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. Jessica Christ

    And Jesus said unto them, "Go forth and make yourself rich befouling the earth with your filth, and depriving the poor and sick and hungry of love and care and food. For, verily, I say unto you, unless you wield power over those fools with fear and ignorance, they will not give unto you gold and vast riches you surely deserve. For the Kingdom of Heaven is full of rich old white men and no one else."

    November 11, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
    • Jimmy

      Aint it about time this old fundamental fart dies ? He use to be a really good man but boy did that go down hill fast. See ya with Hitler Billy boy !

      November 11, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
  2. R.M. Goodswell

    Billie Graham, Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch ....one would need a shower after attending such an oily cheese-fest. these men- and the lion's share of the people attending his birthday bash either had a hand in building the system that has been used to fleece America or are masters at gaming said system and the social media. The aura given off by such a collection of egos in one place must be staggering......

    November 11, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • saggyroy

      I wished I had said that.

      November 12, 2013 at 5:54 am |
  3. Akira

    For a better understanding how someone violates the TOS and steals free advertising, see the above post.

    November 11, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
    • Akira

      Glitch; meant for the thief below.

      November 11, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
    • Akira

      Meant for the thief below.

      November 11, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
      • Akira


        November 11, 2013 at 6:10 pm |
  4. Lawrence of Arabia


    November 11, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
  5. niknak

    The t itle to this article should have read;

    "How millions of brain dead backwards believers in the xtian myth made Billy Graham a multi-millionaire."

    November 11, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • Just wondering....

      what you do for living genius?

      November 11, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
      • saggyroy

        I don't think it matters. It appears he is smart enough to know a scam when he sees one.

        November 12, 2013 at 5:58 am |
  6. Maddy

    The truth of the gospel is easily testable. If Jesus is not real, he cannot prove himself to u. But, he can. Proof? Try him.

    November 11, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • Akira

      Hi! How's that lawsuit going?

      November 11, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
  7. CommonSensed

    By the definition of his own faith he's a rampant sinner, idolator and money grabber.

    November 11, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
  8. The Cross


    November 11, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
    • Reality # 2

      Billy G's Message to America? The Christian con pays quite well!!!

      November 11, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
  9. Truth

    Billy Graham's teaching have not made the world a better place. His teachings have contributed to the deplorable decline of Christian morals and values and given Atheism life, body, and strength.

    Matthew 24:4 And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. 5 For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.
    Matthew 24: For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect

    November 11, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • Reality # 2

      Matthew 24: 4 does not pass rigorous historic testing i.e. it was not uttered by Jesus.

      November 11, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
      • counterww

        According to a liberal theologian like the Jesus seminar. Easily dismissed.

        November 16, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
  10. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    November 11, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • Robert

      "Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things"

      You sir are not a true Christian by lying for God!

      November 11, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  11. YouTube Bart Ehrman....

    A speech by Bart Ehrman at Stanford about the story behind who changed the bible and why and the history of the bible and how they got tainted. He is a former Christian bible scholar who studied the bible and found the mistakes and became an agnostic. Ehrman holds a Ph D from Princeton Theological Seminary and is the Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

    This speech is a must see for christians who ask questions like:
    Who wrote the gospels?
    Is the bible the word of God?
    Are there contradictions?
    Does the bible contain errors?
    Is there evidence or proof?


    November 11, 2013 at 10:42 am |
  12. YouTube Neil deGrasse Tyson....

    Published on Mar 2, 2013

    Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, explains how God disappeared as an explanation for things humans did not understand about the universe, as the "perimeter of ignorance" receded. The greatest minds dared increasingly brave to question the world around them, but sometimes cowardly copped out along the way when they faced problems -similar to the modern Intelligent Design movement that advocates a "god of the gaps"- until someone else took over and furthered scientific progress.


    November 11, 2013 at 10:41 am |
  13. YouTube Dan Dennett....

    Dan Dennett at Cal Tech (Published on Apr 24, 2013)

    One of the greatest thinkers of our age tackles one of the most important questions of our time: why people believe in God and how religion shapes our lives and our future. In this lecture, based on his new book of the same ti-tle, Dr. Dennett shows that for the vast majority of people there is nothing more important than religion. It is an integral part of their marriage, child rearing, and community. Dennett takes a hard look at this phenomenon and asks: Where does our devotion to God come from and what purpose does it serve? Is religion a blind evolutionary compulsion or a rational choice? In a spirited investigation that ranges widely through history, philosophy, and psychology, Dennett explores how organized religion evolved from folk beliefs and why it is such a potent force today. Deftly and lucidly, he contends that the 'belief in belief' has fogged any attempt to rationally consider the existence of God and the relationship between divinity and human need.

