Culture Friday: The life and legacy of Billy Graham


MARY REICHARD, HOST: From member-supported WORLD Radio, this is The World and Everything in It for Friday, February 23rd. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. One week from today will be a ceremony, in one sense, with all the markings of state funeral: presidents will be there, dignitaries, news media.

In another sense, though, it’ll be the remembrance of a humble country preacher—the casket a simple pine box made by inmates at Louisiana’s Angola prison.

But Billy Graham’s funeral will also resemble the first big event that launched his nearly 60-year public career: It will be held in a large tent, a tribute to Graham’s first big Crusade.

AUDIO: I’m glad to tell you tonight that Jesus Christ, the son of God, has an answer to every problem that you face.

EICHER: This is film from 1949 under the so-called Canvas Cathedral … an evangelistic tent meeting in Los Angeles.

Graham retired from the crusade-style meetings in 2005, his last one in New York City. But he did speak again at a stadium meeting in 2006 in Baltimore … emphasizing that man knows not his time.

AUDIO: Are you ready to die? Whether you’re a young person here today or old person like me, you’d better decide for Christ here and now.

EICHER: Graham’s funeral scheduled a week from today at noon on the grounds of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. No doubt the theme of the service along the lines of this 12-word summary Graham spoke at the dedication of the library in May of 2007.

AUDIO: My whole life has been to please the Lord and honor Jesus.

EICHER: Well, it’s Culture Friday and time to welcome John Stonestreet. John is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. John, good morning.

JOHN STONESTREET, GUEST: Good morning.

EICHER: John, Billy Graham was very careful to draw attention to Christ and away from himself. But clearly many millions of people around the world point to a Graham meeting, or a Graham radio program, or one of his TV specials, or a book, as instruments God used to build faith in their lives.

And I want to commend a thorough feature story in WORLD by a dear colleague of mine, a veteran religion reporter, one of the absolute best in the business, Ed Plowman. You can find it online at WNG.org. But he ends his piece talking about the remarkable indirect influence of Graham. A powerful businessman who came to faith at a Graham crusade in 1968 who led your old boss Chuck Colson to faith.

John, very briefly, tell that story.

STONESTREET: Well, I’m going to kind of tell it backwards. Chuck Colson found himself in the middle of the Watergate Scandal. He had just come out of the White House after spending the first term with President Nixon. He was kinda — he had reengineered the election campaign and it had gone really well and kind of the pinnacle of his career. I mean, what do you do when you’ve reached the pinnacle of your success and now you’ve still got 60 years left to live? And that’s where Chuck found himself. Not only that, but obviously the Watergate pressure was really heating up. He went back to his private law practice and went back to some — try to regain some old customers. One of them was a guy named Tom Phillips. Tom Phillips, very powerful businessman as you said in the northeast. And went into his office one of Tom Phillips’ colleagues said, “He’s become a Jesus-freak” or something along those lines.

Chuck wanted to talk about business, Tom wanted to talk about Jesus. And just not that long thereafter at Tom Phillips’ house, Tom pulled out a copy of Mere Christianity, read a section on pride, and that was the passage, according to Chuck, that kind of pierced his soul.

But, of course, the question is what happened to Tom? You know? How did Tom get so fired up about his faith? How did Tom come to faith? And, of course, the answer is a story that millions of people can tell, which is being at a Billy Graham crusade, hearing a very direct message about sin and how we can find forgiveness and peace with God and he went forward, like millions and millions and millions have. And, of course, Chuck Colson becoming a Christian is what precipitated a push in the prisons… You mentioned earlier that Billy Graham’s casket is going to be made in Angola. Chuck had a role in the remarkable story at Angola prison — going from one of the toughest places on the planet to being a place of strong Christian faith behind the walls of a prison.

It’s hard to imagine a more influential champion of Christ, certainly in our lifetime.

EICHER: Graham was first and foremost an evangelist, but as with good evangelism there are also cultural effects. I want to mention a couple of them and get your comment.

First, integrity.

Before that first big tent meeting in Los Angeles in 1949 was the so-called Modesto Manifesto, in which Graham and his team committed to the highest ethical standards … putting in place guardrails to integrity in finances, avoiding even the appearance of sexual impropriety, emphasizing the local church, even down to little details like telling the truth about the size of crowds.

And then second, race relations. Graham reached out to African-Americans well before the civil rights movement, embraced Martin Luther King. And when you consider the context of the times, Graham was clearly very courageous.

