Following the passing of evangelical preacher Rev. Billy Graham this week, I was reminded not only of the dynamic and transformational influence Graham had upon people of faith in our nation for decades, but of the elusiveness of personal and collective faith, and how Americans might take the time of Graham’s passing to consider the significance of faith at this juncture in our history.
As we know, Rev. Graham at 99 had been suffering from a variety of physical ailments for many years, most having to do with his advanced age, but he was also well-known to have remained doggedly vital in the evangelical movement and faith issues during much of the period of his physical decline.
Although religious influence and practice was unknown in my family of origin, to my recollection, Graham was already a legendary pastor by the account of much of the world when I was a child. As is being recounted in the press this week, Graham became an adviser and counselor to presidents and other powerful figures in America and beyond during his years of preaching the Gospel of Christ and its doctrine of forgiveness and salvation.
This week, Graham is of course being publicly lionized by many of these influential men and women, some of whom one might find it difficult to equate with genuine Christian faith and the values Americans hold dear – but my purpose here today is not to excoriate pretenders or the faithless. As a wise man, I am sure Graham was aware that the faith of those whom he advised ran along a wide continuum, and that our nation’s salvation was as much a concern to him as their personal salvation.
It may seem strange for a professing Christian (this being myself) to acknowledge or assert that Graham’s decades-long crusade of preaching the Gospel was not solely for the Christian faithful, nor even for those he might have hoped to bring to the Christian faith (as is the general hope of most evangelicals). The more I learned about Rev. Graham over the years, the more it became apparent that while his message was indeed primarily the Gospel of Christ, a tangential but equal portion of his message was that of the singularity of American virtue – that is, the underlying and principal morality and equanimity that was woven into the very character of our nation. In other words, God’s purpose for our nation.
The national character Graham espoused and reflected through his preaching and activism was, I believe, something that he sought to preserve not only through the many advisory roles he held with men and women of influence, but through his passive influence upon Americans in general, whether Christian, Jew, Buddhist, agnostic, or atheist.
You see, despite having become a Christian in my adult life, it has been apparent to me for most of my life that the success of the grand experiment that is America had a causality that went beyond the “bright idea” of some enlightened men of the 18th century. It had to do with the commitment to love and justice that is the chief underpinning of the Christian faith, despite modern claims that our nation’s founders were not predominantly Christian. It was this light that Graham sought to keep burning, through and despite many of the potentially dangerous social upheavals he saw occur in America during his lifetime.
In recent years, we have seen an upsurge in orchestrated divisiveness, xenophobia, violence and the institutional partitioning of people of various groups within our nation. As intense as this became over the last decade, it has become even more severe since the most recent change of presidential administrations. We are encouraged to adhere to the strict and summary doctrines of political groups and sub-groups, all of which have been artificially derived and crafted to serve small groups of individuals and organizations. Few of these hold any respect for the freedom of individual or collective spiritual pursuit.
This is of course not only antithetical to the Gospel Billy Graham so fervently preached and our Constitution, but it is antithetical to the creed which men and women of faith and honor strove for so long and so hard – albeit falteringly at times – to keep alive in America. Occasionally, this was at the cost of their own lives.
While Rev. Graham did not perish on a battlefield, a beachhead, nor on the front lines of a violent civil rights protest, he was nonetheless a distinguished general in God’s great army, one of men and women who do battle with words and actions reflecting love, justice and equality, rather than the armaments of the day.