November 9th, 2013
08:00 AM ET

How Billy Graham became an American icon

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.

MORE ON CNN: Billy Graham turns 95 at star-studded birthday

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."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Billy Graham • Christianity • evangelicals • Leaders • Opinion

soundoff (749 Responses)
  1. It one of the best in this country


    January 21, 2014 at 8:44 pm |
  2. T-Roy


    November 18, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
  3. Matt

    This man had an awesome gift, and an awesome ministry. I came to the Lord through his preaching of the gospel, and I thank God for sending him to preach the Good News! My life changed when I received Jesus as my Lord and Savior at 16 and hasn't been the same since. PTL

    November 15, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
  4. Ron

    "If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." ...Romans 10:9

    November 14, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
  5. Ron

    "As many as received Him (Jesus), to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who belive in His name." ...John 1:12

    November 14, 2013 at 5:01 pm |
  6. Ron

    "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." ...Jesus (Mathew 11:28)

    November 14, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
  7. Ron

    "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father, but by Me." ...Jesus (John 14:6)

    November 14, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
  8. Ron

    Unless on is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." ....Jesus (John 3:3)

    November 14, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
  9. P

    If you need a proof that the Billy Graham movement is a cult deeply involved in politics and money, look no further. They removed the Mormons from the list of cults the Evangelicals had for ever, to support Romney against Obama.

    November 13, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
  10. Snow

    A simple preacher man worth millions.. I wonder, if god gave him so many riches for a purpose, why doesn't he live a simple life and use the rest of his massive estate to help the poor and needy? why hold on to so many worldly pleasures and riches?

    November 13, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • Truth and trustworthy


      I might suggest you rethink your comments. Only because nothing you said is based upon facts.

      You might want to check out:

      Samaritan's Purse International Relief

      But, I am sure you are providing for the poor and sick. Every time you buy something at Walmart or Macy's. Don't they just love those Chinese and 3rd world country workers. Gee, just for pennies a day you can work in a sweat shop for 12 hours a day 6 days a week, with Sunday off to do your laundry.

      November 18, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  11. The message

    The Bible says, “He that hardeneth his heart, being often reproved, shall suddenly be cut off and not without remedy” [see Proverbs 29:1].

    You never know. To some of you who go out on the slick highways this afternoon, this may be the last sermon you will ever hear. In every crusade we have ever conducted anywhere, there have been people who have come to the meeting in good health and never came back because they were dead in the next few hours through an accident, or a heart attack, or something else.

    We never know when our moment is coming. Maybe God spoke to you this afternoon, and your heart is in danger of being hardened. Some of you are older people; some of you are younger people. The Bible says once you hear the Gospel and do nothing about it, you are in danger of being hardening your heart.

    But, last of all, there were some that made a decision [see Acts 17:34]. They received Christ and went their way rejoicing. I am going to ask you today to receive Him. I am not asking you this afternoon to join some special church. I’m asking you today to give your life to Christ.

    You may be a member of a choir. I don’t know who you are or what you are, but you want to give your life to Christ . I’m going to ask you to do a hard thing, because coming to Christ is not easy. So many people have made it too easy. Jesus went to the cross and died in your place. Certainly, you can say, “I need God; I need Christ. I want to be forgiven of my sins. I want a new life, and I want to start a new direction today.”
    Rev. Graham

    November 12, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  12. Khan

    Dear AvdBerg,
    Your assessment of Billy Graham appears to be very harsh – but I cannot dispute you because you have a reasoning behind it. Personlly, I find Billy Graham as a very simple headed (nothing wrong in it) passionate believer in the christ & his message. But Billy Graham does not have the intellectual depth of discerning the deceptions in Bible whch are manmade. The Old Testament says God is One (first Commandment). In the New Testament Jesus says clearly that he has come to uphold the Old Testament and not abrogate it. But Billy Graham says God the Father God the Son and God the Holy Ghost are 3 in 1 – that is X+X+X = X and not 3X. Billy Graham's message is very simple come to the cross, be saved by the blood of Jesus (Roman gods demanded blood to save you) Jesus has paid the price for your sins (so now you can go out and do all kind of sin without any risk or fear) and he reserves a mansion for himself in heaven and promises the same for all who would listen to him (listen to his son and wife) as though god has given Billy Graham and his family the franchise for mansions in heaven – all this before the Judgment Day because Billy Graham & his family has been allotted places in Heaven and they can bypass the judgment process of God. I DOUBT SERIOUSLY BILLY GRAHAM AND HIS FAMILY WOULD EVER ENTER HEAVEN BECAUSE OF HIS FALSE TEACHINGS

    November 12, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
  13. I think.....

    He was in right place at the right time.

    November 11, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.