    Dr. Dennett is a professor and director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, and the author of the highly acclaimed Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Consciousness Explained, and Freedom Evolves.


    November 11, 2013 at 10:40 am |
    • Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss and Massimo Pigliucci


      Published on Nov 5, 2013

      00:00 Introduction
      07:07 Limits of Science
      19:40 God & the Supernatural
      31:20 Science & Morality
      50:11 Something out of Nothing
      1:03:42 The Value of Philosophy
      1:20:59 Cognitive Limits
      1:35:43 Questions:
      – 1:35:56 Science & Politics
      – 1:43:33 The Status of Economics
      – 1:48:17 Does Consciousness Exist?

      November 11, 2013 at 10:56 am |
      • Doris

        Excellent. I'm not even done watching, but the discussion here regarding empirical evidence, consensus and knowledge is very pertinent to the discussion with Larry, below.

        November 11, 2013 at 11:45 am |
        • Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss and Massimo Pigliucci

          Agree !

          November 11, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
      • mulehead

        Idiots still exist in the South. Dr. Krauss debated William Lane Craig at NC State University a few years ago. I was appalled the way a TECHNICAL school received and treated a true thinking individual like Dr. Krauss. A complete embarrassment and stain on what used to be a fine University.

        November 14, 2013 at 8:25 am |
  14. Lawrence of Arabia

    The biggest problem facing evangelicalism (meaning spreading the gospel – and it has nothing to do with America) is the pervasive notion of existentialism – that the individual's unique position is a self-determining agent of authentication.

    When people are immersed into a culture that on a whole believes that the only ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth, the ability to rationalize is either severely handicapped or is destroyed altogether.

    This belief can only be popularized when entire populations are taught to "feel" rather than to "think," and when this happens, a desire to search the minds of intelligent forebearers fizzles out, and comprehension levels center only around what pleases them and their own unique worldview. A worldview which may or may not align with observable reality – a correlation that few in this belief system actually bother to observe.

    November 11, 2013 at 9:59 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      "Ultimate Truth" is unknowable. Human beings can only search for proximate truth.
      A little less rationalizing and a little more logic would not be a bad thing for people at large.
      When talking about feelings, don't forget that religious faith is a feeling too.
      Faith is the emotion that precedes thought.
      Dogma is not rational, but it allows for rationalization.

      November 11, 2013 at 10:04 am |
      • Lawrence of Arabia

        "Ultimate Truth" is unknowable. Human beings can only search for proximate truth."

        Is that a true statement? If so, how do you know that?

        "A little less rationalizing and a little more logic would not be a bad thing for people at large."

        I agree.

        "When talking about feelings, don't forget that religious faith is a feeling too."

        No it isn't. well, maybe some are, but Biblical Christianity has nothing to do with emotions. Read the Bible and tell me where Jesus said "I do this because it makes me feel good." What about Paul? He lived a miserable life – shipwrecked, beaten, left for dead... Did he do it for a feeling? No, he did it for a promise that God made to His own.

        "Faith is the emotion that precedes thought."

        No, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It has nothing to do with emotion.

        "Dogma is not rational, but it allows for rationalization."

        Actually, dogma is entirely rational. I am dogmatic that gravity works, therefore I can not be convinced that I can walk off of a building while holding a magical bowling ball and levitate to the next building across the street. A good dogma permits rational thought.

        November 11, 2013 at 10:13 am |
        • UncleM

          There is evidence for what we call gravity but none for the gods we have made up.

          November 11, 2013 at 10:32 am |
      • Lawrence of Arabia

        I suggest you read "The Existence and Attributes of God" by Stephen Charnock.

        November 11, 2013 at 10:38 am |
        • Richard Cranium

          How exactly is the opinion of a 17th century puritan supposd to be evidence of any of the gods?

          November 11, 2013 at 10:45 am |
        • Lawrence of Arabia

          If you had read the book, you'd know why. Charnock is unfortunately long winded (as most puritans are want to do), but only because he wishes to really flesh out the discussion, and leave no stone unturned. It's a bit lengthy for this format, but if you want to get a taste, there's a website where this work is posted here:

          November 11, 2013 at 10:52 am |
        • Richard Cranium

          Already read it...years ago...opinion, nothing more.

