Baker Academic

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Why Billy Graham Gets a C–

Allow me to say first and foremost, I personally hold the late Billy Graham in high regard. While I can find problematic elements of his theology, I stand in awe of Graham's political legacy. I admire his epic, bipartisan career in the same way that I admire Ted William's 1941 batting average. (I was never a Red Sox fan and I don't really believe in the value of batting averages anymore but nobody is likely to bat .406 again!) 

Graham, to me, represents a bygone era of politics when relationships were not predetermined by party affiliation. I could also point to Graham's contributions to race relations when such a stance was resisted by many Southern Democrats. I think we ought to measure such steps relative to a person's contemporaries. But, of course, Graham's legacy will not be determined by his time in the Oval Office or his hopes for desegregation. His paragraph in history will be defined primarily by his prolific evangelism and the seeds he planted for modern Evangelicals.

It is this key element that makes Graham's legacy an interesting cultural puzzle. My guess is that one's opinion of American Christianity (generally speaking) is closely related to one's opinion of Billy Graham. I could be wrong. In fact, I admit that I am an outlier if my theory is correct; I feel generally disappointed with American Christianity and generally positive about Billy Graham. That said, I am more interested in what my readers think. With this in mind, I conducted a poll related to Graham's legacy in 2015.

Here is a screenshot of the final vote count (of 230 voters):

So why did approx. 70% of Jesus Blog readers hold a positive opinion of his public legacy? And why did approx. 30% of Jesus Blog readers hold a negative opinion? Or, in terms of rounded-up grades, why does Billy Graham get a C–?

If you want an immediate answer, you can read a few responses to the poll here

I should reiterate the limitations of this sort of poll. I didn't include a spectrum of voting options. I didn't ask a larger sample of political questions to determine my voting demographics. I promised to buy an ice cream cone for all of my liberal, university friends if they promised to vote (pro-tip: academics are coocoo for ice cream). And, worst of all, I knocked everyone's ice cream into the dirt and sent them to bed crying (academics are such babies).

In all honesty, I put out the poll for two reasons: (1) to determine how Jesusy my readers were. Billy Graham's legacy seemed to me to be a good (unscientific) litmus test for how many conservative evangelicals were reading my terribly heretical blog; (2) I wanted to get some data on Billy Graham's legacy before his passing. Folks tend to speak more kindly of the recently departed.

These 2015 results were somewhat surprising. I had guessed that Graham would get more of a 50%/50% split. Not so. So either more liberals view Graham's impact in generally positive terms or more conservatives were interested in historical criticism than I had guessed. I think its probably the latter. I should add that over 30% of Jesus Blog readers reside outside of the United States. So my American political lens might have distorted my initial guess.

I'll include two reader comments here that helped me makes sense of the data. The first helps me understand why Graham's grade was higher than I expected. The second helps me understand why is was "only" a low C given his many decades of popularity. Both commenters modeled, to my mind, reasonable and respectful dialogue.

(1) A generally positive commenter wrote:
I speak from the perspective of being raised by parents who were classmates of Billy Graham and held him up to us as a paragon. My father was an American Baptist minister, and every Sunday morning my siblings and I would awake to the strains of Beverly Shea and the Billy Graham Crusade Choir. My parents took us to a couple of his crusades, including one in the old McCormick Place in Chicago. Although I decry his anti-Semitic words in the oval office, I have difficulty viewing him cynically, not just because of my upbringing but also from following him long-term. Although I have few points of agreement with him theologically, I respect the integrity he tried to bring to his work. Let's not forget that he insisted on integration of blacks and whites in his crusades at a time that was not popular, in addition to promoting broad-based ecumenicity. His limitations were the socially influenced limitations we all face when our lives are viewed in retrospect. I think he sincerely tried to be a evening influence and, by virtue of that, had a positive effect.
(2) A generally negative commenter wrote:
I have fond memories of attending BG crusades in the UK in my younger days although from what I recall he always preached the same simplistic message. Of much more concern was his association with evangelical oddballs like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, his unhealthy relationship with various US Presidents and right wing politicians like Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, Jesse Helms etc. Added to that was his apparent lack of criticism of some very dubious US foreign policy and human rights abuses in various parts of the World.........Vietnam, Latin America, Iraq spring to mind. Despite what Franklin and the BGEA now claim I don't remember him being very active speaking up about social injustice or against apartheid or in supporting the civil rights movement in the US.  While he may have preached to unsegregated audiences, most converts in the Southern States were sent on to segregated Black or White Churches and the leadership of the BGEA itself is still a very conservative white male dominated organisation. The only female Trustee is one of BG's daughters Anne Graham Lotz although many other of his extended family are on the BGEA payroll in various capacities including another daughter Ginny and 3 of Franklin's children. Remarks he has allegedly made on political issues in recent years seem to have been drafted and put out under his name by Franklin who has been using the BGEA to support his personal anti -Obama, anti- Muslim and anti -gay agenda. Any comments one sends to the BGEA website only appear if they are complimentary although Franklin's Facebook page does contain the odd response from somebody who disagrees with his dogmatism on everything from the State of Israel to police shootings of unarmed ethnic minorities
I appreciate that both comments eschew apologetic whitewashes. My gratitude to these readers.

What was lacking in any of the comments (and they are always more numerous on Facebook) is an accounting of Graham's primary mission. Graham was all about heathen converting, soul saving, Jesus promoting, and Bible waving. In short, he was an evangelist. And to this end, he was among the best in history.

With this in mind, many Americans are becoming less inclined to view heathen converting, soul saving, Jesus promoting, and Bible waving in positive terms. If so, Graham's popularity is a snapshot of America's past. It might be a recent past but I doubt there will be another American like him. It's not because there won't be some American version of Bono or Pope Frank who puts a good face on Christianity. I just can't see anyone doing it like Billy Graham did.

I probably won't be putting out another poll on Graham. While it would be interesting, it wouldn't tell us much and I am more interested in your comments anyway. 


  1. 70% approval rating for a public figure might be perceived generally as more of a "B" or "B+" than comparing it to standardized classroom settings.

  2. Graham's legacy when it comes to segregation and race is mixed. I don't think I'd say he was anti-segregation. Granted, Graham lived in a different place and time.

  3. I echo the above sentiments, wondering what sort of curve you are working on to grade him as a C-...

    Evidently I am of a group that lives in a hole, since I was unaware of anti-semitic remarks made by Billy. Tragic.

    My main critique of this man who shared the Gospel to over 200 million (number taken from someone else's ode to him on their blogspot... not a critical counting of his crusades to account for those who were at more than one) people over the course of his crusades is that Evangelists leave a lot of burned trails. I have heard that he tried hard to make disciples instead of converts... but if that is so, then where are the people in the pews? His simplistic gospel showed in his lack of critical interaction with social ramifications of the gospel. That being said, he was more progressive than most pulpit thumpers.

    Billy Graham was a genuine man who sincerely loved the Lord and wanted people to know him. I'd rate him more of a B+ to A-, but maybe that tips my hand to where I fall on the theological and academic spectrum.

    Or maybe, just maybe, he was that great of a man.