IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Billy Graham exemplified what evangelical Christianity could be — and too often was not

While hypocritical televangelists inflicted untold damage on their faith in the 1980s, Graham's integrity remained intact.
Image: Billy Graham speaks at Shea Stadium circa 1970 in Flushing
Billy Graham speaks at Shea Stadium in 1970 in Flushing, New York.PL Gould / Images Press via Getty Images

For anyone who has read Sinclair Lewis’s “Elmer Gantry” or lived through the televangelist scandals of the 1980s — Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts — it is not difficult to identify Billy Graham’s most remarkable accomplishment. Over the course of a public career that lasted more than half a century, no one has credibly charged Graham with scandal.

Graham’s ability to stay above the muck, even as so many of his peers were eventually dragged down into it, matters. During its heyday, white evangelical America was a political and cultural juggernaut. Today, while they remain the dominant religious force in the GOP, a recent survey from the nonpartisan research organization Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that fewer than one in five (17%) Americans identify as white evangelical Protestant. This decline is particularly stark among young people: Only about 8 percent of young adults (age 18-29) are white evangelical Protestants.

Ultimately, the reckless behavior of the televangelists in the 1980s inflicted untold damage on their faith. Their refusal to be accountable led them into temptations they could not resist. All of them, and by extension, evangelical Christianity itself, were discredited. And while we cannot demonstrably connect the recent slide in evangelicals to this legacy of scandal, such stories are not likely to attract new converts.

Meanwhile, Graham remains to this day an example of what white evangelical Christianity can be. And for that, his massive impact on society is surprisingly — and refreshingly — free of hypocrisy.

Graham remains to this day an example of what white evangelical Christianity can be.

That’s not to say that he was faultless; Graham himself would never have claimed that for himself. His very public friendship with disgraced former President Richard Nixon, for instance, at the very least raises questions about Graham’s judgment. The evangelist’s anti-Semitic remarks, caught on tape in a 1972 conversation with Nixon, remain a black mark on the evangelist’s reputation. (When that conversation came to light with the release of tapes from the Nixon Library in 2002, Graham apologized abjectly.)

Nixon had a way of luring others into his dark maw, and Graham was not immune. He also allowed himself to be played by Nixon and others for their political benefit. Virtually any sentient politician of the late twentieth century recognized that a word from Graham or a discreet pat on the shoulder or an invitation to a religious rally translated into evangelical votes.

Image: Billy Graham makes his last mission to California
Billy Graham makes his last mission to California on May 10, 2003 in San Diego.David McNew / Getty Images file

But scandal? No. In 1948, at the very beginning of his evangelistic career, Graham and his associates (those he called his “team”) met at a motel in Modesto, California. Graham, aware of the pitfalls that had toppled other evangelists, asked the individuals present to consider ways to avoid any whiff of impropriety. They came up with a four-part plan which Cliff Barrows, Graham’s choirmaster, called the Modesto Manifesto (although he hastened to add that the designation was in no way official).

First they all agreed, Graham included, to take a set salary rather than a cut of the offerings at revival gatherings. Second, they resolved not to criticize other clergy or religious leaders, a practice fairly common among itinerant preachers in the past. Third, Graham and his team would not provide estimates about crowd sizes, which other preachers routinely exaggerated. Finally, they took measures to guard against sexual impropriety, or even the appearance of such. As Graham himself said, they sought “to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.”

The televangelists of the 1980s disregarded scruples — about money, sex or self-aggrandizement. Their lack of accountability led them into questionable behavior.

The televangelists of the 1980s disregarded any such scruples — about money, sex or self-aggrandizement. Their lack of accountability led them, all of them, into questionable behavior. Jim Bakker had a tryst with with a church secretary from Long Island (you can’t make this up!) and then used funds from his ministry as hush money. Jerry Falwell engaged in questionable financial dealings with Charles Keating, a notorious figure in the Reagan-era savings and loan scandal. Oral Roberts declared that God had, in effect, taken him hostage and would call him “home” to heaven unless God’s people paid millions of dollars as ransom. And Jimmy Swaggart, who had criticized Bakker as a “pretty boy preacher,” was caught with a sex worker in a Louisiana motel room.

Despite their years of success, these falls from grace for men like Swaggart and Bakker were swift and harsh. Billy Graham, on the other hand, whatever his human shortcomings or his sometimes misbegotten political allegiances, changed the cultural fabric of America while maintaining his integrity. That must surely be his most remarkable accomplishment.

Randall Balmer, the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College, is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Evangelicalism in America" and "Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter." He produced, wrote and presented the PBS documentary "Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham."