Billy Graham liked to tell of a time early in his ministry when he arrived in a small town to preach a sermon. Wanting to mail a letter, he asked a young boy where the post office was. When the boy had told him, Dr. Graham thanked him and said, “If you’ll come to the Baptist Church this evening, you can hear me telling everyone how to get to Heaven.” “I don’t think I’ll be there,” the boy said. “You don’t even know your way to the post office.”
I’m sure your prayers join with mine for Rev. Graham to have found his way to heaven as he died this past week at age 99. It was estimated that he preached to over 215 million people over his career, introducing so many to the basics of Christian faith. And he did so without a breath of the scandal or financial self-interest that has afflicted so many “televangelists” in the last seventy years. That is and should be the main legacy of Rev. Graham’s distinguished and faithful career.
We should also acknowledge that in our UCC tradition, we have had some struggles with Rev. Graham’s theology, particularly through Reinhold Niebuhr, the distinguished scholar, preacher, and teacher. As Graham’s influence began to spread in the mid-1950’s, it became clear that the two men had very different interpretations of sin: Niebuhr focused on the complexities of individual and social sin, while Graham focused almost exclusively on individual sin. Niebuhr had little patience for what he referred to as Graham’s “pietistic individualism,” which asserted that the solution to the world’s problems was individual regeneration. Graham, Niebuhr believed, provided “simple answers to complex questions of social order and justice.”
While celebrating Graham’s amazing ministry, it’s also worth noting that Rev. Graham was completely absence from the Civil Rights marches of the 1950’s and 60’s, was a tacit supporter of the Vietnam War, was revealed as a cozy confidant of President Nixon through the Nixon tapes, made no positive mention of women’s rights in his sermons in the 1970’s and 80’s, and clearly opposed civil rights for people in the LGBTQ community. Could Billy Graham’s theological blind spot to issues of social sin and justice have contributed to what many in our UCC tradition would consider as his failures in religious leadership?
Your friend and fellow minister,
Rev. Steve Savides