The Reverend Billy Graham

Billy Graham — the father of Evangelical America — passed away last week at the age of 99. Having risen to international recognition during the late 1940s, Graham is accredited with influencing over sixty years of Christian thought. He has been an advisor to almost all presidents in recent memory, in addition to other global leaders such as Queen Elizabeth II.  For his funeral this week, thousands of onlookers lined the streets of North Carolina as his body processed through the state. Thousands more attended viewings and memorial services in Washington DC. Despite this outpouring of love for a man called “America’s pastor” and the “greatest Christian of a generation,” recent trends in American Evangelicalism could leave Graham’s legacy in jeopardy.

Billy Graham was born in 1918 on a dairy farm in Charlotte North Carolina. From very early on in his life, he seemed unlikely to become a Christian apologist. Although he was raised in the Southern Baptist Church, Graham was denied admittance to his local youth group on grounds he was “too worldly.” Unlike most other pastors, he never attended Seminary — instead bouncing from college to college before finally graduating from Wheaton College in Illinois. Graham worked various jobs in ministry following graduation before finding work in a long term position as a college ministry leader for Youth for Christ (YFC).  It was during his time with YFC that Graham hosted his first “crusade” — or Christian revival event — in Los Angeles in 1949. The event was so well-attended, that it garnered national attention and thrust Graham into the spotlight.

Over the next several decades, until his effective retirement in early 2000’s, Graham held over four hundred of these crusade events across the globe. By the numbers, Graham visited over 185 countries on six different continents and spoke live to an estimated 210 million people. During these events Graham shared the simple message of the Christian Gospel: that Christ is the Son of God and the savior of humanity having died on the cross to pay for the sins of man.   

In addition to his live sermons, Graham also broadcasted this message over the radio and television as well as through his dozens of novels. The combine reach of his crusades and these other means is estimated to be 2 billion people worldwide. Billy Graham represents the very first of what would become a hallmark of Evangelical America: the mega-pastor.

The number of mega-pastors that have cropped up following Graham’s retirement from has been staggering.  Men like Kenneth Copeland and Joel Osteen are household names for the American evangelicals. These pastors often preach to tens of thousands each week, in their home mega churches, “satellite” campuses of those churches, and over television and radio broadcasts.

Just as with Graham’s ministries, the focus of many of these mega-churches is to evangelize: to bring as many people into contact with the gospel as possible. As a result, their sermons and teachings tend to be extremely simplified and palatable to the average audience. This was always a great criticism of Graham’s work, but whereas Graham’s sermons were largely considered to be simple but still theologically sound, the televangelists of today often venture into theologically dubious waters – especially when soliciting funds. Thus, their sermons are not just creating a culture of superficial Christianity, but actively preying on their viewers. This kind of predatory behavior is certainly uncommon, but still exists among even very famous pastors such as the Copelands or Mike Murdock.

These men preach something called the “prosperity gospel.”  This gospel roughly states that all money given to the church will directly result in blessings coming in one’s life. Christian channels will often broadcasts up speakers, running them almost like infomercials.  For students of history this will hearken back to the days of the Catholic Church selling indulgences, an event that ultimately brought about the Protestant Reformation.  This makes it ironic that almost 7% of Protestant Evangelicals agree with the prosperity gospel.  Usually these 7% are the most vulnerable members of the church: the poorest and the least educated. During the 1970s there had been a big crack down on this kind of televangelism, something that Billy Graham supported. However, it has made a resurgence in recent years, often connected to the rising tide of American populism.

Those victimized by the prosperity gospel are the same people that President Trump calls the “forgotten” Americans. Just as his message spoke to them, some of the more radical aspects of Evangelical Christianity also have a strong foothold in these areas. This has resulted in the increasing association of the two ideologies. Unlike the case of the prosperity gospel, which is objectively dangerous but still a fringe ideology, the equating of faith and Trump’s brand of populism has become commonplace in the church. This phenomenon has received much attention both inside and outside of the Christian Community.  Unfortunately the consensus among the general public is now to think of evangelical as a synonym for Trump supporter.  This is not to say that they are mutually exclusive, but to equate religious ideals with political ideals both alienates unbelievers (something that undermines the mission of evangelism), as well as undermines the importance of the faith itself. Nevertheless, Evangelical leaders themselves are often guilty of this association. One such example is Franklin Graham, oldest son of Billy Graham and currently the head of the Billy Graham Ministries.

While Billy Graham was a lifelong registered Democrat, his son is staunchly conservative. During his later years, Billy Graham was famous for rarely making political assertions; he openly warned against political polarization within the church claiming that it overshadows the gospel teaching.  It was never revealed who Graham voted for in the 2016 election; his only comment on the issue was to say that he is praying for the best for the country.

Franklin Graham however, often uses his platform as the head of Graham Ministries to endorse president Trump’s policies. Following his father’s death he even went so far as to comment on what he “knows” his father would have wanted for the country. This is not to say that Franklin Graham, as an American citizen, does not have the right to voice his political opinions. This is rather to say, that in an era when Christianity in America is increasingly based around a handful of mega-pastors, those pastors must be extremely careful about the way that they present themselves to the public. Their entire lives, and more importantly livelihoods, are based around presenting themselves as a spiritual authorities. Therefore what they endorse becomes almost holy for thousands of Americans. This is a power that requires immense wisdom, the wisdom of Billy Graham.