Billy Graham may have been the most important evangelist of the 20th century. His words were heard by millions of people around the world. He preached in person, on television, magazines, radio, and film. His impact is still felt today. He is also one of the people most responsible for tying Christianity, Capitalism, and the United States. But his legacy didn’t stop there. While he denounced communism, he went to great lengths to ensure that communists had access to the gospel too.
Our guest this episode is David Aikman, author of “Billy Graham: His Life and Influence“.
- Is Jesus’ message individualistic, collectivist, or something in between?
- If the majority of a nation’s citizens say they are Christians, does that make it a Christian nation?
- Does hobnobbing with the wealthy and politically connected occasionally backfire? Like, say, when you’ve come out backing Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal as Graham did?
- Is it possible to cross political and theological lines today in order to spread the gospel?
- When do we prioritize the gospel over social issues and when do we have to put our foot down?
- When do you walk out into the stadium and take down the ropes that divide us and when do you leave the ropes where they are?
- Graham sermon “A Way of Life” from this episode.
- Newsreel of his 1949 crusade
- Truman’s statement on the Soviets having the bomb
- Decision Magazine article about Graham’s crisis of faith
- The Evangelicals by Frances Fitzgerald
- One Nation Under God by Kevin Kruse
- Billy Graham’s evangelistic efforts in Romania, Hungary, and China
- Was Billy Graham anti-communist?
- Billy Graham’s sermons
- Liberal Christians
- Was Billy Graham a fundamentalist?
- What is the difference between fundamentalist and mainline churches?
NOTE: We do try to get these right, but because of editing changes and our lack of staffing, they may not be perfectly accurate.
CS: Chris Staron (host)
DA: David Aikman (guest)
CS: This episode is part of a long series examining how Communism in Russia impacted the American Christian Church. This episode can stand on its own, but when you’re done go back and start at the beginning of season 3.
Also – we’re talking about Billy Graham. In the spirit of full disclosure, I produce podcast ads for Christianity Today, and CT serves ads to this show. Billy Graham started Christianity Today so we have a loose affiliation, though I tried not to let that influence this episode. Okay… here is the show.
Should Christians get involved in politics? Oof, big question right out of the gate. It’s going to come up a lot in the coming months. It seems like a simple question, though, right? It’s far from simple.
Lets say you’re an an American evangelist in the mid-1950s. Nice suit. A hat. Everyone wore hats back then. Maybe you travel around with a tent with someone playing gospel music behind you. What is your main goal? To reach people for Jesus, I’m guessing. Because, like many Christians, you probably believe that Jesus is the way to heaven. That it’s your duty to go out on that stage and snatch souls from the mouth of hell.
That’s your job. And there can be no more important task.
If you believe that it’s your job to bring salvation… all other responsibilities fall away. Right?
Well, you’ve got a problem. The 1950s were a time of racial segregation in the United States. If you preached in the south, the auditorium or tent or stadium would be divided in two: one section for the whites, one section for black people. You could say something on stage about the problem of racism… but you know that would scare away some of the audience, an audience who needs to hear about Jesus or risk eternal torment. If you don’t say something, though… history will judge you.
Do you get involved in politics or do you stay out of it?
There is a man who had to walk this line between politics and eternity. A man responsible in no small part for creating an era of public faith in the mid-1900s. For bonding capitalism with Christianity and Christianity with the United States. His name was Billy Graham.
DA: The first crusade I attended was many decades ago in 1975 in Hong Kong.
CS: This is David Aikman. A long time journalist for Time Magazine who interviewed everyone from Boris Yeltsin to Manuel Noriega. He’s also the author of Billy Graham: His Life and Influence. Mr. Aikman was in a nursing home when I interviewed him so you may hear some noise in the background.
DA: When he made his invitation for people to get up from their seats there was a moment of silence before the people started coming and there was a palpable sense of the Holy Spirit absolutely coming over that place. I will never forget that.
CS: It may be hard to imagine the impact of Billy Graham in part because the numbers are so large. In 1951 he spoke to 100,000 people at the Rose Bowl in LA. 336,000 people in Forth Worth Texas.
