How Billy Graham shaped American Catholicism
Billy Graham died this morning, Feb. 21, in Montreat, N.C., at the age of 99. Given his long life, it is easy to forget how young Mr. Graham was when he first emerged in the public eye. At an age that today marks a point when many adults are just feeling confident in a career and starting a family, Mr. Graham was, at 31, leading his first major crusade in downtown Los Angeles. “Crusade” was the somewhat unfortunate name given to nightly religious services highlighted by a long sermon that included an invitation to the crowd to make a public decision to convert to faith in Christ. By luck, providence or charisma, that first big crusade was a hit, and went on for eight straight weeks. It is nearly impossible to imagine the American public remaining focused on one thing for so long today.
The success was in no doubt due in part to the influential newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst. Since the 1930s, Hearst had transformed from avowed progressive to reactionary conservative—even to the point of promoting Hitler in his papers in the years leading up to World War II—and he instructed his editors to cover Mr. Graham’s Los Angeles crusade of 1949 and to actively promote it.
It did not hurt that Mr. Graham was handsome, with a thick head of wavy brown hair. He was tall and thin. He spoke commandingly and convincingly. One of his early biographers, William Martin, wrote in A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story:
Only the large expressive hands seem suited to a titan. But crowning this spindly frame is that most distinctive of heads, with the profile for which God created granite, the perpetual glowing tan, the flowing hair, the towering forehead, the square jaw, the eagle's brow and eyes, and the warm smile that has melted hearts, tamed opposition, and subdued skeptics on six continents.
Mr. Graham also had a rags-to-riches story that resonated with a generation raised during the Great Depression. Anyone who has recently watched The Crown on Netflix has been reminded of this. Actor Paul Sparks plays a young Graham meeting a young Queen Elizabeth in one episode during season two. At least twice, and once via Prince Philip’s sneering disdain, the script mentions the evangelist’s story of having sold brushes door-to-door. Even European royalty was captivated by this thoroughly American tale.
Then, in July 1950, still just 31, the young North Carolinian evangelist met with his first U.S. president, Harry Truman. After that short meeting, Mr. Graham made a mistake that he would not repeat: He stood on the White House lawn indulging eager reporters and his own ego, telling them all about his conversation with the president. Mr. Graham even demonstrated for the photographers what prayer he had shared with Truman looked like. Images of the young Mr. Graham on one knee on the White House lawn were in newspapers all around the world the following day.
Mr. Graham was puffing himself up. He made a show of what was supposed to have been kept in confidence. And he implied that President Truman had relied upon him for spiritual counsel, which was not true. Steamed about it, Mr. Truman called Mr. Graham “counterfeit.” (They later made amends.)
The impression left on the public by Mr. Graham’s display did not immediately dissipate. He was compared to Elmer Gantry, the infamous title character in Sinclair Lewis’s famous novel about a cynical and conniving showman evangelist. Mr. Lewis’s novel was published in 1927, but by the time Mr. Graham reached his prominence in 1960, Elmer Gantry had become a Hollywood blockbuster starring a handsome but slimy Burt Lancaster in the title role. This led to Lewis’s novel reemerging into public consciousness, and for years, people would yell “Elmer Gantry” at Billy Graham as a taunt.
A Life of Influence
As a young man, I revered Mr. Graham and wanted to grow up to be like him. Born and raised in Wheaton, Ill., I attended a nondenominational Baptist church steeped in Evangelicalism. At 18, I enrolled at Moody Bible Institute, where my part-time job was in the publicity department writing press releases and cataloging details of the institute’s regular “prophecy conferences” around the United States.
One of the press releases I wrote that year was on the occasion of Mr. Graham coming to Moody to speak at centennial celebrations of the founding of the school. I recall receiving the text of Mr. Graham’s talk, designed in giant 24-point type, and having the job of photocopying it. I would not have handled a saint’s relic more carefully. One year later, as a transfer student to Wheaton College, Mr. Graham’s alma mater, I found myself often in the Billy Graham Center on campus.
