George Will has a point in criticizing Billy Graham

There’s a new George Will column which is quite critical of Billy Graham, and his ministry. Will, who is an “amiable atheist” married to a “fierce Presbyterian,” suggests in The Washington Post and National Review Graham was neither a theologian or a prophet, because of how much he was loved in America.

Jesus said “a prophet hath no honor in his own country.” Prophets take adversarial stances toward their times, as did the 20th century’s two greatest religious leaders, Martin Luther King and Pope John Paul II. Graham did not. Partly for that reason, his country showered him with honors.

So, the subtitle of Grant Wacker’s 2014 book America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Harvard University Press) is inapposite. When America acquired television and a celebrity culture, this culture shaped Graham. Professor Wacker of Duke’s Divinity School judges Graham sympathetically as a man of impeccable personal and business probity.

Americans respect quantification, and Graham was a marvel of quantities. He spoke, Wacker says, to more people directly — about 215 million — than any person in history. In 1945, at age 26, he addressed 65k in Chicago’s Soldier Field. The 1949 crusade in Los Angeles, promoted by the not notably devout William Randolph Hearst, had a cumulative attendance of 350,000. In 1957, a May-to-September rally in New York had attendance of 2.4 million, including 100,000 on one night at Yankee Stadium. A five-day meeting in Seoul, South Korea, in 1973 drew 3 million.

I’m not sure how many people see Graham as a prophet (I certainly don’t), but there’s something to be said about Graham figuring out ways to reach the largest audience possible. After all, Saint Pope John Paul II drew five million to an audience in Manila, and thousands of people saw him speak in Chicago in 1979. The same goes for Jesus, who had large crowds following him around Israel during his time on Earth. Will’s criticism of Graham crowd sizes seems a little finicky, even if the point he’s trying to make is the fact Graham was extremely popular in America because he was mostly non-controversial.

Will also criticized Graham for some of his practices regarding segregation, noting he was willing to desegregate some audiences, but respected local regulations on other occasions. He’s not wrong, but Will is ignoring Graham’s friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the fact he and King spoke together at rallies. There was a dispute between the two on a few things, including the Vietnam War, but Graham and King got along rather famously. Graham also criticized First Baptist Church-Dallas pastor W.A. Criswell for some of his more racist remarks (before Criswell’s grand conversion to racial harmony) by saying the two, “have never seen eye to eye on the race issue.” So Will is a bit off the mark regarding this critique, even if he may have believed Graham could have done more to promote racial harmony.

There is something to be said about Will’s critique of Graham’s promotion of U.S. foreign policy. Graham supported the Vietnam War, and one historian told PBS the preacher saw the Cold War as godless Russia vs. Christian America. It’s questionable whether Graham should have been involved in this sort of debate or if he should have been focused on saving souls and spreading the Gospel. The Catholic Church was also, and still is, involved in political matters, and that involvement is also debatable. It’s easy for Christians to get involved in political matters they see as a “moral obligation,” but perhaps it’s better to get involved in the community, not the state. FlourishNow Vice President, and former Hot Air contributor, Kristina Ribali has detailed the work the faith-based non-profit is doing without governmental involvement, except for getting referrals from Florida DCF for their Safe Families cases. That’s different from going out and saying, “Every day, millions upon millions of people live on the knife-edge of survival because of starvation, poverty and disease. At the same time, we are told the nations of the world are spending an estimated $600 billion per year on weapons. If even one-tenth of that amount were diverted to long-range development programs that would help the world’s poor and starving, millions of lives could be saved each year,” as Graham did while discussing the arms race, and governmental involvement in helping others.

Will’s most effective criticism is something he sadly spent only a sentence or two on: whether Graham’s “calls to Christ,” were as helpful as they seemed in the moment.

Graham’s effects are impossible to quantify. His audiences were exhorted to make a “decision” for Christ, but a moment of volition might be (in theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s phrase) an exercise in “cheap grace.” Graham’s preaching, to large rallies and broadcast audiences, gave comfort to many people and probably improved some.

There has long been a debate in the church on which helps Christians more: large sermons or smaller group studies. There are churches which want to make sure people get plugged into a small group because they believe it helps Christians grow in their relationship with Christ. Graham’s ministry does include online training, but perhaps Graham should have made that more of a feature of his sermons as a supplement to the come down to the front if you want to dedicate your life to Christ. The early churches were quite small, which made it easier for correction and teaching to be given to them by Paul and other early Christian leaders. Larger gatherings did happen, as evidenced in Pentecost and Paul’s teaching in an extremely full house when Eutychus fell from the second floor window, so there is some value in them. But a true community is more than likely found in smaller, more intimate groups. It’s completely possible Graham left getting people plugged into smaller groups to those who assisted with his sermons, but Will’s disparagement rings true and is something worth discussing.

Will and National Review have gotten plenty of criticism for the piece on Graham with Todd Starnes’ National Conservative calling them both “sad,” for writing and publishing it. Yet, this ignores other pieces at NRO praising Graham’s legacy. It’s disingenuous anger, and ignores legitimate criticism of Graham. It also shows the danger of putting human beings up on pedestals, while ignoring the fact they have clay feet. Paul had his own “thorn,” and Paul rebuked Peter for sitting with Jews, and not Gentiles.

There was only one human who ever lived a perfect life, and He had the entire “fully man” and “fully God,” thing. It would be wise for people to remember this, while remembering Graham. I have plenty of respect for Graham, and believe he will be missed. There’s no doubt he had a positive effect on many people, as former president George W. Bush wrote about in The Wall Street Journal. But Will does have valid points in his critique of the pastor, and they’re worth considering.