Though he died in February of 2018, his name is still with us. When Christianity Today’s former editor Mark Galli, who appeared on this show two years ago, wrote that CT could not support President Donald Trump, Graham’s son Franklin claimed that his father would not have approved. Billy Graham was pulled into politics, even after his death.
Much of his career took place during the Cold War. Historic, era defining, and controversial, Graham not only spoke out against atheistic communism… he also took bold steps to preach where nobody else could go.
You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian Church. We press pause on the culture wars in order to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
September 3, 1949. Scientists for the United States recorded some strange seismic activity. Coming from the Soviet Union. It could mean only one thing… the Soviets had tested their first nuclear bomb, this one detonated underground.
President Truman told the scientists to double-check their work. It had been only 4 years since the US dropped Little Boy and Fat Man on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States no longer held a monopoly on nuclear weaponry. Truman released a statement that read, in part:
TRUMAN: (read by an actor) We have evidence that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the U.S.S.R. Ever since atomic energy was first released by man, the eventual development of this new force by other nations was to be expected. This probability has always been taken into account by us.
CS: World War II was only recently over. The threat of nuclear war was upon us. War between an atheistic, communist nation and a capitalist nation with freedom of religion. It’s easy to discount that reality. See it as old fashioned. Scare tactics to control the population. Resist that temptation.
One bomb, with no warning, could wipe out an entire city. Soon, those missiles would be aimed at us.
Billy Graham was born in 1918, the son of a farmer. When he was 16 an itinerant evangelist named Mordecai Ham came to Charlotte, North Carolina to preach a hellfire and brimstone sermon. Young Billy walked forward that night but also bowed a knee a few years later while on the eighteenth hole of a golf course. While he was in training to be an evangelist, by the way. FYI, it’s possible to be in the ministry and not really know God at all.
After college he toured with Youth For Christ, preaching campaigns with musicians, moving from city to city. At this point, he was like a lot of other revivalists. Some ups, some downs. Not the draw that would later become.
Town after town. Month after month.
It wasn’t all roses. Billy Graham himself had a crisis of faith. A friend questioned him about whether or not the Bible could be true. Graham didn’t see a lot of return for his preaching. A crusade in Pennsylvania didn’t go as hoped. Graham went out for a walk one night, set his Bible on a tree stump, and prayed that God would solidify his faith in the Scriptures.
A month later, his team arrived in Los Angeles in 1949.
An advance team of fundamentalists did their work advertising the revival, which took place under a big canvas tent. Two days before the revival began, President Harry Truman told the world that the Soviet Union had the atomic bomb. Graham’s first Sunday sermon did not steer away from this looming threat.
GRAHAM: (read by an actor) “This nation now knows that Russia has the atomic bomb! Do you know the area that is marked out for the enemy’s first atomic bomb? New York! Secondly, Chicago! And thirdly, the city of Los Angeles! Do you know the Fifth Columnists, called Communists, are more rampant in Los Angeles than any other city in America?”
CS: Fifth Columnists is a term used to refer to people within a country who are working to overthrow that country. His concern wasn’t just Soviets, but also communists at home.
Later in his sermon, he called Communism: “a religion that is inspired, directed and motivated by the Devil himself who has declared war against Almighty God.”
This era was a defining moment for Graham. Messages like this one found success for the first three weeks of the Los Angeles crusade. Then a famous radio star said on the air that he’d been saved Graham. William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate, told his editors to “Puff Graham”. And his audiences, here comes the pun, exploded. 10
Here again is David Aikman.
DA: He was a very strong anti-communist in the 1950s, as most prominent American speakers were at that time. Many of his crusade speeches spoke in a very sort of doomsday fashion about the dangers of sleek Russian bombers poised to strike atomic fear over American cities. So, throughout the 1950’s he was pronouncedly anti-communist.
CS: By 1954 the crusades had swept through cities in the United States. Eight million people heard him speak in person. He had a newspaper column and a radio broadcast. He’d also made some powerful friends including Sid Richardson, an oil tycoon who may have been the richest man in America. Another friend was Henry Luce, the owner of magazines like Time. He called captains of industry to prayer, even christening an airline and praying at an event for Holiday Inn. Winning him an interesting nickname: “the big business evangelist”.