STONESTREET: You know, Graham himself said that he did not do enough on race relations. And I think we can all look back on our own lives and say in the face of many evils or kind of culturally embedded sins, wrongs that we haven’t done enough. And Graham was one of those. Of course, that was what was — on Wednesday afternoon, that’s what NPR and CNN and many other media outlets wanted to talk about is how Graham was late to the Civil Rights case.

But Billy Graham personally went in Chattanooga, Tennessee and took down the barrier between the white and the black section of the crowd and that was in 1953. I mean, think about 1953. This is really, really early in this whole conversation. And he did that. And then by 1957, Martin Luther King, who certainly wasn’t generally accepted by southern evangelicals — Martin Luther King was praying on stage with Billy Graham and sharing his platform.

As far as the Modesto Manifesto, that’s another interesting thing. I’ve been thinking a lot about that since Billy Graham passed. Simply because of the cultural moment we’re in. I mean, it was just a couple months ago when Mike Pence got in trouble for his so-called Pence Rule. And, of course, it’s not really the Pence Rule it was the Billy Graham Rule. So here you have another kind of Billy Graham influencing Mike Pence. 

But I think it was this intention he had to never want to take the glory off of Christ. And these things are distracting things — financial scandals which — and sexual impropriety. This isn’t a 21st century reality — late 20th century, early 21st century reality. It’s been part of the fall of man and it impacted revivalism from the very beginning. And he didn’t want that to characterize his ministry.

Think about this, too, and I’ll end with this… How many leaders of that caliber do we know that have finished so well? It’s a very rare thing that some sort of scandal, as his biographer Walter Martin has talked about — people have dug deep for scandal and they can’t find it. And it goes back to that Modesto Manifesto.

EICHER: Graham was also capable of self-criticism. Again, from Ed Plowman’s story and others, we know that he came to regret getting too involved in politics. He was close to presidents. Plowman noted that Graham “had visited with every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, 12 in all. He had taken part in some of their inaugurations and funerals; he was a close friend with more than half of them, with Lyndon Johnson and his family the closest.” But it was his association with Richard Nixon where he came probably the closest to harming his reputation. Talk a little about the lessons of Graham and the danger of politics before we go today, John.

STONESTREET: You know, this is a really important question because I think it’s actually legitimate to say that he didn’t come close to harming his reputation on this one. This is probably the only thing that really harmed his reputation. And, really, it was the tapes that came out years later of conversations that he had had with President Nixon with some anti-Semitic comments. And he was — to his credit, he was devastated by those… It’s kind of one of those things I think situations we’ve probably all had when we kind of look back and go, ‘What on earth was I thinking?’ And to his credit, unequivocal apology … went around to leaders in the Jewish community and apologized in person.

And I think Graham really regretted that in two ways: One is that he allowed himself to kind of be pulled into kind of Nixon’s charm. And Nixon was one of those kind of super powerful guys that could do that to you, as Chuck often would talk about. But that maybe he maybe wasn’t as bold about really telling the truth, particularly about the Gospel. And this kind of relationship with Nixon, how utterly relevant it is right now when we see evangelicals, once again, with halls of power. And I don’t begrudge those who walk into that access and are trying to influence for the good, are trying to help their neighbor advance the cause of Christ, and to personally witness.

But I’ll tell you what, there’s an awful lot of others who are very quick in using the name of religion and Jesus to jump on and endorse, maybe, policy positions and things like that that go outside of the scope of a Christian worldview.

And this is, I think, exactly a warning that Graham learned the hard way with President Nixon. And praise God that he did learn it. And they didn’t keep him from access to the halls of power. But an interesting point on this, Nick, is that when Plowman notes that Graham visited with every U.S. president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, it wasn’t because he asked to visit with them. It’s because they asked to visit with him. And I remember the heat he took when he kind of pastored Bill Clinton through the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And I’m sure he had political opinions about resigning and impeachment like the rest of us did, but he also, I think, at the end of the day, thought he was a pastor to these guys and there was a position he had been placed in that made it possible for him to have the influence later on that he did.

EICHER: John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. John, thank you.

STONESTREET: Thanks, Nick.


Young Billy Graham with two of his teachers, John Minder (left) and Cecil Underwood Easter Sunday 1937 at the Baptist Church Bostwick Palatka, Florida.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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