I lost my fervor for being like Mr. Graham simultaneously with my falling away from Evangelicalism in general. But the man and his lifetime of work continue to fascinate me. And since I joined the Catholic Church a decade ago, I have been interested in reconsidering Mr. Graham, particularly how he defied his core audience by building bridges with Roman Catholics.
Before he began his ministry in the 1940s, Protestants and Catholics eyed each other suspiciously, believing and behaving as if representing different faiths. I grew up in such an environment, in one of the evangelical centers of middle America, even in the 1970s. My evangelical parents for a time held a Bible study in our home for Catholics and former Catholics, “witnessing” to them, encouraging them to “become Christians.” I was taught to do the same, and served for a time in the Philippines as an evangelical missionary, charged with re-baptizing Catholics so that they could join the church. It was during that time that I began to fall in love with Catholicism.
Billy Graham risked a great deal with his core evangelical constituency when he began building bridges with Catholics.
In America’s Pastor, the latest biography of the evangelist, historian Grant Wacker makes a strong claim for Billy Graham’s historical importance: “Graham ranks with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope John Paul II as one of the most creatively influential Christians of the 20th century,” Mr. Wacker writes. “One could make a case for others, too, such as Professor Reinhold Niebuhr, Bishop Fulton Sheen and Mother Teresa, but all of them spoke for a more limited constituency and for a briefer stretch of time.”
Mr. Graham had a complicated relationship with Catholics and Catholicism. His own 1998 autobiography, Just as I Am (named after the hymn, which was slowly intoned during the “altar call” of every Graham crusade), detailed how he opposed Communism and was a friend to Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as to President Richard Nixon. It spoke of his opposition to abortion and of how he enjoyed the media attention he often received. But then there were also moments such as this one in the U.S.S.R. in 1988, when Mr. Graham remembered, “sitting on the floor talking with Cardinal John O’Connor of New York about the way Protestant-Roman Catholic relations had changed.”
Protestant-Catholic relations did change in those years, in part because of the work of Billy Graham.
He risked a great deal with his core evangelical constituency when he began building bridges with Catholics. This started after his 1957 crusade in New York City at Madison Square Garden, the first time Billy Graham preached on national television, when local Catholic priests warned parishioners against attending. Mr. Graham responded by subsequently reaching out to prominent Catholics in every city as he prepared his next crusade, to stand with him as representatives of the Christian faith. The majority of evangelicals were unhappy with this. Some of a more fundamentalist persuasion began to disown Mr. Graham as a betrayer of the true faith.
But Mr. Graham was drawing crowds—thousands and tens of thousands of people each year—to faith in Jesus Christ. How could any evangelical argue with that?
Protestant-Catholic relations did change, in part because of the work of Billy Graham.
Martin E. Marty, the Lutheran historian who taught for decades at the University of Chicago and who, at 90, is of Billy Graham’s generation, made some of his reputation by covering that famous 1957 Madison Square Garden crusade for The Christian Century, a magazine he then went on to edit for half a century. A young Lutheran pastor with his Ph.D. fresh in hand, Mr. Marty published an article that year, “A Tale of Two Cities,” portraying Mr. Graham as someone with two audiences or “congregations.” Mr. Graham held one congregation, Mr. Marty said, as that rare Christian celebrity who stands out as a figure in the secular media. The other congregation, Mr. Marty said, Mr. Graham had as an exhorter, a builder-up of the converted.
This was a challenge of the premise of success as it was then portrayed in the media and by Mr. Graham’s organization. The evangelist was not creating converts so much as he was inspiring and re-inspiring the already converted, Mr. Marty said. Sitting there in Madison Square Garden at one of the crusade events, Mr. Marty thought to himself, as he told me 60 years later: “The event was described as a great missionary success at converting secular, pagan New York, and yet, when I looked around, I didn’t see any of the thousands needing the song sheets. They sang along from memory Gospel hymns which we Lutherans, or Catholics, were unfamiliar with.”