Graham was known for his political ties as well, meeting with every president from Harry Truman to Barak Obama. Often becoming quite close.
DA: For example, Lindon Johnson probably spent more time in conversation with Billy Graham about spiritual matters then any other American president. And Johnson was apparently very frightened that he might go to hell. And so his conversations with Graham were an important landmark in LBJ’s life.
Graham even preached a sermon from the steps of the Capitol building in Washington DC, drawing an estimated 45,000 people. In that sermon, he called for a national day of prayer. Not a new concept. Abraham Lincoln had called for one decades earlier. It was up to President Truman to agree.
In our episode about the National Prayer Breakfast, we discussed the misgivings some people have about public displays of piety in prayer. By the way, the National Prayer Breakfast is different from the National Day of Prayer in that the breakfast is for political leaders in DC and the day of prayer is for everyone. When President Truman was given the option to create the Day of Prayer… he resisted. After all, Matthew 6 instructs us to pray in our rooms with the door closed, not in public for all to see. But public demand won out. Congress made it part of our law that the President must choose a National Day of Prayer. The first one took place on July 4th, 1952.
Yes, Graham had powerful friends and did events in politically charged locations. Before you get too judgy, remember, even powerful people need God. Business owners and politicians have the same access to Jesus as you or me. But that kind of familiarity makes some people nervous. Here was an anti-union preacher with a vast audience mingling with leaders of industry who stood to benefit if the unions disappeared. An evangelist encouraging people to turn inward for change, rather than seek change in society.
An early biographer said of Graham,
BIOGRAPHER: (read by actor)“When Graham speaks of the American way of life, he has in mind the same combination of economic and political freedom that the National Association of Manufacturers, the United States Chamber of Commerce, and the Wall Street Journal do when they use the phrase.”
CS: In a 1951 sermon in Greensboro, North Carolina he talked of the “dangers that face capitalistic America.” He went on to say that in order to make it through this troubling period, we had to embrace, “the rugged individualism that Christ brought”.
Individualism is a big concept there. Don’t sneak past it. When I talked about the changes made in American Christianity in the 1800s a few episodes ago, I noted that we turned to an individualistic view of the gospel. You as an individual need to make a personal commitment to Christ. Need to walk forward like Graham himself and accept the Lord into your heart as an individual. Some see that individualism in the sermons of evangelists and apply it to their nation. That since God is focused on the individual, we should be too. That’s why capitalism appeals to some. Instead of collectivism, which is centered on society as a whole.
He was also not a fan of the New Deal. It was a collectivist solution to an individual problem.
He knocked the Marshall Plan, which was an American program to rebuild western Europe after WWII and the welfare state here at home saying,
GRAHAM: “Their greatest need is not for more money, food or even medicine; it is Christ… Give them the Gospel of love and grace first and they will clean themselves up, educate themselves, and better their economic conditions.20”
If you believe that the only thing the world needs is conversion to Christianity, it can seem like you’re being cold to the needs of normal people. Choosing bootstrap theology over societal change. Ignoring social pressures that keep people down.
It’s a fine line to walk. On September 16, 1951 he delivered this sermon. I want you to listen and notice where he thought change came from. Not from social movements, but from the actions of individual Christians. He starts out talking about the influence John Wesley had on the US. He’s going to talk really fast here, so hold onto your hats.
