I'm not a horrible person. I don't make it a practice to be critical of the dead just one day after their departure. So I hope you understand that what I'm about to say is an attempt to clarify not demean the legacy of Billy Graham.
It is an established fact that no single preacher in American history has had as much public influence and stature during their lifetime as Graham. He ministered directly to Presidents (at least eight of them), trotted across the globe preaching to stadiums full of people and was called upon to be the authoritative voice of comfort during times of national crisis. Yet, despite being the darling of evangelicals until the day he died and being the standard of ministerial integrity for many -- I have only faint praise for his life.
The reason my praise for Graham is slighted and feeble is due in large part to his repeated refusal during his long tenure in public life to use his platform to speak out forcefully against racial injustice and sexism though he knew these things to be wrong. Already in the wake of Graham's death there have been attempts to try to rewrite Graham’s history and make him into some champion of civil rights and desegregation. Graham was a lot of commendable things but this he certainly was not.
Those of us familiar with Graham's history know the real truth which is for most of the time of segregation he advocated non-intervention into politics and the social struggle because he believed only the coming of Christ could truly make things better.
As an African American and proponent of progressive faith this is a history I cannot excuse. Even though it is true Graham's views during this time do not make him a racists or a conservative religious extremist, they do merit critique. Primarily because Graham’s escapist and apolitical theology, even if unintentional, often served as a form of consent for evangelical racial bigotry and prejudice.
As historians like Taylor Branch have noted, Graham was a public critic of the tactics of non-violent resistance used in the civil rights movement because he felt the tactics were unwise, untimely and promoted illegal activity. It is also well known that Graham broke Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s heart three times by refusing to speak in favor of desegregation and civil rights for blacks. Allegedly Graham’s reason for refusing to do so was his belief that his lane was “soul-winning” and stepping outside of that lane would lessen his evangelistic effectiveness.
Other public statements of Graham during this time also show that he was in favor of gradualism which was the belief that racial desegregation should not be too quickly forced upon society but rather slowly come into being as hearts change. Such a view was covertly used by many pro-segregationist as a strategy to delay/deny civil rights expansion.
For some people Graham’s strategy of ignoring the plight of “some” so that he might be able to win “all” was prudent and wise. But that’s not how I see it. In my opinion, Graham shamefully chose throughout the majority of his very long ministry to publically ignore the plight of the poor and oppressed in order to keep the favor of the rich and powerful. Such an act is the opposite of the New Testament gospel that proclaims good news to the poor and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4: 18, 19), which is ironic given the fact that Graham is heralded as America’s greatest gospel preacher.
But the question must be asked, if Graham could so easily disregard the cause of the most vulnerable in his midst, whose gospel was he truly accountable too? And what are we to say of his concern to remain well spoken of by the masses when the gospel says “beware when all [men] speak well of you…?”
To be fair, there were things I respected about Graham. For example, I appreciated a great deal his intellectual and theological humility. Unlike his son Franklin Graham and many of the evangelicals and fundamentalists that revere him, he was not doctrinally dogmatic and opted for a softer gentler brand of Christian conservatism. But unfortunately this humility was too often diminished by his characteristic refusal to speak honestly about the reality of social sin and injustice in American life.
An honest assessment of Graham’s public statements shows that he more often than not chose to remain quiet about the social sins of American culture. Though he had moments where he displayed courage like when he refused to preach unless the segregation ropes were removed at a rally or when he spoke about the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Graham spent the greater balance of his ministry committing the conservative evangelical crime of forsaking the cause of social justice in order to remain faithful to an ungodly trinity of nationalism, white privilege and theological provincialism.
I understand there will be those who read these words and take great issue with my assessment. That’s fine. I readily accept the backlash because I believe intellectual integrity requires this critical reading of the Graham legacy. Moreover, I believe the life of Graham is instructive for a younger generation of evangelicals who need to know that practicing forms of evangelism that are devoid of social justice only serves the interests of the strong over and against the weak. And potentially robs the cause of Christ of its moral courage.
During the days to come as Graham is prepared to be laid to rest he will be appropriately lauded for his significance to modern religion and society. Undoubtedly this time of praise and reflection will include stories about the souls he led to Christ, the Presidents he counseled, the integrity of his ministry, the non-partisan nature of his evangelism and the piety of his personal life. All things undeniably true.
But in addition to these stories I hope we’ll remember that there are other less flattering stories to be told. A story that tells the hard truth that Billy Graham’s brand of southern evangelicalism routinely found itself on the wrong side of history when it came to grappling with the major social issues of his time. A story that tells the unpopular truth that despite his many virtues he often betrayed the gospel by refusing to find the moral courage to be a consistent voice and force for justice and social uplift.