broad-minded pragmatist - outraging hard-line fundamentalists, who demanded strict separation from other Christians.
He replied to his critics: “The one badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy but love. Christians are not limited to any church. The only question is: are you committed to Christ?"
One member of Graham’s circle coined the term “neo-evangelical” to describe this attitude. They were all conservative evangelicals who had left fundamentalism to lead a revival of both the soul and the mind. They formed the National Association of Evangelicals to unite conservative Protestants. In 1956 they founded the magazine Christianity Today, an “evangelical, theologically oriented” alternative to liberal periodicals, Graham wrote.
Secular journalists quoted Graham as a capable spokesman for the evangelical point of view. Graham’s visits to the White House gave the impression that he was a Protestant pope, possessing Christian wisdom and a valuable imprimatur. Graham seemed to represent an American evangelical consensus.
But from the beginning, this consensus was more apparent than real.
Far more conservative Protestants stayed out of the National Association of Evangelicals than joined up. They thought of themselves as Baptists or Mennonites first, and “evangelical” second, if at all.
Some evangelicals rejected the idea that Christians must experience the radical “born-again experience” at the heart of Graham’s crusades: they believed that conversion is sometimes slow and incremental. Others objected to the conservative politics of Graham and his colleagues.
I have spent the past few years researching the stories of these different evangelical communities, ranging from pacifist Mennonites to tongues-speaking Pentecostals. I found that even if they disagreed with Billy Graham, they had no choice but to take him seriously.
They often defined their own beliefs against his ministry. Graham and other neo-evangelicals helped other Christians understand themselves more clearly. As a result, the fissures and tensions that have always divided the evangelical world are deeper than ever.
Billy Graham has no successor.
In today’s age of fragmented evangelicalism and social media-savvy churches, there is no individual who can represent American evangelicalism to the world. Every believer has his own favorite Christian blog, her own like-minded Twitter network. And evangelicalism’s golden age seems to be ending. The biggest denominations, booming during the height of Graham’s career, are now stagnating or losing members.
Graham’s career ranged well beyond American shores, and conservative Protestantism is flourishing in the Global South. Some evangelists there command crowds that rival or exceed Graham’s biggest crusades. For more than 50 years, the German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke has preached throughout Africa to audiences that range in the hundreds of thousands.
But evangelists making their careers in non-Western societies face different challenges than Graham did. They are trying to reach people who worry not about the threat of secular liberalism, but the fate of their unbaptized ancestors or witchcraft in their villages. In the Global South, the label “evangelical” implies similarities to American religion that don’t exist.
Billy Graham may be an icon of an era that has passed, a Christian coalition that was never as harmonious as it seemed.
His own message, however, remains the same. In his message on Thursday —perhaps his final sermon — he warned that “our country is in great need of a spiritual awakening.”
Molly Worthen is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of "Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism."
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