BG: Child labor laws, orphanages, the abolition of slavery, and social justice for the unfortunate poor followed Wesley. However, Wesley’s social efforts were not socialistic in the modern political sense of the term. And by no means could Wesley be called Marx’s predecessor as much divergence lies between Wesley and Marx as between light and darkness. Wesley’s social consciousness was not the result of a materialistic godless doctrine as Marx produced 50 years after Wesley’s death. Quite the contrary! Wesley answered Kane’s question: in the light of correct scriptural teaching, I am my brother’s keeper! But this keepership was not the outgrowth… was the outgrowth of a right relationship to God through Jesus Christ and not that of a cold, cruel, mechanistic philosophy of class hatred. Mob violence Wesley despised. The revolt of the proletariat had no place in Wesley’s thinking. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the great Wesley revival of the 18th century saved Great Britain in her darkest and gravest hour. The desperate need in America and Britain at this hour of crisis is a spiritual awakening that will bring about social reform, honesty, and integrity in government put a new moral fiber in our society and pack our churches with men and women seeking the God of our fathers. The tragedy of the whole situation is that most of you agree with what I’m saying but you refuse to do anything about it. You do not seem to realize that you are America. And that when you make your decision for Christ it’s America through you making it’s decision. You must realize your own personal responsibilities. This spiritual awakening must begin in your hear.
CS: Did you hear the individualism there? That it wasn’t up to a big social movement like communism to do the right thing, but that of the Christian individual? Also he tied the United States to Christianity there at the end, contrasting it with socialism. That if Americans were Christians, we could fight against the evils of communism.
In another sermon titled “Satans Religion,” he spelled it out even more clearly with his five things that could fight communism: One: “old-fashioned Americanism”. Two: “by conservative and Evangelical Christianity”. Three: “prayer”. Four: “Spiritual revival”. Fifth: “by personal Christian experience.” He went on to say, “the greatest and most effective weapon against Communism today is to be a born-again Christian.”
An individualistic idea, right? That the only thing stemming the tide was you. It’s not unheard of for evangelists, to take the news of today and personalize it, use the concerns of modern life to bring people to a moment of decision. It is focused on the individual, not on the role of society. Contrast that to the Social Gospel which was very much about bringing societal change.
To his credit, Graham, an individual, did bring about societal change. In some ways that surprised even his own supporters.
You’ve probably heard me caution against creating a “they”, a people group we can scapegoat. Those people are the worst. If only they had their act together. I warn against this because if we create a “they” then we’re free to ignore that group of people. It allows us just to write them off. But our job as Christians is take the good news of Jesus to the world. We can’t do that if we’re ignoring a people.
Graham’s early supporters were fundamentalists. Those were the people who came to his early revivals and brought their friends. But Graham wanted to attract mainline Protestants as well. By the way, in the past, I’ve used the term mainline incorrectly. I’ve tried to go back to old episodes and edit those sections out but may have missed some. To make some generalizations, mainline Protestants tend to be more theologically moderate, and are less likely to take the Bible as literal. Whereas fundamentalists are more conservative and do take every word of the Bible as literal.
For example: The story of Jonah getting swallowed by a whale from the Old Testament. Mainline churchgoers might see in that poetry or allegory whereas fundamentalists see a guy being swallowed by a literal whale.
See the difference? Okay. So, Billy Graham wanted to reach out to mainline churches, the poetry/allegory camp – a necessity in places like New York City where they were the majority of Christians. He would need their help to carry out the task of putting on his revival there.
But there was this imaginary chasm between the two groups. Us over here and those guys waaaay over there. So Graham reached out.
In 1957 he held a gigantic crusade at Madison Square Garden, which was sponsored by the Protestant Council of the City of New York, a group with many liberal ministers. Graham also spoke at liberal seminaries. Broadening the idea that maybe Christians could get along. And, seeing the gospel as the most important thing, he could preach to the choir who also needed saving.
This crossing of theological lines drew criticism. Most notably by fundamentalists like Bob Jones Sr. who saw him as cow-towing to liberal ideology.
Graham’s efforts were effective. The New York crusade was the longest-running, and most heavily attended event in Madison Square Garden history. Across all of the venues, 2 million people attended with 55,000 cards signed with people making decisions for Christ. Making it the most successful evangelistic event in American history. Of course, numbers are deceptive. Many people came more than once. Thousands came from out of town. Of those many cards that were signed, only about 6-10,000 new people started coming to church in the area. The rest were already churchgoers. This sounds like a slight but really demonstrates that churchgoers, like Christian leaders, need to hear the gospel too. This was accomplished, in no small part, because he was willing to reach across theological lines.