Partners in Prayer
Mr. Graham’s early commitment to relationships with Catholics was muddled, at best. During the 1960 U.S. presidential election, for example, according to biographer William Martin, the evangelist made it clear to many that Richard Nixon was his man and that he was deeply concerned at the prospect of a Catholic president. Soon thereafter, however, Mr. Graham seems to have changed his perspective. He experienced a warming and openness to expressions of Christian faith that had been previously foreign to his Southern, fundamentalist, Southern Baptist roots. In Just as I Am, Mr. Graham would explain that ecumenical notions began stirring in him back at the very beginning of his ministry, before the Los Angeles Crusade. These took time to develop, he said, and he had to move carefully.
By 1961, Mr. Graham and President Kennedy prayed side by side at a Washington prayer breakfast. A few years later, in 1964, Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston (who, as archbishop, had even endorsed a Graham crusade in Boston in 1950) met with Mr. Graham upon returning from Rome and the Second Vatican Council, declaring before a national television audience that Mr. Graham’s message was good for Catholics.
Cardinal Cushing said, “God will bless [Graham’s] preaching and crusade.” Mr. Graham responded with gratitude, stating that he felt much closer to Catholics and Catholic tradition than he did to what was more alien to his message: liberal Protestantism.
Such an embrace of Catholic understandings of faith over liberal Protestant ones would give birth to the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” initiative of Richard John Neuhaus and Charles Colson 30 years later. Their joint ecumenical document, published in 1994, used biblical and theological principles to rally around shared political issues such as the right to life. Catholic co-signers of the ecumenical document included George Weigel and Jesuit theologian and frequent America contributor, Avery Dulles, S.J.
Throughout the remaining four decades of his public preaching ministry, Mr. Graham was known for warm friendships with other prominent Catholics, including the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., who even gave his permission for Mr. Graham to hold a crusade on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in its famous football stadium. Of course, Mr. Graham filled the stadium. Then there were notable and public friendships with Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Cardinal Francis Spellman, even Pope John Paul II.
Mr. Graham sought out the pope in 1981, requesting a private audience at the Vatican, something his core audience surely found strange. A photo op with the pope was never something desired by an evangelical leader in the past. Later, Mr. Graham proudly—and perhaps again somewhat indiscreetly—repeated John Paul II’s private words to him: “We are brothers.” The effect was powerful, and evangelicals and Catholics warmed to each other.
In 2000, John Paul II even sent official Catholic delegates to Amsterdam to participate in a large conference the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was sponsoring on the subject of worldwide evangelism. One of those Catholic bishops who attended is quoted in a book by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism. This bishop remarked afterwards: “I wish I could get more Catholics to have such enthusiasm for their faith in Christ!”
How interesting all of this is, and how easily we have perhaps forgotten it, living as we do in a new age, when it has become common again for many Catholics to focus on what is distinctive about our faith and tradition rather than what unites us with others. Evangelicals have likewise turned back from those bridges forged decades ago by Mr. Graham and others.
Many prominent evangelical pastors in the years since “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” appeared in 1994 have criticized it, saying that it went too far in claiming theological agreement between the two sides. And many priests today would be hesitant to align themselves with evangelical techniques like those once practiced by Billy Graham and endorsed by Cardinal Cushing in Boston. They likely would be hesitant to use Mr. Graham’s language for faith, which they might find simplistic to the point of being misleading.
This story also cannot be concluded without some mention of how difficult Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, has made the situation. In the area of ecumenical relationships, as in many other areas, Franklin has slowly eroded the good will his father built up. Due to the effects of age and the Parkinson’s disease which afflicted Billy Graham since 1992, Franklin’s father had lost the ability to speak. For decades, Franklin has used his father’s reputation to sanction opinions in politics and the culture wars that his father would not appreciate.
