How Billy Graham changed religion in America

He made evangelicalism the default setting for non-Catholic Christianity in America.

(RNS) — Without Pope John XXIII, there would have been no Second Vatican Council, no quick walk for the Catholic Church into the modern world.

Without Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, Tibetan Buddhism would be a shadow of its present self, a disappearing tradition of interest mostly to academics.

So what about that other great 20th-century religious figure, Billy Graham? What would our world be like without him?

Graham burst onto the national scene after World War II to revive a tradition of urban mass revivalism that had petered out with the 1925 Scopes monkey trial. Although his background was fundamentalist, he became the Galahad of its kinder, gentler postwar incarnation, Neo-evangelicalism.

As a revivalist, he cast himself more in the mold of irenic Dwight L. Moody than of hard-edged characters like Charles Grandison Finney and Billy Sunday. He was, early on, denominationally inclusive; and moderate on race when that wasn’t easy for a Southern Baptist.

Coming of age at a time when theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich ruled the roost, he, like his contemporary Martin Luther King, Jr., made it his business to pay them homage. In 1954, he ventured into their lion’s den, New York’s Union Theological Seminary, and after speaking in chapel 45 minutes and answering questions for another 30, received a standing ovation for his manifest sincerity and magnetism, and his verbal adroitness.

Christianity Today, the magazine he founded, set evangelicalism’s agenda. Wheaton College, his alma mater, became evangelicalism’s Harvard. And it was out of Wheaton that the megachurch movement emerged — a movement that, in beckoning religious seekers into the fold, became the suburbs’ answer to urban revivalism.

Long story short, Graham made Evangelical Protestantism safe for the world, and in the process played the central role in a development that none of the experts expected — its return to prominence in our religious culture.

Today, the default setting for non-Catholic Christianity in America is evangelicalism, not mainline Protestantism. It is fair to say that without Billy Graham, that would not have happened.

Yet while there always were critics to his theological left, the real hatred and vituperation came from the right — from unreconciled fundamentalists like Carl McIntire, who never forgave him his willingness to overlook religious differences in the saving of souls, his readiness to turn the other cheek. And in the end they had their revenge.

In the last decades of the 20th century, the fundamentalist style returned to America with a vengeance, led by decidedly non-Billy Graham characters like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and (how sharper than a serpent’s tooth) Graham’s own son Franklin.

The movement Graham led out of the wilderness has been taken over by the very forces he rebelled against. They are now leading it back whence it came.

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