Billy Graham passed away a week ago. Here is his NY Times obituary, which notes he preached from “the mainstream of evangelical Protestant belief. Repent of your sins, he told his listeners, accept Jesus as your Savior and be born again.” I browsed through the comments, but found no Evangelicals complaining about the Times obit. His Wikipedia entry notes that he was “an ordained Southern Baptist minister,” which is a little surprising given his non-sectarian approach. He sold Fuller brushes door-to-door after high school. He got an anthropology degree from Wheaton College. He preached to over 200 million people through his crusades (modern-day revivals), which were often televised. If the MoTab is America’s choir, Billy Graham was America’s preacher and pastor. But what about the Mormons, you ask?

In 2012, presidential candidate Mitt Romney met with Billy Graham, as shown in the featured image for this post. As reported by Christianity Today, the “Billy Graham Evangelistic Association removed language labeling Mormonism a ‘cult’ from its website after the famed preacher met with Republican nominee Mitt Romney last week and pledged to help his presidential campaign.” Other denominations listed as a cult by the Association included Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Scientologists. Unitarians? Seriously? Can you think of a less cult-like organization than the Unitarians?

You might try visiting the website for the Billy Graham Evangelical Association and search the word “cult.” Among the results is a Q&A entry answering the pressing question, “My neighbor keeps inviting me to her church (although they don’t call it that), but someone told me it’s a cult. How can I know?” The answer provides three guidelines to identify a cult:

First, what do they believe about the Bible? Is it alone the Word of God (as Christians affirm) — or do they add to it, or claim they alone have translated it correctly? Second, what do they believe about Jesus? Is He alone the divine Son of God, sent from Heaven to save us from our sins? Or do they deny this, or claim we must work to save ourselves? Third, what do they believe about other Christians? Do they claim that they, and they alone, have the truth — or do they rejoice that God is also at work elsewhere?

By those criteria, which of course reflects Graham’s own Evangelical view, the LDS Church is three out of three: we add scripture to the Bible, we preach moral perfectionism and don’t let even practicing Mormons into temples unless they demonstrate “worthiness,” and we claim sole access to divine authority here on earth. So, technically, he seems to have ignored his own stated description of a cult by removing the LDS Church from the list. But that also demonstrates Graham’s generosity and pragmatic approach. It’s not everyday you’ll find a Baptist setting aside their doctrines and theology to do the right thing.

I happen to be reading Frances Fitzgerald’s new book The Evangelicals at the moment, which includes a full chapter on Billy Graham. Recall that after the Scopes trial and H. L. Mencken’s acerbic reporting of the whole affair, the fundamentalist end of the Christian spectrum sort of disappeared from public view. Billy Graham played a central role in rehabilitating conservative Christianity in America, most visibly by rebranding fundamentalism as Evangelicalism. By politicizing the movement, his successors have partially undone his achievement, but that’s a story for another day. Here are a few interesting excerpts, followed by my comments, from that chapter:

  • “In the United States he was the first truly national revivalist since George Whitfield.” Contrast Graham’s broad appeal and tremendous outreach with the rather narrow media appeal of LDS leaders.
  • “His lasting achievement was to bring the great variety of conservative white Protestants, North and South, into his capacious revival tent under the name ‘evangelicals.’ … Though the least contentious of men, he contributed to the creation of conservative-liberal divide that went right through American Protestantism.” Mormons are firmly on the conservative side of that divide, but aren’t really welcome in the big Evangelical tent.
  • When young, his “family read the Bible and prayed together; on Sundays they went to church and otherwise read religious tracts.” When he was 16, a revival came to town and he was born again. Sound familiar?
  • Like Ezra Taft Benson, Graham was an outspoken anti-Communist: “My own theory about Communism is that it is master-minded by Satan. … Either Communism must die or Christianity must die.”
  • He struggled with the racism that characterized the America of the 1950s: “In 1953 he refused to permit segregated seating in his Chattanooga crusade — he removed the rope barriers around the black section himself — but in Dallas a few months later he accepted the sponsoring committee’s decision to separate areas for blacks and whites, explaining that in Dallas segregation was the law.”
  • And: “During his New York crusade in 1957 he invited [Martin Luther] King to give the invocation at an evening service, but refused King’s request that he not appear on a platform in Texas with the ardently segregationist governor of the state.”

So Billy Graham defined an era, the mid-century re-emergence and social acceptance of conservative Christianity as Evangelicalism. Any readers who have anecdotes or experiences to share about Billy Graham are welcome to chime in. Anyone attend a crusade and sign a “decision card”?