It is true that the way of becoming a Christian differs in Catholicism and Evangelicalism, and there are differences between how an evangelical feels confident of eternal salvation following a “decision for Christ,” and what a Catholic reads in the Catechism about eternal security (see No. 1861). Still, referring back to the quote from the Catholic bishop who attended the conference in Amsterdam at John Paul II’s request, there is something unmistakably important about unified Christians sharing an enthusiasm for faith in Christ across denominational lines.
Willing to Listen
I recently asked my old professor, Mark Noll, once of Wheaton College, now recently retired from the University of Notre Dame, to reflect on his personal experiences with Mr. Graham over the years. Noll said, “I met Graham only twice, I believe, at Wheaton when he sat down with faculty groups on a couple of occasions. I remember mostly that he was reserved and eager to listen and not nearly as full of himself as many celebrities, Christian or not, often are.”
In Noll and Nystrom’s Is the Reformation Over? they reflect as evangelical historians on Mr. Graham’s influence on evangelical-Catholic relations. They point to how Mr. Graham’s celebrity led to difficulties in the U.S. that were not always present in other parts of the world. For example, in Canada, the most popular evangelical television program from the 1970s through the 1990s was “100 Huntley Street” and featured regular sermons from a Jesuit priest, the Rev. Bob MacDougall, S.J.. The evangelical host of the show once explained: “If you changed the voices, it could have been Billy Graham. Literally tens of thousands of Roman Catholics opened their hearts to Jesus as a result of Father Bob.”
This points again to what might be most important, whether one is evangelical or Catholic. Yes, there are differences. What continues to separate Catholics and evangelicals most of all is probably the understanding of Scripture. For Mr. Graham and those who have come after him, the Word is understood similarly to the sola scriptura approach of Martin Luther: to be preached from between the covers of their Bibles.
But for a Catholic, the Word is much more. The Word was present at creation, made incarnate through the Virgin Mary, and is mystically present in the church, its tradition and magisterium. But what Mr. Graham was about was the starting point, and only the starting point. The rest, he always said, was up to churches. Father Hesburgh of Notre Dame and Cardinal Cushing of Boston must have figured that, once Mr. Graham set people in motion, Catholic churches were as good a place as any to gather them up and make Christians out of them.
Thank you for this in-depth and thoughtful essay.
1. Cardinal Cushing was an extraordinary pastor (and had political savvy!).
2. Graham's excuse that he didn't recall his vile comments to Richard Nixon about Jews was one of his low points.
Thank you for this perspective. As a Protestant, I’ve had a question, and it relates to something brought up in this article concerning eternal security. What is the Catholic understanding of the purpose of 1 John? How do you interpret his stated purpose is so that his readers might “know that [they] have eternal life”?
As Catholics we can say we have been saved through the grace of baptism, we are saved through our faith and communion with Christ, and by our continued cooperation with His grace,we will be saved.
That’s helpful! Do Catholics then believe that a person can have the assurance John was talking about? Can you know that you have eternal life?
Baptism is resurrection to eternal life.
Simply being baptized and believing in Christ is not sufficient for salvation. Love is required, and what is the proof of love? Good works, such as the works of charity, "love of God" and "love of neighbor as thyself." As Christ Himself said, "Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 7:12) Furthermore, in 1 John, St. John writes, "He that hath the Son, hath life." And what does that mean but that a man must "deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow [Christ]" (Matt. 16:24; Luke 9:23) And again, "he that taketh not up his cross, and followeth me, is not worthy of me" (Matt 10:38).
In this matter, St. James makes an interesting point: "Thou believest that there is one God. Thou dost well: the devils also believe and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?...For even as the body without the spirit is dead; so also faith without works is dead" (James 2:19-20, 26). St. James reminds that the proof of faith is found in works, and therein lies the "justification." Let me illustrate this point with marriage. What marriage remains happy on simply a man saying to his wife, "I love you. That is sufficient for us." Does he not prove his love by a thousand things he does for her, by the little jewels and trinkets he buys for her, by the little love-notes he leaves for her? How much more should be given to God as proof of our faith and our love?
