CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s difficult to ever imagine another faith leader being dubbed “America’s Pastor.” That’s because of the person Billy Graham was and the current political, social and cultural divisions in our country. And there is also the question of whether pluralistic America wants, needs or should have a pastor — now, then or ever.
Graham was never the universally revered and uncontroversial figure that many of those who now praise him remember. But in reviewing the legacy of a man who lived through much of a century that defined American change and who died at the age of 99 on Wednesday in his home in the North Carolina mountains, it is important to give him his singular, flawed due.
That’s particularly important when the image of what it means to be a white evangelical has come to be partisan, political and, with few exceptions, Republican, embodied most spectacularly in the person of Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
When I first visited Charlotte, North Carolina, in the 1990s, on the way to a new job at The Charlotte Observer, I could hardly believe the parkway on the way from the airport was named for Billy Graham — a living figure, and a deeply religious one. Yes, it was the Bible Belt, but it was also the big city. I soon learned how much a part of his home state and of a certain state of mind he remained.
He was older, not the young evangelist who mesmerized audiences all around the world with his fervent message, booming voice and dashing looks. Yet when I attended one of his last crusades, one that filled a stadium and culminated in an “altar call” of believers who solemnly walked to the stage to accept the Lord, I got the appeal. He was a preacher and showman who reveled in the power he wielded — in service to God, of course.
It’s a fine line that Graham managed to walk.
It was not just his own charisma; he always looked good by comparison to fellow evangelicals who stumbled. He remained faithful to wife, Ruth, and seemed to lose much of his fire after her death in 2007. He got perhaps too much credit in the 1950s for tearing down the ropes that segregated his audiences, which still put him well ahead of his contemporaries, though he distanced himself as the civil rights fight turned to marches and more forceful demands.
And he was never quite as hostile to other faiths considered practically heretical to many evangelicals, though I knew — from subtle and not-so-subtle messages I received from some evangelicals when I moved southward — that my Catholicism meant I was in need of some serious soul-saving.
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Controlling the narrative
Graham could sense the moment and control his own narrative in a way many of his contemporaries and those who came after missed. He was at first suspicious of the 1960 presidential candidacy of Catholic John F. Kennedy, though a picture of the two showcased in the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte showed him competing with the young president in the glamour category, and knowing it.
When his library was dedicated in 2007, three presidents — Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — attended the event, a bipartisan group that would in the future be an exception to the rule.
On a tour of the new facility, son Franklin, while pointing out the mix of spiritual and more worldly exhibits — including a Presidential Medal of Freedom from 1983 and an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II — told me his belief that Barack Obama was “born a Muslim” because of Obama’s father’s beliefs.
One can’t imagine the elder Graham being quite so bold. He met with presidents from Harry S. Truman to Obama, as well as candidate Mitt Romney, giving his imprimatur to the candidate and his Mormon faith, once considered a “cult” by evangelicals. He showed his ability for theological shape-shifting to fit the politics at hand.
Still, both father and son remained firm in their conservative beliefs; both came out publicly and strongly in favor of an amendment to North Carolina’s constitution declaring marriage between one man and one woman the only valid domestic legal union.
So the difference between Graham and son was not as stark as many believe.
Humor and brimstone
Billy Graham’s gift, then, may have been his carefully cultivated style, fire-and-brimstone tempered with kindness and humor. That helped his message cross boundaries other evangelicals were never able to navigate. Few others could trade jokes with Johnny Carson, as Graham did, sanding off the judgmental edges for an audience of millions.
He admitted mistakes, which many of today’s evangelical leaders seem incapable of doing, including apologizing for the most prominent dent in his legacy, a close friendship with and support of President Richard Nixon that lasted through Watergate. In tapes that Graham said made him sick, he listened to the criminality he had remained blind to and to his own words agreeing with Nixon’s anti-Semitic rants.
Graham vowed to never again become so addicted to politics and power, a lesson that has missed son Franklin, who has firmly lashed himself to the ship Donald Trump. Trump, along with Sarah Palin, was a guest at Billy Graham’s 95th birthday party, at which Franklin Graham praised Fox News, with Rupert Murdoch watching.
Franklin Graham lets you know exactly where he stands, right in the middle of today’s partisan divide. He credited the “God factor” for Trump’s win; supported Roy Moore, the accused molester in the Alabama Senate race; and makes pronouncements in the name of God but in defense of men. Some politicians and pastors nod in agreement; others call out hypocrisy, seeing in a certain brand of white evangelicalism just another lobbying group and no relief in sight.
The elder Graham left you guessing, able to ascribe generosity to his beliefs and motives, ready to forgive when he fell short. Perhaps it was just a magic act, one needed in a world looking for spiritual escape but impossible to maintain in a complicated time when all rightly insist on being heard.
Still, that, at least, was something.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.