To some readers of Billy Graham’s autobiography, its title, “Just As I Am,” will seem disingenuous. This is, at one level, a curiously unrevealing book. From Augustine to John Henry Newman to Peter Cartwright, the great Christian memoirists have been intensely reflective as they have probed their doubts and anguish, their conversions and their subsequent relationships with God. Graham’s autobiography, however, is nearly all on the surface. Of course, no one would be surprised if one of America’s most influential public figures chose to shroud the personal, and potentially embarrassing, details of his life, but this is not the case with Graham. His examination of his life is as guileless as it is unpenetrating, and in this way, his autobiography does present him just as he is.
As for the worse, Graham’s ingratiating manner and sunny, simple outlook have always been at variance with the faith he professes. The “Second Birth,” the defining moment in an evangelical’s life, in which he or she accepts God’s grace, is a deeply personal spiritual awakening and is often a story of despair, redemption and unspeakable joy. For Graham, whose honesty would not permit him to embellish his conversion, “no bells went off inside me.” He felt, he prosaically recalls, “happy and peaceful.” His call to preach was similarly unmomentous. Unhappy after being rejected by his college sweetheart, Graham dedicated his life to the ministry on the 18th green of a Florida golf course.
At the heart of evangelicalism is the stark yet ultimately hopeful belief that man is wretched and powerless to effect his own redemption but that with God, all things are possible. But through the years, Graham’s utterances and guidance (“in golf, you cope with the same troubles you do in life”; “for the best blueprint of government or business ethics, go to your New Testament … call it how you will, a divine policy paper, a memo from the Big Boss, a heaven-sent management manual”) have often rung hollow and sounded trite in relation to the message of his faith.
The variance between the medium and the message is the most troublesome aspect of Graham’s ministry. His spreading of the Gospel was from the start inextricably bound up with the most sophisticated public relations and media hype. He was, after all, just an obscure preacher who had come to Los Angeles in 1949 to lead a crusade, which had already fizzled out when William Randolph Hearst unaccountably issued a two-word injunction to his newspapers that forever changed the course of evangelicalism and the relationship between religion and politics in America: “Puff Graham.” Hearst’s publicity machine made Graham, literally, an overnight sensation. Once conjured by Hearst, Graham’s fame was sustained and increased by his own charm and promotional ability. In the best sense of the term, Graham is–as is made clear in his fond description of his student days as a Fuller Brush man–a natural salesman. Open and affable, unabashedly proclaiming a product in which he sincerely believes, Graham, as God’s messenger, has always been selling himself, as much as he has been selling the word of God.
In this, he has been enormously successful; no Christian evangelist has preached to more people than Graham. As early as the 1880s, revivalist Dwight Moody, with organized, businesslike methods, made himself into a national celebrity. Graham, however, was able to combine Moody’s approach with the techniques of mid-20th century advertising and mass communications. In addition to his crusades, Graham’s elaborate communications empire has included radio, television and feature film production as well as magazine and book publishing. Last year, his empire was fueled by its share of the $79.7 million received by Graham’s nonprofit corporation (the Minnesota-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Assn., a model of financial integrity). The crusades themselves have been choreographed with the organization and precision of military–and political–campaigns.
To serve God, Graham made himself into a celebrity, but as the machinery of promotion grew more complex and cumbersome, its ultimate purpose has seemed at times to be lost. For instance, his crusades increasingly served as the settings and props for his elaborate worldwide television productions, whose chief aim was to generate interest in future crusades. Graham himself hints at his regret at overstepping the line between politics and his calling as an evangelist, but he has often confused the worldly and the sacred, the medium and the message. Such confusion is perhaps inevitable when evangelists promote the Gospel by promoting themselves. In any case, Graham’s celebrity seems to have become more an end in itself and less a vehicle for spreading the Gospel, as when, looking back at ’56 and ’57, he bragged in an interview that “There was more copy published on me than even the president. I received the award for most publicized person in the United States two years running.” Graham’s clumsy attempt to reconcile his hunger for popularity with his calling–“many people came to Jesus, after all, because he was a celebrity”–seems to twist the Gospel’s otherworldly and uncompromising message into something familiar and easy.