A further question is: is salvation guaranteed by belief? St. Paul says no. Even he who ends his life saying, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith" (2 Tim. 4:7), says, "Neither do I judge my own self. For I am not conscious to myself of any thing, yet am I not hereby justified; but he that judgeth me is the Lord. Therefore judge not before the time; until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will manifest the counsels of the hearts" (1 Cor. 4: 3-5). By judgment, he means a guarantee of salvation or damnation. St. Paul is confident in the justice and mercy of God, but he is not presumptuous.
Yes, grace comes through the merits of Christ, and Christ's grace is "sufficient." But grace is not earned by a mere statement of a creed, but by the actions that prove love. A man can say all day, "I believe" and have no love--"I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal" (1 Cor. 13:1). A man can say that he loves and do a multitude of works, but not out of real charity, if he does not prove his love by becoming another Christ, by obeying the Father even unto death--all his words and deeds "profit me nothing" (1 Cor. 13: 3). A man must be baptized to be saved (by water, by desire, or by blood), but all baptized men are not saved.
More like "How American Catholicism Influenced Billy Graham."
It was 1964 at the Boston Garden that Billy Graham—with the blessing of Cardinal Cushing—preached to throngs of people seeking God. I was one of them. Roman Catholic from birth I was on the verge of entering the seminary and went to the Arena in which I had seen so many Bruins and Celtics games curious about Dr. Graham and evangelical Christianity. I was so moved by his preaching of the Gospel that with no hesitation I told my friends I was going forward to make a decision for Christ. From that day to this I regularly describe myself as both a cradle Catholic and a convert. May Billy Graham be welcomed now to hob-nob with his Lord and Savior as once he did with presidents and monarchs. God Rest his soul.
Long before Vatican 1, Cardinal Cushing was an innate self actuating ecumenical priest. . In 1949 he personally rebuked and put down the Boston Heresy of Father Leonard Feeney S.J. that "There was no salvation outside the Church".
Father Feeney was at the time drawing tens of thousands of Catholics to the Boston Commons to hear him preach the exclusion of non Catholics from eternal salvation. His photo speaking on The Commons was front page news in all of the Boston papers and his message was enthusiastically received by the huge Irish Catholic community which reveled in the "put down " of the Brahmin Protestant who until a few decades before had exclusively controlled the politics and patronage of Boston.
It took uncommon courage for then Archbishop Cushing to denounce and reprove "The Feeneyites" and other members of the Theology Faculty at his own Alma Mater Boston College. It helped energize Bishop Cushing that his brother in law was a a practicing Jew and a personal friend..
.Little wonder then that when Rev Graham spoke in Boston in 1950 the official catholic newspaper"The Pilot" headlined: "BRAVO BILLY!"
I was distracted by your characterization of William Hearst as having transitioned from a progressive to a Nazi sympathizing “reactionary conservative” [“Since the 1930s, Hearst had transformed from avowed progressive to reactionary conservative—even to the point of promoting Hitler in his papers in the years leading up to World War II]
However, it was quite common for progressives to be Nazi sympathizers. The “progressives” were calling for strong central government to manage and regulate society and its needs — which was inherently an extreme leftist idea even to regular Democrat Americans of the time let alone the states-rights over federal government oriented Republican Party! — and that powerful centralized power was what the NAZI - National Socialist German Workers' Party - promised to its people and that was admired by the American socialists and progressives etc.
I have carefully and deliberately kept an early 20th century book by “the grandmother of the feminist movement” that includes an apology in its foreword for the anti-Semitic comments in it by the authoress.
St.John Paul II made the difference on how we should view our brothers of different faith, telling Billy Graham.."we are brothers"...resembles a Family of believers united in Christ...we belong & guided by One Good Father mysteriously under His infinite mercy & providential love.Godbless
Pretty simplistic article that fails from the start.
No actual biographical details, merely silly, sappy platitudes about Graham's wanting to be on a stage, shouting, as uneducated Baptists are wont to do.
The author doesn't even name the first church Graham pastored.