          November 11, 2013 at 10:54 am |
        • Lawrence of Arabia

          I suppose I could turn your question around and, looking at another's post, rephrase it this way: "How is one man's opinion such as Bart Ehrman supposed to support..."

          The point is, you can look at a black checker board playing piece all day long and tell me it's white, but how one man defines truth – if that definition does not align with observable reality – is nothing but fiction.

          November 11, 2013 at 10:58 am |
        • Lawrence of Arabia

          But does his opinion align with facts? And if not, where, and why not?

          Look, all I am attempting to do in this particular response is to get the reader to understand that one's worldview is not in and of itself a self-authenticating agent of truth. Truth only comes from outside, not from within. Opinions may be formed about the interpretation of truth, but opinions cannot make true that which is untrue.

          That is the biggest issue facing evangelicalism. Many college students that I speak with are wrapped up in that, and it is a defective manner of thinking, that unfortunately is being propogated by professors. (at least in the area where I live)

          November 11, 2013 at 11:02 am |
        • Richard Cranium

          Exactly LoA
          " if that definition does not align with observable reality – is nothing but fiction."

          Exactly...if you observe something, and then leap to a conlusion that it is because of any gods, when no one knows if there is/are any gods or not....his work is based on that unjustified leap, so you do not know if it is in line with reality...he missed that step in verifying that any god IS relaity, and in that he wrote a series of FICTIONAL works, he BELIEVED to be reality...only his opinion since his logic was flawed.

          November 11, 2013 at 11:04 am |
        • Lawrence of Arabia

          "Exactly...if you observe something, and then leap to a conlusion that it is because of any gods, when no one knows if there is/are any gods or not....his work is based on that unjustified leap, so you do not know if it is in line with reality...he missed that step in verifying that any god IS relaity, and in that he wrote a series of FICTIONAL works, he BELIEVED to be reality...only his opinion since his logic was flawed."

          This same line of reasoning can be applied to the "abiogenesis of the gaps" idea... It goes like this: "Even though life has never been observed to arrive from non-life, because there is life, then it must be true."

          This thought process assumes the non-existence of God, and the non-existence of miracles and the supernatural. BUT, if one will agree that there are some things that science cannot fully explain – and there are many – then until science can fully explain everything there is to know about everything, then one cannot logically disbelieve in miracels. If one cannot disbelieve in miracles, then one cannot disbelieve in the supernatural, and if one cannot disbelieve in the supernatural, then one cannot disbelieve in God.

          Here's a line from Charnock:
          "Not that he denies the existence of a Supreme Being, that created the world, but his regarding the creatures, his government of the world, and consequently his reward of the righteoud or punishment of the wicked."

          November 11, 2013 at 11:12 am |
        • Doris

          Larry: "Truth only comes from outside, not from within. "

          For the manner in which theists seem to use the term "truth", I put it in the same category as "free will". Sure none of use should be too certain of things just based on our own perception, but this notion of the notion coming only "from outside" sounds sounds more ridiculous each time I read or hear it. Like I say, I would pay it some attention if someone could demonstrate such a notion without just subjectively cycling back around to its supposed definition or referencing consensus about the notion that also employ tons of subjectivity.

          November 11, 2013 at 11:20 am |
        • Doris

          "This thought process assumes the non-existence of God,"

          For some it may assume a lack of belief in that particular god. For others a higher force might be under consideration.

          November 11, 2013 at 11:26 am |
        • Richard Cranium

          Once again LoA
          You do not understand basic logic, you love to make assumptions which you have no basis for, and then make arguements based on those flawed assumptions.

          The thought process does not assume anything...that is where you get into trouble.

          You need a far better understanding of scientific method and lgic.

          You keep offering opinion and flawed logic.

          Here is the reality. There may or may not be gods. Do not think that you can determine which is correct.
          ANY argument one way or the other is flawed.

          Also you love to say things that are flat out false like "if one will agree that there are some things that science cannot fully explain"

          What you really need to say, and you really need to think is science has not yet explained...

          This book you brought up....nothing but opinion because his thinking is as flawed as yours has proven to be.

          November 11, 2013 at 11:50 am |
        • Lawrence of Arabia

          OK, so help me out then, I'm having a hard time distinguishing the difference between:
          "Some things science cannot fully explain..."
          "Some things science has not explained yet..."
          One simply notes that science has not been able to demonstrate while the other holds out hope that one day science might be able to explain, but the original premise remains unchanged, that thus and such cannot be scientifically explained.