Although Graham is a global figure, his international reputation came from his huge popularity in postwar America, where he and his approach to evangelical Christianity were perfectly suited to a new breed of evangelical Christians. Historically, evangelicalism in America found its largest number of adherents in the lower half of the social scale; dirt farmers and mill hands embraced it, as it allowed them to shape their culture and their spiritual values rather than forcing them to depend on the mediations of political and religious elites. In its renunciation of all worldly things, in what Lillian Smith called its “sheet-lightning glimpses into the dark places of the human heart,” in its demand that every believer must work for his or her own salvation and in its stark and tragic view of life, evangelicalism was a hard religion for a hard people. But the self-abasing inwardness of that religion didn’t fit the generation of evangelicals who had been swept up in the tide of postwar prosperity to join the burgeoning middle class and lower middle class. Lured by the gratifications of a consumerist society, they sought a religious expression that was both less demanding and more in keeping with their new ethos and the middle-class respectability to which they aspired.
With his perpetual tan, incessant references to golf and reassurances that “optimism and cheerfulness are the products of knowing Christ!” and that the Gospels offer a “practical, workable philosophy which actually pays off in happiness and peace of mind,” Graham appealed to a large portion of Middle America and the Sun Belt, who, in keeping with their times, wanted a religion that offered immediate psychological rewards while conforming, at least outwardly, to their parents’ old-time religion. That tradition, arguably America’s quintessential religious expression, was hostile to the notion that knowing Christ could lead to any sort of payoff in this world and certainly did not pursue optimism and happiness, but Graham altered the message, so that its adherents could consider themselves evangelical Christians even as they joined the rest of postwar America in its pursuit of the good life.
As God’s salesman, Graham has captivated, and has been captivated by, the world of influence and position. Hearst was one of the first of a long line of profane and powerful men–including Bernard Baruch, Henry Luce, Sid Richardson, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and, most famously and complicatedly, Richard Nixon–drawn to Graham. At times, “Just As I Am” seems merely a star-struck North Carolina farm boy’s chronicle of the rich and famous whom he has met or calls his friends. Although Graham has devoted his life to preaching to the multitudes, he has, as Marshall Frady observed, always seemed more at home in country club locker rooms than among the ordinary people who have looked to him to bring them God’s message. Graham can be too easily criticized for this, but as he has said, the influential need God’s help also. The same unreflective geniality that has gained him entrance to worldly councils has severely limited his ability to be effective as “pastor and spiritual counselor” to the country’s leaders. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of his long friendship with Nixon.
Only the most cynical would deny that their friendship was based on the better angels of Nixon’s nature–the decency and uprightness, the pain and poverty of his Quaker youth. Graham no doubt saw aspects of Nixon that were obscured to most. But if Nixon was far more than the villain that his critics have crudely painted, he was also far more than the earnest and awkward face he showed to Graham. When the White House tapes with all their ugly sentiments and language were released, Graham said that that Nixon was a stranger to him. But of all of Nixon’s friends, Graham–whose faith recognizes that, as he writes, “our basic problems come from the human heart” and who demands that men and women look inward–should have had the insight to recognize Nixon’s dual nature and anguished condition. Graham’s simplicity and optimism, however, rendered him out of his depth. For a while after Watergate, Graham was tainted by the scandal and ignominy of the Nixon White House, and many observers were indignant that Nixon had embarrassed and failed Graham. In fact, however, it was Graham who, in a larger way, had failed his friend.
Although Graham has been consistently less penetrating than his faith demands, he has nevertheless, as “Just As I Am” bears out, led an admirable life. Impelled by his basic decency, he has always, as he wrote in 1983, been a man “in process,” still exploring “the deeper … implications of my faith.” Although as a youth he absorbed the racial attitudes of his time and place, he insisted on preaching only to integrated audiences in the South and, in a famous incident during a crusade in Chattanooga, Tenn., he personally tore down the ropes that had been put up to separate blacks and whites. He also evolved from a quasi-McCarthyite anti-Communist to an advocate of nuclear disarmament (during the height of the Reagan-era Cold War, no less), and he became a driving force in efforts for greater understanding between the United States and North Korea.
For nearly five decades, Graham has, in his crusades around the globe, given the world what it has often believed to be a glimpse of America. We may cringe when we realize that, in his clumsy cheer and his easy answers, Graham is characteristically American. But in his openness, his capacity for growth, his artlessness and simple geniality, he has also shown the world our best self.