Billy Graham may be preaching his final evangelistic campaign this weekend. If that is so, his career will conclude where it began. His first national crusade was held at Madison Square Garden in 1957.
Of course now, Madison Square Garden is too small to house the expected assemblage of over 80,000. For this final crusade the faithful will gather at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.
Billy Graham, now 86, has served as America’s unofficial preacher at large for over five decades. He rose to national prominence during the height of the Cold War, preaching vigorously against the evils of “godless communism.” Since then his life and ministry has tracked alongside some of our country’s most dramatic moments.
Apart from communism, Graham has avoided speaking directly to social issues. For instance, the 1957 crusade at Madison Square Garden took place the year after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. Martin Luther King had gained a national reputation for his leadership, and the civil rights movement was building momentum.
Rather than speak to the issue of segregation directly, Graham invited Dr. King to lead in prayer during one of crusade’s services. Some Christian leaders criticized Graham for what they saw as his failure to use his own national reputation to help advance the cause of civil rights. But sympathetic historians argue that Graham’s willingness to reach out to Dr. King sent a clear signal of support. Graham is reported to have said that a Christian racist was an oxymoron.
During the Vietnam era not only did Graham refuse to speak out against war, he was in fact an advocate for the conflict. One reason for his support, at least initially, was related to his strong anti-communist sentiments. Graham considered communism as the antithesis of Christianity, and Vietnam was sold as a war against communism.
Critics also point out that during this time Billy Graham gained unprecedented access to the Johnson and later the Nixon White House. These close connections, some have observed, may have affected Graham’s willingness to criticize administration policies.
The experience of Watergate, however and the revelations of Nixon’s corruption was a sobering epiphany for Graham. In fact, during the early days of the rise of the Moral Majority—the early flag ship venture of the religious right—Graham warned of the dangers of linking faith’s reputation to political parties. A lesson he learned the hard way.
And a lesson that seems to continue as a source of wisdom. In a recent interview about the upcoming evangelistic campaign, Graham said he would not preach about any of the political issues important to evangelical conservatives, including abortion, homosexuality and stem cell research.
“I’m just going to preach the gospel and am not going to get off on these hot-button issues,” Graham told the New York Times. “If I get on these other subjects, it divides the audience.”
This desire for unity has become an important theme for Graham. Three years ago taped conversations emerged with Graham and Nixon engaging in anti-Semitic banter in the White House. Graham quickly met with Jewish leaders and apologized to the Jewish community.
In preparation for the present evangelistic campaign, Graham met again with Jewish leaders and pledged anew his opposition to all forms of prejudice.
Those who take a middle course, as Graham has sought to do, often take shots from all sides. But in a time of shrill and divisive religious rhetoric, Graham’s simple message of faith in Jesus rings with a refreshing authenticity. We might hope for many converts to his message and his method.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.