          Ergo, if science has not yet (using your terminology) explained how thus and such works, then is it safe to discount a miracle? I go back to the origin of life issue because I think it has merit here...

          Science has not yet been able to explain how life can come from non-life. This could mean one of two things:
          1) That we simply have not yet discovered how life can come from non-life
          2) That life cannot come from non-life

          Similarly – and let's be ridiculous in our example:
          Science has not yet been able to explain how holding a magical bowling ball can make you levitate
          1) Either science has simply not yet been able to explain how a bowling ball can make you levitate
          2) Or, bowling balls cannot make you levitate.

          The idea is that it is unwise to discount the existence of God and miracles as long as we don't know everything about everything.

          November 11, 2013 at 12:01 pm |
        • Richard Cranium

          In the case of science CANNOT you preclude the probability that science may find the information.
          That is a HUGE difference.

          The basic flaw in everything I have seen you post is you alsways assume there is a god.

          Your expedition....we know there is a god, let's go find him.
          A scientists expedition...we do not know what is out there, let's go find what is.

          Of course we assume there are no gods, since we cannot assume all things that there is no evidence of have any basis. We cannot for instance assume the matrix is real either, yet there is as much validity to the hypothesis as any god hypothesesis. But assuming there are no gods, does not leave out the possibility that there are.

          Seriously... get an education on scientific method and application of logic.
          You have proven over and over, you cannot drop your bias, which is you trying to fit information into your preconcieved notion that there are gods.
          Instead, look at the data and see where it leads you. If it leads you to a conclusion that gods exist, try publishing it, like any scientist would do, and allow your scientific colleagues to rip it apart or report they could not rip it apart. That is how science works...we find things, publish them and allow others in the scientific community to try to destroy it... that is how real info is found.

          November 11, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
        • Doris

          "Ergo, if science has not yet (using your terminology) explained how thus and such works, then is it safe to discount a miracle?"

          I don't think it's a good idea to claim anything is impossible. A miracle likely? Difficult to say because we may have very different ideas about what passes as a miracle. But shouldn't we be careful to not ignore science for likely explanations to things, especially when we can easily test and repeat what is being considered or easily relate what is being considered to things that we have repeti-tively perceived via consensus?

          November 11, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
      • Doris

        I gut says Doc is correct, but tend not to make hard claims. Rather, since Christianity and other religions do make claims of pure absolute truth, I challenge them to demonstrate it in some way that does not involve subjectivity/consensus. So far, someone has only conveyed the idea of such a notion.

        November 11, 2013 at 10:52 am |
        • Doris

          My gut...

          Also based on that lack of demonstration by theists, I submit that L of A's notion of who is "thinking" is hogwash. It seems much more reasonable to think that religion is a tool to control the fearful; a security blanket for those unwilling to face the reality of the present and unwilling to accept what is still unknown.

          November 11, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • sam stone

      The biggest problem facing evangelism is the message is the pompousness of the evangelists

      November 11, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  15. Agnostickids

    Since CNN isn't posting the article (almost all other media is…look it up):

    Did you know that the Mormon church is purchasing 2% of Florida? They need to be taxed as a corporation! Once and for all. THEY are a perfect example of conservative corruption.

    November 11, 2013 at 9:18 am |
  16. mandarax

    I pray that when he passes, this unholy alliance between religion and conservative politics goes with him. Somehow, I doubt it.

    November 11, 2013 at 9:10 am |
  17. Mack Hall

    Icon? Really? Icon? Do you know what an icon is?

    November 11, 2013 at 7:30 am |
  18. lol??

    The educratists codify their religion, evolution. You must pay!!! If you don't buy it you can't get a job. Looks like some kinda mark of da Beast.

    November 11, 2013 at 5:29 am |
  19. Mr Everyman

    "If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; ..." John 10: 37. As long as Billy Graham preached the Word he did the works of the Spirit. Political positions lately have not been from God's Love or Wisdom. He needs God's forgiveness. I hope he finds the Love again.

    November 10, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
    • Mr Everyman

      no no no.

      r u blind d do?

      November 11, 2013 at 12:48 am |
    • Mr Everyman

      for 1 or 2 atheists, u girls can really clog up a blog

      November 11, 2013 at 12:49 am |
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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.