Even in death, Billy Graham succeeded in uniting all sides. There were tributes from past presidents, both Republican and Democrat, and Christian leaders of all denominations. Those who rarely agree were united in their admiration for Graham and their sadness at his passing. It is impossible to imagine any of today's current crop of divisive evangelical leaders receiving a similar reception in their obituaries. The ascent of Trump has exposed just how far they have wandered from Graham’s path.
Indeed contemporary evangelicals – some of whom have been avid cheerleaders for Trump – could learn much from Graham's commitment to ensuring his ministry remained scandal-free; he never strayed from his wife Ruth, paid himself a modest salary and was scrupulously transparent with donations. He also remained largely unpolitical. In his preaching and public interventions, Graham steered clear of the hot-button issues that today make up the bulk of evangelical leaders’ pronouncements: abortion, homosexuality, even gun rights. “If I get on any of these other subjects, it divides the audience on an issue that is not the issue I’m promoting,” he said back in 2005. “I’m just promoting the gospel.”
He also worked hard to stay out of the fray of partisan politics – he was friends with both Bush and Obama and was listened to by Americans regardless of their political affiliation. If Graham could be accused of having become too close to Richard Nixon in the wake of the Watergate scandal, he learned from his error by making a point not to endorse politicians ahead of elections or proselytise on their behalf. His ability to remain popular for so long throughout his life is a testament to this refusal to descend into the bear pit of politics and avoid public moralising. By doing so, when presidents came and went, he was able to continue in his day job: preaching to some 215 million people in 185 countries. Christians of all denominations and unbelievers were drawn to Graham’s simple message to put their faith in Jesus and be saved: from ordinary working-class Londoners who thronged to Harringay stadium in 1954 in their tens of thousands to the Queen at Windsor Castle chapel.
It is hard, if not downright impossible, to imagine any evangelical pastors and preachers achieving such influence or respectability today. While some of that is down to a changing culture, today’s religious right must take a large part of the blame. The new generation, which includes Graham’s son Franklin (who now leads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association), are a far cry from the humble preacher from rural North Carolina who became known as ‘America’s pastor’.
Instead of focusing on a simple message of salvation through faith, modern evangelicals appear happier to spend their time hawking Republican talking points, fighting an endless culture war or thundering against abortion, gay marriage and transgender bathrooms. While his father was unconcerned by denominational background and happily worked with Catholics and more liberal Protestants, Franklin Graham has become best-known for his dark utterances about the dangers of Islam.
The dawn of the Trump era has exposed modern-day evangelicals’ shortcomings even more. Having spent most of the 1990s decrying Bill Clinton’s personal sins and calling for morality in politics, many evangelicals have abandoned this crusade to vigorously stump for Trump – a thrice-married, shady businessman who has been caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.
Rather than seeing their role as offering spiritual guidance to politicians from left and right alike, today’s evangelicals – who voted for Trump in 2016 in huge numbers – appear to have subsumed their faith into right-wing Republican politics, and even the largely godless authoritarianism epitomised by the current president. Billy Graham’s life showed a different way to be ‘America’s pastor’. Instead of desiring political influence by throwing his lot in unchallenged with one party, Graham showed how to rise above partisan politics and instead counsel a nation and its leaders.
Russell Moore, one of the few prominent evangelical leaders to regularly denounce Trumpism, made this very point when he tweeted a pointed tribute in a not-so-subtle challenge to his fellow evangelicals.
'Billy Graham was never angry…was never resentful. He was never warring against the culture and the world around him. He preached Christ, not himself, not politics.'
Graham’s successors should take the hint.