Reflecting on his wartime leadership, Winston Churchill remarked that with the nation having the lion’s heart, he “had the luck to give the roar”. This could aptly apply to Billy Graham, the recently departed American evangelist whose compelling preaching gave the church its roar. Last week, America and the world lost not only one of Christianity’s boldest advocates but one of the twentieth century’s great freedom fighters.
His passing elicited swift tributes from world leaders and prelates. Presidents Trump and Obama each sang their praises for the son of a dairy farmer whose Christian message brought hope and freedom to millions from the gospel halls of North Carolina to the gulags of North Korea. Obama tweeted that Graham gave “hope and guidance to generations of Americans”, while the Trump White House observed that Graham’s conversion to Christianity as a young man “changed our country and the world”.
In the 1950s and 60s where parts of mainline Protestantism were wrestling with the trustworthiness of the Bible and its applicability to the modern world, Graham’s simple yet full-blooded gospel of personal redemption through Jesus Christ managed to cut through the fog of confusion and theological revisionism. His evangelical emphasis on the “Bible basics” of Christianity served to re-energise Protestant churches across America and the world, attracting millions of new converts. In our post-modern, “post-truth” age, Graham reminded us that the claims of the most significant figure in human history can still matter with the power to convert hearts and transform minds on every continent.
While welcoming the leaps and bounds in modern living standards since World War II, Graham understood that material wellbeing needed to be complemented with human and spiritual wholeness. As America emerged from the War as the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth, the young firebrand preacher reminded his compatriots that men and women lived on more than bread alone. With cars, televisions and white goods gracing the lives of more American households in the post-war years, Graham’s message pointed them also to the virtues of civic duty, selflessness, integrity and fortitude that sprang from a living faith in a God of justice and mercy.
The gospel message of Graham was as ecumenical as it was orthodox. Eschewing the separatist Fundamentalism of his youth, the American evangelist held fast to a traditional Protestant understanding of Christianity, yet calibrated his message to resonate with multiple Christian traditions. By appealing to Christian common ground on each side of the Reformation divide, he did much to salve the burns of sectarian strife between Protestants and Catholics. Indeed such was his rapport with the Catholic world that Cardinal Wojtyla of Poland (later Pope John Paul II), invited Graham to preach in the Cathedral at Krakow.
With their shared love for Christ and humanity, “America’s Pastor” and the late Pope became a united voice for religious liberty, democracy, racial equality and the dignity of the individual. Combining personal character with high principle, these two Christian leaders won the esteem of not only their flocks but people of all faiths and none.
Graham, however, not simply bore an inclusive Christian message of personal forgiveness and redemption but also an enlarged vision for human freedom. Like the great French liberal intellectual, Alexis de Tocqueville, Graham appreciated the nexus between faith and freedom. The more faith and moral capital that a people group possessed, the more disposed they were likely to be towards freedom and democratic self-government. As such, he brought the gospel message to the Eastern Bloc, and together with the ministry of Pope John Paul through Polish Solidarity, this became a catalyst for the religious reawakening and democratisation of Eastern Europe as it cast off the yoke of atheistic communism.
Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister similarly understood the spiritual precondition for human freedom to thrive. Like Graham, Robert Menzies viewed the Cold War as not simply a geopolitical struggle between two superpowers, but as a cosmic battle of civilisations. For Menzies, it was a conflict between “the Christian conception of the freedom of the human mind and human spirit”, and the “dictated, unfree human spirit” existing under the “Communist regime”.
Speaking in 1949 on the art of being a “good democrat” in a free country such as Australia, Menzies observed that the “the oldest expression of democracy is inherent in the question – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He went on to say that by believing in this biblical truism, we have “evolved this system of democracy” where we, the people, are the rulers and subjects of the state at one and the same time.
While Menzies’ own faith in Christianity and democracy largely aligned with that of Graham in the 1950s and 60s, the evangelist himself made his presence felt on Australia’s shores. Graham conducted open-air missions, known as “crusades”, here in 1959, 1968 and 1979, drawing thousands to stadiums, race courses and parks across the country. The 130,000 who packed the MCG for his 1959 Melbourne Crusade was enough to put the attendance at an AFL grand final in the shade. With Menzies reigning in the lodge, many thousands of his “forgotten people” from the towns and suburbs were reminded of the need for “homes spiritual” to accompany the “homes human” and “homes material” eluded to in his 1942 address to that very constituency.
So as America, Australia and the world farewell the evangelist who did so much to revitalise the Western church in the post-war years, it is timely to also recognise the enduring contribution of this twentieth-century titan to the flourishing of modern freedom and democracy.
David Furse-Roberts is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Menzies Research Centre and author of Menzies: The Forgotten Speeches (Connor Court 2017)
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