Billy Graham’s Faltering Legacy

When Billy Graham was born in 1918, American Christianity was engaged in something of a civil war between Fundamentalists and modernists.

As Christians, mainly in colleges and big-city churches, increasingly accepted scientific explanations for the origins of life and accordingly changed the way they viewed the creation and transmission of the Bible, they were subjected by conservatives within their denominations to heresy trials, sometimes successfully ousted from positions of leadership.

That division was memorably described by Harry Emerson Fosdick, the famed pastor of First Presbyterian Church in New York City, who in 1922 – when Graham was a toddler – delivered his sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

“Their apparent intention,” Fosdick declared, “is to drive out of the evangelical churches men and women of liberal opinions.”

As Fosdick described them, Fundamentalists “are driving in their stakes to mark out the deadline of doctrine around the church, across which no one is to pass except on terms of agreement,” especially regarding the following topics: The virgin birth of Jesus, the inerrancy of the original documents of the Bible, penal substitutionary atonement and the literal, premillennial return of Jesus.

By the time Graham began his career in the 1940s, the Fundamentalists were widely perceived to have lost that battle. In fact, it had simply smoldered. Fundamentalists withdrew into their own communities, growing under the radar of the liberal mainline Protestants, who grew lazy as the default expression of American religiosity.

Graham, along with others, reinvigorated and rebranded the doctrines of early 20th century Fundamentalism. His movement came initially to be called neo-evangelicalism, and Graham certainly offered a break from the acerbic and sectarian rhetoric of the Fundamentalists. The God he preached was one of love and inclusion, not judgment and exclusion. The salvation he preached was one of grace, not dogma.

We know about the crusades, about the thousands touched by his ministry, about the counsel he provided to multiple presidents. We might also know about the anti-communism he peddled, which provided him the access he needed to build his media empire. We might also know about the anti-Semitism he was caught on tape indulging in with Richard Nixon.

Graham was a singular force, and the evidence of that is what has happened since he began stepping away from his role as the figurehead of evangelicalism. The movement he refounded has slipped steadily back to its century-old roots in Fundamentalism – becoming simultaneously politicized and sectarian, replacing heresy trials with excommunication-by-tweet while at the same time becoming a fundraising and voting arm of the Republican Party.

Most telling, the issues that animated the Fundamentalist-modernist controversy – scientific findings, the nature of the Bible, theories of atonement and niche eschatological theories – remain animating doctrines of evangelicalism. Meanwhile, beneath the surface has remained an ugly social exclusivity – Fundamentalists generally upheld the social norms of segregation, then as neo-evangelicals largely opposed civil rights and delayed integration of their churches, and now as evangelicals continue to advocate views on race, gender and sexuality that promote a white, male, heteronormative view of God’s kingdom.

Graham seemed to keep these ugly impulses largely at bay, or at least far enough below the surface that they were easily ignored. His comments in the wake of the Bill Clinton sex scandals have been cited to call for more acceptance of LGBT Christians within the church: “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love.” (Of course, there have always been hardcore Fundamentalists who rejected Graham as too ecumenical, and therefore too liberal to be truly Christian.)

But under his successors – including and especially his son Franklin, who has become a primary religious apologist for Trumpist racism and xenophobia – those ugly theological and social impulses have come roaring back, and the old civil war has likewise returned in force, only with new labels.

It seems fitting that Graham’s life bridges these two key moments in American church history, the flaring of the Fundamentalist-modernist controversy at the time of his birth and its return as the progressive-evangelical split at his death.

Harry Emerson Fosdick ceded his role as America’s most famous preacher to Graham, but today it’s Fosdick’s words that seem most relevant to the re-fractured times left in the wake of Graham’s death:

“As I plead thus for an intellectually hospitable, tolerant, liberty-loving church, I am of course thinking primarily about this new generation. We have boys and girls growing up in our homes and schools, and because we love them we may well wonder about the church that will be waiting to receive them. Now, the worst kind of church that can possibly be offered to the allegiance of the new generation is an intolerant church.”

Graham would have agreed, I think. Unfortunately, the movement he led seems to have resumed the trajectory that preceded him.

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