Billy Graham’s legacy: the utility of preaching to the choir
“America’s pastor” Billy Graham passed away recently at the ripe old age of 99. He leaves behind a divided legacy, though definitely leaning more towards the positive than some of his fellow evangelists, such as Jerry Falwell. Graham, contrary to the evangelist image, was a softly spoken, endearing man. He was accessible, friendly, and, contrary to what you might think, relatively open minded. In the weeks after he died I’ve watched several interviews he conducted with known atheists and people on the complete opposite end of the social spectrum. His sit-downs with Woody Allen and Larry King are incredibly witty and insightful, respectively. At no point does Graham ever try and force religion on these people or criticise them for their lack of faith. And this is the image I got of him only weeks before he died when I saw him portrayed in the Netflix drama The Crown where he befriends Queen Elizabeth II, helping her understand her Christian faith in difficult times. Furthermore, the monarch, as defender of the faith but also on a more personal level with regards to her majesty, is already a deeply Christian individual.
The majority of the people that Graham preached to all over the world were indeed Christian people. Even the phrase “America’s pastor” alludes to this as the country is, or at least fundamentally was when Graham was at the height of is career, a Christian nation. And perhaps this is why I find Graham such an admirable man. Evangelists are always going to divide people. Nobody likes people who force their views down your throat. That goes for both the highly religious and militant atheists, generally.
I’m not so sure how I feel. I don’t have a problem with atheists preaching non-belief anymore to be honest, as I’ve come to understand that at least the social and moral associations with their “church” are largely without flaws, unlike the majority of religions. It’s slightly different with religious people. I’m a Catholic, but I wouldn’t go around trying to convert people to Catholicism because they’d simply point out the flaws in Catholic dogma and the copious reforms the church definitely needs. I think it’s better to, as Jordan Peterson says, “put your own house in order before you criticise the world.” That’s why Sam Harris’s criticisms of Islam fall on deaf ears when aired to Muslims, but the criticisms of Muslim reformers such as Maajid Nawaz are more likely to be heard. And we can trace this all the way back to the gospels. Most of the people Jesus preached to were already firm believers in an Abrahamic faith.
He merely reformed it. And, yes, there is a long history of missionaries preaching to people of completely opposing belief systems, but I think the best audience for Christian evangelists is people who are already faithful in the Christian sense, but need a leader and teacher to look to to guide them in their faith. And this I can appreciate.
Billy Graham definitely did this from where I’m sitting. But he was not the only big televangelist. Jerry Falwell was another one. Someone I have less time for. His approach was more “fire and brimstone,” criticising anybody who didn’t follow his extremely conservative beliefs as evil and going around proclaiming other religions were evil and 9/11 was God’s punishment on America. Oh, and he made millions doing so. On the contrary, Billy Graham remained politically neutral, a wise and gentle guide for many presidents. He was not interested in chastising other religions and denominations, and was actually widely criticised by Protestants for his ecumenism. And his speech following 9/11 is very moving and nothing like Jerry Falwell’s comments on the matter. He also lived a very modest life in terms of spending.
The man used the technology on offer to him to become a guide and advisor for a Christian nation. He proves, I would say, the utility of preaching to the choir. The religious are probably the people who need his form of guidance most of all. Through his use of technology he holds the world record for how many people he preached the gospels to. I think the Biblical Jesus would be proud. Billy Graham was a guide for people who needed guidance. Again, he leaves behind a divided legacy, but I think if you look at his life from this angle he definitely did more good than harm.