Billy Graham Dead: A Group Portrait of the Demise of Evangelical Public Theology

With the death of Billy Graham, American evangelicalism stands to lose more than just a great leader. It is the loss of an example how to live biblically (however that was interpreted and practiced by Graham and in spite of the fact that I have quite different ideas of what that entails) as well as publicly. The current generation of evangelicals has lost this art, driving the two, Christianity and the public sphere, apart with disastrous consequences. The best public theology evangelicals can muster these days comes in the form of support for Donald Trump. It is an incoherent attempt to unilaterally enforce certain conservative values re-branded as Christian (at the expense of many other more biblical concerns) by means of riding the ticket with a man who is the embodiment of contradiction of those very values. This radical transformation is no better represented, sadly, than by the example set by his own son Franklin Graham.

I remember one day, it must have been shortly after Trump was elected 45th president of the United States of America, that I saw, I think it was Franklin Graham’s Facebook account, a picture featuring Trump together with the Graham family. Yes, Billy was there too, white-haired and looking very old. True, he was seated, and the picture concerned a previous presidential bid. But Billy was alive and present and the picture seemed to communicate the message that father too had been a Trump-ally (or that Trump really is a Christian… whatever). And I had two inner responses. One said: yeah, he’s probably senile and is just paraded in front of the camera by his photogenic son Franklin. The other response was: glad I’m no longer part of this religion.

Thing is, the time it took Franklin to become the leader of the Graham dynasty and rewrite the story of how the gospel narrative and the common good fit together, was the time it took me to develop into the other direction, away from a Billy Graham type faith toward something that still needed defining. But it was definitely something away from the Moral Majority (not that I ever was part of it; I’m not an American, after all) with its powerful retrograde rhetoric of us vs them and its use of the power of voting blocks as a means to enforce “Christian” values on an unsuspecting population.

So, seeing Billy together with Trump in that picture made me convulse a bit. But I also realized that a false rhetoric was going on there that needed to be exposed. Part of the problem is, I think, the very gospel Billy Graham preached. The message of conviction of personal sin combined with an individual decision to follow Jesus, was, on the one hand, a powerful idea that addressed the anxieties of people living in the cold war and increased industrialization. But it was also a flawed gospel that had become reduced to the individual person, privately, away—sort of—from the public dimension. It was all about the vertical dynamic in the relationship between the individual believer and God.

It needs to be said that Graham managed to do so with a keen eye for the public dimension. After all, his own ministry was massive, public, with the potential to affect or even disrupt social life. His fulfilled this task, it must be said I think, with great dignity and always with an attitude of inclusivity and cooperation. I’ve not been a Billy Graham watcher and most of his ministry was way before my time, but, if I’m right, he was even willing to cooperate with Catholics. I clearly remember his active presence during a memorial service together with an islamic imam of the 9/11 attacks. It also needs to be said that I come from a generation of people who had become Christians through Billy Graham and because of his attractive, honest, and simple message.

All things considered, it takes little imagination to see the massive difference between Billy Graham’s attitude and that of his islam-shaming son Franklin. Something is odd about that picture. The familial unity on display there reminds me of another father-son relationship that many evangelicals will be aware of, namely the one between Francis Schaeffer and his son Franky. No family shots here though. Francis and Billy were contemporaries and worked as part of the same evangelical movement. Schaeffer’s effort was to provide an intellectually sound basis to the Christian faith and live it out in a communal life-style. This didn’t work out so well for Franky, it seems. He rejected his father’s heritage and the evangelical faith and wrote a book “Bad News for Modern Man.” Evangelicals, he opined, turned the gospel into something really bad.

While Franky Schaeffer wrote his book in another time, the bad news of such a contorted gospel becomes clear in the admonition of Franklin Graham, and others, that supporting Trump is the most Christian thing to do in America today. Indeed, this is the bad news that showcases Billy as supporter for Trump in a lovely group portrait.

The passing away of Billy Graham is a momentous event for American evangelicals, because with him they’ve lost the art of living the Christian life in a manner that is life-giving by nurturing the common good and by contributing to the public wellbeing of all. Where Billy Graham cooperated with the Civil Rights Movement, American evangelicals today play into the hands of those that want to set back the clock 100 years in terms of civil rights and economic equity. Don’t let family pictures fool you.

Out of respect for Billy, I’m with Franky.

Josh de Keijzer, Ph.D. Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, USA. Bonhoeffer scholar. Currently living in the Netherlands.

2 Responses

  1. This is a powerful and cogent testimony, Jos. Back in the day when the Moral Majority was becoming a thing in the U.S., we used to say that the Moral Majority was neither moral or a majority. This is perhaps more true than ever. I note that Billy Graham looks quite unhappy in the photo. I’m sure he had good reason.

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