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

Billy Graham's legacy is the evangelical pursuit of politics instead of Jesus

The limitations of relegating the gospel of Christ to little more than eternal fire insurance were on full display in Graham's lifetime.
Image: Billy Graham, Richard Nixon
Evangelist Billy Graham and President Nixon wave to a crowd of 12,500 at ceremonies honoring Graham on October 16, 1971 in Charlotte, North Carolina.AP file

From an early age, I was drawn to the glamour and excitement of the religious venues and personalities that dotted the area of Texas in which I grew up — in the shadow of Bishop T.D. Jakes’s Potter’s House, Jan and Paul Crouch’s TBN studios, and Benny Hinn’s annual healing crusades — which makes me wonder why I didn’t attend Billy Graham’s “Metroplex Mission” in October 2002 when I was 12.

Graham had held a crusade at the same Dallas Cowboys stadium 31 years prior (one of its earliest and most sought after names). My mother, who was 12 at the time and living in the area, didn’t attend that one either. At that time, de facto segregation was the rule of schools, churches, and businesses throughout much of the land, so it wouldn’t have occurred to her to attend.

Much of Graham’s preaching focused not on the pressing issues of his time — other than mentioning from time to time the Cold War — but on personal conversion and salvation. This homiletical orientation represented the logic of Southern Baptist ministers and lay people of his generation: Social transformation only comes through individuals “giving their life to Jesus Christ.”

This posture exposes one of white evangelical Protestantism’s sharp edges: The elevation of individual religious experience trumps concern for systemic injustices. This led Graham, at the height of the civil rights movement, to accuse “some extreme Negro leaders [of] going too far and too fast.” That logic was an inevitable result of Southern Baptists and other evangelical Protestants losing their cultural battles against evolution, integration and reproductive justice throughout the 20th century.

Image: Billy Graham, Richard Nixon
President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon listen to the Rev. Billy Graham at the White House following church services conducted by the evangelist on March 15, 1970.AP file

And, for a generation, white evangelical Protestants were told by their leaders to withdraw from the broader American culture — a tightrope Graham walked carefully. While his message was one of individual salvation instead of societal power, his personal relationship with every U.S. president from Eisenhower to Obama showed that not even he was exempt from the allure of American politics.

Then, during the late 1970s, emboldened by President Carter’s threat to strip “segregation academies” of federal subsidies, white evangelical Protestants across the South began expanding their pulpits from local churches to national platforms like television, political action committees and groups like Moral Majority and Focus on the Family. Through their vast political and ecclesial networks, they delivered their congregants into the hands of Republican politicians like Ronald Reagan, departing from the cultural withdrawal of their evangelical forebears.

Graham’s sermons and columns at the time reflected that same shift, as he took an increasingly hostile stance against the rights of LGBTQ persons. (The elder Graham’s shift eventually opened the way for his son, Franklin, to join forces with other members of the Religious Right to support and elect Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016.)

Those preoccupied with personal salvation have often found themselves unconcerned by systemic evil.

Graham’s selective withdrawal from and engagement with politics reflected the general trends of the white evangelical cultures of his time, especially their understanding of the connections between personal salvation and social transformation.

Historically, Christianity has held in tension various approaches to cultural domination, withdrawal and transformation. Some Christians have sought holiness through withdrawal (nuns, monks, the Amish), others through domination (the Inquisition, the Crusades, colonization, settlement schools) and yet others through progressive social transformation (Quakers advocating for abolition, black southern Christians fighting for civil rights, the Moral Mondays movement). Those preoccupied with personal salvation have often found themselves unconcerned by systemic evil; those preoccupied with social transformation have often found themselves unconcerned with personal evil; and those preoccupied with domination have found themselves concerned with painting those not in their camp as evil and deserving of a sort of heavy-handed spiritual domestication.

Graham was definitely in the first camp; but the third camp is a byproduct of his work.

Over Graham’s lengthy public ministry, white evangelical Protestants wedded themselves socially and politically to a form of religion that theologian Dorothee Sölle referred to as "Christofascism."

His opposition to the civil rights movement’s tactics of transformative disruption, his alignment with the political Religious Right and his failure to preach against the horrors of church-based homophobia and sexism demonstrate the limitations of relegating the gospel of Jesus Christ to little more than eternal fire insurance. Over Graham’s lengthy public ministry, white evangelical Protestants adjusted, wedding themselves socially and politically to a form of religion that theologian Dorothee Sölle referred to as “Christofascism”: The perpetuation of a societal status quo in which Christians maintain power, frame the aim of Christianity as a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and retain all the ills of white Christian society like patriarchy, colonization, and heterosexism.

Under Graham and other evangelical leaders’ watch, white evangelical Protestantism has evolved into a hyper-nationalistic, militaristic and xenophobic corner of American Christianity. That is unfortunately one of the byproducts of his ministry: It is less about his followers’ personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and more the domination they try to extend in God's name.

Because of this, Christians of all churches and people of goodwill throughout the U.S. and the world must be vigilant about the power that evangelicals continue to accrue, how our national policies in places like Palestine and Israel might be impacted by their nihilistic eschatological visions informed by Tim LeHaye’s “Left Behind” book series and how the educational, economic and political well-being of black communities and other communities of color is habitually attacked by centrist and right-leaning policies.

While the Rev. Graham’s message often spoke of love, acceptance, and mercy, its reach must be felt far beyond an individual human heart, a single race of people and particular sexual orientation or gender identity. Or else you’re hardly giving your life to Jesus Christ as much as to a partisan worldview parading around as Christian piety.

The Reverend Broderick Greer is a priest on staff at Saint John's Cathedral in Denver, where he oversees liturgy and young adult ministry.