Many old enough to recall crusading evangelist Billy Graham in his prime and his nationally televised sermons before thousands in coliseums and auditoriums worldwide marveled at his animated, stunningly direct way of spreading the Gospel, back when saving souls was the primary business of evangelism. At his very best, he stressed a Christianity of optimism, patriotism and inclusiveness, including in the area of civil rights.
We remember one of his tours when one evening the lights in the stadium suddenly went dark. Graham paused long enough to talk about the particularities of power outages — an impromptu digression as fascinating as his sermons on the Bible, Christ and daily life. That went to Graham’s magic — resonating powerfully with everyday Americans (and, yes, more than a couple of U.S. presidents) in ways few of his calling can eclipse. And he most often used his talents for divine purposes. Sadly, by the time of his death at age 99 this week, evangelicalism — or what now passes for it — had changed so significantly that Christians today who ponder Christ’s teachings can be forgiven for wondering about the path forward in societal and even political obligations.
Last fall, many Central Texans filled Touchdown Alley for the evangelism of Franklin Graham, Billy’s son, who rallies Christians to support a controversial president whose life hardly exemplifies Christianity but who is adored by some Christians for prioritizing their policies on gays, Muslims and abortion. The night before Billy Graham’s death, many Central Texans also got to hear another sort of evangelism when Soong-Chan Rah, speaking before the Mission Waco banquet, drew from Lamentations to press Christians to more boldly confront the scourge of inner-city poverty rather than fleeing to the suburbs. Lesson: Different Christians read the Bible very differently and prioritize some scripture over other. The danger: Are Christians honest enough to know when they have strayed far from biblical teachings to rationalize their own politics? Even the great Billy Graham knew personally the perils and pitfalls of such tortuous and bewildering paths.