What Do Progressive Christians Think of Billy Graham?

This well known American evangelist died last week at the age of 99. Eric Alexander, the editor of Jack Spong's new website, ProgressingSpirit.com, reflects somewhat ruefully on Billy Graham's achievements.

What Do Progressive Christians Think of Billy Graham?

Overall I’m sure Billy Graham was probably a decent and caring person with genuine motives to help the world. But in many ways I think Billy Graham was one of the worst things to happen to Christianity over the past few decades.

He harnessed his magnetic type of passion and charisma to convince a whole generation about a very flawed theological understanding of Jesus and the Bible. And on top of that he raised his son Franklin Graham, who is now one of the leaders in the radical right wing political movement. A movement which has co-opted American evangelicalism as a primary voting block for tea party Republicans – the types who prioritize guns, benefits cuts to the poor and sick, and mass deportations – which is very different than what the historical Jesus stood for.

Now that said, compared to that movement which reflects the likes of his son Franklin Graham, Billy seemed a lot more moderate in his tone (especially as he aged). He seemed to have a type of love in his voice that we don’t sense as much from modern fundamentalists. He was probably a good man to others around him, and he probably helped a lot of people in need. He probably also convinced a lot of people to live for something more holy and meaningful in their lives, which is definitely a good thing. He was also once recorded later in his life as saying that everyone will go to heaven as long as they have Christ in their heart (see here), even if they’ve not realized it or understood it consciously – which is a very inclusive message when compared to what we hear from many of today’s fire-and-brimstone-veiled-by-a-starbucks-latte-and-skinny-jeans type of pastors.

But again, he has hurt a lot of people with his message; especially the LGBT population with his hard line stances claiming that being gay is a serious sin which will be met with God’s judgment. And his views that we were in our “last days” with Jesus returning at any moment also caused many of his followers to pay little regard to urgent environmental and climate justice issues. There were also reports that he once suggested that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “put on the brakes a little” when he started to practice civil disobedience for political change.

And lastly, I also recall years ago a story about him and one of his best friends. They both began to recognize the many inconsistencies and logical errors that came along with a literal interpretation of the Bible. And it was recalled that when faced with that dissonance Billy simply decided on faith to deem the Bible as God’s inerrant word and live his life accordingly without any further questions. When the facts and cognitive dissonance came, he simply shut it down to any further evolution, which I think can be one of the most unfortunate things anyone could ever do, especially if we plan to go out and evangelize the world to our point of view.

Eric Alexander is an author, speaker, and social activist. He serves as Editor-in-Chief of ProgressingSpirit.com and is a senior board member at ProgressiveChristianity.org, where this blog first appeared. You can read the whole blog, including Eric’s short introduction, here

Billy Graham image by Warren K. Leffler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Highlights image is also via Wiki Commons.


1 On 01/03/2018 Adrian Alker wrote:

When I first went to St Marks Broomhill Sheffield as vicar, in 1988, there had been a big Billy Graham Rally in Sheffield ( I think at Bramhall Lane football round) the previous year. I was surprised to learn that a number of folk from the congregation had attended and enthused about the evening. Surprised because St Marks was very much in the liberal tradition of the Church of England at that time and was far from the kind of Christian community which demanded some kind of wholesale affirmation of belief from its congregation, nothing more than a tacit acceptance of the creed said quietly at the communion service.

But I did come to understand Graham’s appeal. In any congregation, I guess, there are those who are bolstered by an enthusiasm and a call to commitment. So often in Anglican worship at least there is a sense of order and routine, of erudite sermons and inspiring music of the kind to be found in classical concerts. A polite refusal to be over showy in the emotional stakes. No arm raising here! kind of worship. For some people that will never be totally satisfying.

I enjoy supporting my football team and like millions of others who go to sporting competitions we know the power of communal singing, chants., clapping, a sense of being on the same side against the opposition…..I think Billy Graham and so many evangelists of this type understand the appeal of mass meetings, the call to come and make a stand, to be unashamed of going public.

What I think this tells me about progressive Christianity is that our message too, must have a sense of enthusiasm, of commitment but not to some doctrine of being ‘saved’, plucked out of a life of sin, renouncing the past. No,  PCN should be calling people to think again certainly about what it means to follow the path of Jesus, to be enthusiastic for the things about which Jesus was passionate - compassion, justice, self giving and inclusive love. Alongside our questioning, our cerebral approaches to faith, our embracing of doubt and critical thought, there must be a central challenge of being a Christian in todays world, a challenge to be enthusiastic about building the kingdom of God on earth nd working with others, religious or not, to make this world more like the world which Jesus also strove too see come about.

So we can be thankful for the way in which Billy Graham showed us the power of enthusiastic commitment.

(Adrian Alker is the chair of PCN Britain - ed)

2 On 01/03/2018 Peter Harding wrote:

Thank you, Adrian, for a perhaps more measured reflection on Billy Graham. As a young man, I was a counsellor at his Manchester Crusades in the 1960s, and I was brought up very much in a conservative evangelical environment which saw Billy Graham as something of a celebrity hero. I think it’s fair to say that his style of mass crusade was of the time when there was an exponential growth in a particularly enthusiastic form of evangelicalism. As a progressive evangelical today, with a more “liberal” (I do hate labels!) perspective, I do still value my experience of being brought up in the way I was, and there is no doubt that many people have been brought to faith as a result of hearing Billy Graham. It may not be the kind of evangelical faith that you and I have today, but surely it’s good to be in a relationship with God, even if their approach is more conservative than ours.
As far as Billy Graham’s views on LBGT issues go, many people - myself included - were brought up with very strong anti-gay theologies and we’ve had to come on a long and at times quite painful journey to change. Doctrinal truths become deeply embedded in our psyche and, even now, I still hear those voices in my head wondering if those views of my parents and early church experience might just have been right. Change is a painful and challenging journey and for some, it may be impossible.

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