That’s not always easy to do. Conservatives and liberals are so used to referring to each other as “those people”. One of the things I admire about Billy Graham is that he was willing to cross those heavily guarded borders. To preach to people who otherwise might not gear the gospel.
He is often criticized today for another line he had to walk. He famously removed the ropes that divided the segregated audience for his 1953 Chattanooga crusade. A few months later, he allowed a Dallas venue to segregate rather than risk some not hearing the gospel. Understandably, folks got angry about it. Still do. There are lots of angry articles about that moment on the Internet. The next year, he determined to never hold a segregated crusade again.
In the same way, he started fighting Communism by speaking out against it. Those people. But as time went on, Graham’s approach changed. Communism was a real threat. Don’t forget that. The nuclear bomb, the spread across Asia that led the United States into wars. It would be understandable to simply treat communists as those people.. but… but… Graham didn’t leave it there. Just condemn “them” to hell. To his credit, he went to places that nobody else could imagine going. And blazed a trail behind the iron curtain.
We’ll be back after these messages.
Billy Graham was us and them about Communism. Understandable considering the great number of their own people they killed, and the threat of a nuclear holocaust. But the story doesn’t stop there… What changed, according to David Aikman, is not what he thought of communism, but ideas about how Christians should react to communists.
DA: He began to change his outlook on the communist world in the 1970’s. And two events in that decade were instrumental in altering his outlook. One was he got a very high level briefing from an official in the White House in the administration of Jimmy Carter, which really scared him because the Carter official told him how dire things would be if there were ever anything resembling a nuclear war. The other thing that happened was that in 1977 when the Cold War was still at it’s height, he made a visit to Hungary as a speaker and this set in motion a whole series of invitations to other communist countries of eastern Europe.
CS: The most famous evangelist in the world… went behind the Iron Curtain. It took five years of planning to do so. Americans of Hungarian descent criticized Graham for going there. Seeing it as an implicit endorsement of the horrors that occurred in their country. But Graham himself said,
DA: And then in 1982 he made a controversial appearance at a peace conference in Moscow organized by the Russian Orthodox Church. Of course, it was a essentially a propaganda stunt to get Graham there and to have him say some fairly innocuous things. But it set into motion a series of invitations to Graham by east European regimes like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and even Poland that allowed Graham tremendous access into these countries which previously had been closed to outside evangelists.
Graham was, once again, met with skepticism by some in the United States. He had now become strongly anti-nuclear weapon, even calling for disarmament. Dismantling the military might we had spent so much money to build. Some saw that as the hand of the Soviets, manipulating Graham so they could gain an advantage. Soften their image.
DA: He was criticized by many evangelicals in the US even for taking up that invitation to go. And he was even more criticized by not just Christians but by journalists. In 1982 when he accepted the invitation to the Russian Orthodox peace conference in Moscow. And it’s very significant that one of the strongest critics of that time was Dan Rather, the CBS anchor person. And he had lambasted Graham for his naivete for attending that conference. But later on he completely retracted that criticism because Graham was speaking to the aspirations of many ordinary Russians. And they responded in a major way to his message.
CS: He preached in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, which was considered one of the most religiously oppressive of the Soviet regimes. He was not always met with enthusiasm. Authorities in these countries were brought up to fight for atheistic communism. They limited the number of people who could attend or they cut the wires to his loudspeaker systems. Still, the crusades carried on.
DA: Most significantly, of all the foreign trips that he was invited to make to eastern Europe there was a trip in Romania in the year 1985 when Graham gave an important talk at a cathedral in the city of Timisoara, which is the major city in the Hungarian speaking component of the nation of Romania.
CS: The crowd there was estimated to be 150,000 people. Enough to make a world leader nervous for sure. Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, cancelled his meeting with Graham. But the groundwork had already been laid. Protests by Protestants in Timisoara called for the end of the regime.
DA: That revolt in in Timisoara against Ceausescu triggered the collapse of the last regime in eastern Europe to succumb to the anti-communist wave that had penetrated the country.
CS: Some Romanians credit Graham’s visit for getting the ball rolling to start the revolution.