"How Billy Graham Shaped American Catholicism" ? Please stop with the silly headlines-of-the-moment.
Graham didn't 'shape' anything but his own bank account, and in doing so, forged the way ahead for a generation of skeevy evangelical salvation-sellers.
I am absolutely appalled that Billy Graham will "lie in state" in the Capitol Building rotunda. This blurring of church and state is another Republican gimmick to accrete faith-based voters to their base, many of which among evangelicals they already have.
And don't, as a rebuttal, tell me that they invited Pope Francis to speak to Congress. Much to our chagrin, or at least mine, Pope Francis is a "head of state," nothing unusual about such an invitation to foreign dignitaries!
I suppose you think that those same pesky Republicans were plotting "to accrete civil rights voters to their base" when they requested that Rosa Parks lie in state in the Capital Rotunda in October 2005.
You seem to intuit a Republican plot in the strangest places and as the basis for all sorts of events. Just because Identity politics is the Democratic Party's principal tactic , you should not attribute that tactic to others.
Rosa Parks made an extraordinary contribution to the fulfillment of a Constitutional principle, equal justice for all. It was a civic contribution, solely based on American civic principles and virtues. That she may have been selected for partisan political gains, you might be right, but she was also selected solely for secular civic values!
Mr. Graham made no such contributions to the evolution of American constitutional or civic principles. Rather, he inserted his partisan religious beliefs into civic discourse, sometimes in coarse and unAmerican ways. They call him “America’s pastor.” That’s why they chose to put him in the rotunda. He wasn’t mine and will never be. There is no Christian or any other denominational pastor of American civic principles. But your comments seemingly lend credence to an opinion that I have stated frequently lately, that conservative Catholics in the USA have become very “evangelical” in their attitudes and behaviors, alarmingly so from my Catholic point of view. Ecumenical politeness notwithstanding, he was a heretic.
"WHO KNOWS WHAT EVIL MOTIVE LURKS IN THE HEARTS OF REPUBLICANS? .......VINNY KNOWS!!!!".......(at least he is sure that he knows)
Could you explain why your description of Conservative Catholics as becomming very evangelical is not the oxymoron that it appears to be?
Take a read of these two articles which I consider revealing about Republican Catholics and about evangelicals. You can form your own conclusions, no doubt different than my own.
Michael Gerson’s article about evangelicals in the Atlantiuc Monthly:
Graham legitimized, energized, and popularized a pernicious undercurrent of Fundamentalist slither that has ever infused America’s Psyche, but which has, until recently, been Constitutionally tethered. Now unleashed, its Evangelists mock The Promise of 1787, and lead American Culture to a swampland of fetid and foul rot.
Graham will for a time be remembered as Christian hero.
Historical perspective will finally amend that judgment.
Graham will properly be understood as Christ’s executioner.
I respect Billy Graham as a gifted christian preacher , but pity him for not coming fully into the one true catholic and apostolic faith. If he were truly great he would have come home.
Not all Catholics or Catholic priests place the same value on the importance of preaching as ministers in many Protestant faiths and role models like Dr. Graham. I think part of the reason for this is the Catholic belief that the Mass, and particularly the consecreation & transubstantiation of bread & wine into the actual body & blood of Christ, is paramount to the other elements of the Catholic liturgy. I've had lively arguments with Catholic priests about the pitiful lack of sermon preparation and poor execution of many priests. It often seems like they expect the Spirit to move them in lieu of diligent practice. I once debated a young assistant pastor about to poor quality of the Sunday sermons, and he gave me the old, you should come to Mass for the magic not the sermon pitch. My response was akin to the Certs commerical about "its a breath mint AND a candy mint". Why can't we get the magical mystery tour and and inspiring sermon to experience our faith more deeply. The sermons were so poor at one parish I attended, we'd go to Saturday evening Mass and then to the Presbyterian Church on Sunday, to get inspired to think about our lives and our relationship to the Almighty and our neighbors.
Billy Graham - an inspiring preacher and writer.