DA: Later on in 1992 after Boris Yeltsin had emerged as the leader of Russia, which was no longer part of the Soviet Union, Graham was able to make a crusade to Russia itself. Something he had prayed about on his very first trip to Russia as a tourist way back in 1959 when he said he knelt down in Red Square and prayed that the Lord would open the door for him to share the gospel with ordinary Russians and that of course happened. So I think Graham’s influence on the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and Russia was very significant. And it would be quite wrong to assume that his 1950’s era anti-communism prevailed as a viewpoint throughout his life. It didn’t. It was really modified. His disgust with the dangers of nuclear war and his sincere admiration for some peace programs in the 1970s.
CS: As his approach changed, doors continued to open for him to preach in places that had previously been unthinkable. Including both North Korea and China.
DA: When he went in 1988 the Chinese authorities were a bit annoyed by the fact that he particularly asked to see a Chinese Christian named Wang Ming-dao (spelling?) who spent decades in a labor camp for his strong Christian witness. And the people accompanying Graham were very surprised that Graham decided he wanted to make this visit. But it was extremely important for Wang Ming-dao himself. And it was a great encouragement for Chinese Christians. In fact, on the same trip by Graham, Graham had invited one of the prominent house church leaders to visit him for tea in Moscow. And the guy was arrested on his way to that meeting, which, of course, made the Chinese communists look pretty bad. But the fact is that Graham showed great sensitivity to the needs of followers of Jesus who suffered serious persecution in various countries.
CS: Which is important. Everything Billy Graham did drew media attention. By meeting with these persecuted Christians, their stories could be told. His visit in 1988 occurred at a pivotal moment in Chinese history. An era of unrest, eventually leading to the student revolt of June the 4th, 1989 in Tiananmen Square. An event that David Aikman himself was witness to. You can hear more about that by visiting our Patreon page.
Billy Graham’s legacy is complex. A man whose first love was telling people about Jesus. His career spanned massive social changes from segregation to the women’s liberation movement. Nuclear proliferation to the fall of the Soviet Union. Radio, television, films, and the Internet. Not knowing where history would go, or how he would be judged.
He was instrumental in tying Christianity, capitalism, and America together in the minds of many. Spreading the idea that societal change could be accomplished by individuals. Those concepts are vital to understanding why popular Christianity in the US is the way it is today. Why critics of American Christianity see the faith as in the pocket of big business. Ask not what big business can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. He also defined a time in America that is at the center of many debates. Some of us long for a time when Christianity was visible in every corner of society, literally preached from the steps of the capital building, on network television, and in newspapers. The 1950s can have a glow to them for that reason. A warm simplicity. When they say “Make America Great Again” this is what they’d like to emulate.
This era has long made me suspicious. Was it really so different from our own or do we romanticize the past? Was that time really less complicated, or just complicated in different ways?
Because, others see the 1950s as a time of great struggle. Rampant racism and segregation. War, restricted career and social options for women, the very real threat of nuclear holocaust. Not to mention, the reality that, religiously, we were actually pretty wishy-washy in the 1950s. We’ll get to that soon.
Billy Graham had the difficult challenge of trying to be all things to all people, so that he could make the gospel known. Despite sometimes ending up on the wrong side of history, his legacy was profound and often positive. Leaving we Christians in modern times to ponder some big questions. I’ll put these in the show notes of this episode in case you want to spark a conversation with your friends and family over dinner tonight.
Is Jesus’ message individualistic, collectivist, or something in between? If the majority of a nation’s citizens say they are Christians, does that make it a Christian nation? Does hobnobbing with the wealthy and politically connected occasionally backfire? Like, say, when you’ve come out backing Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal as Graham did? Is it possible to cross political and theological lines today in order to spread the gospel? When do we prioritize the gospel over social issues and when do we have to put our foot down? When do you walk out into the stadium and take down the ropes that divide us and when do you leave the ropes where they are?
Special thanks to David Aikman. His book is titled Billy Graham: His Life and Influence. Two other books that were helpful in this story were One Nation Under God by Kevin Kruse and The Evangelicals by Francis Fitzgerald. You can hear many recordings of Graham’s sermons at billygraham.org, which is where I found clips for this episode.
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