An op-ed for The Guardian attacked Billy Graham’s legacy Wednesday, with the writer saying he “squandered” his ministry by not professing the state as the cure for societal ills.
Matthew Avery Sutton, an author and Washington State University professor of history, characterized Graham hours after he died as an evangelist obsessed with the apocalypse, who failed to leave a lasting, positive mark on society because he chose to focus on the story of the Gospel instead of championing environmentalism and promoting the federal government as the answer to racial injustice and poverty.
Sutton’s argument, however, is based on mischaracterizations of Graham’s writings and the assumption that a liberal, federal approach toward social justice issues would actually solve those issues better than God.
“Graham had the opportunity to lead fundamentalists into a new era. He could have pushed them to take social reform seriously as a God-given mandate to save the world from environmental destruction. He could have tackled racism, America’s original sin, by championing the federal government’s aggressive civil rights policies,” Sutton wrote. “But he squandered it. He could not overcome the speculative end-times schemes of his cohort of evangelicals, with their anti-government hostilities.”
Sutton claimed that modern evangelicals are doing nothing to solve racial tensions or address climate change, and laid the blame for that squarely on Graham’s shoulders. He asserted that part of Graham’s perceived failure was that he did not promote federally-legislated environmentalism as “a God-given mandate,” but Graham, according to his Christian worldview, could not have chosen what was and what was not a mandate from God.
God-given commands, according to Graham, were exactly that — given by God, not chosen by man, and they were to be found in scripture, as “the only infallible, authoritative Word of God revealing the love of God to the world.” Federally mandated environmental policies are decidedly absent from Christian scripture.
Sutton also lambasted Graham for not taking a strong enough stance in favor of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but even Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. acknowledged that Graham was very much a public proponent of integration and equal rights.
“He is on the plus-side of history,” Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. says of Rev. Billy Graham. “I remember when he opened his doors … to integrate and at that time, it was a tough call.” https://t.co/dVQzEyUDJGpic.twitter.com/1uUH6bjOKv
— CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) February 21, 2018
In both cases of environmentalism and the Civil Rights movement, Sutton’s chief complaint is that Graham did not advocate for the use of legislation or the federal government as tools to bring about ultimate and lasting change and that this reticence has manifested as apathy toward social justice among modern evangelicals. Such reticence to champion the human ability to conquer decay, death, and evil, however, was entirely consistent with Graham’s biblical worldview. Sutton notes that Graham believed that the world “would not be saved through legislation.
Graham explained that the challenges humanity faced were manifestations of spiritual brokenness and the inescapable imperfection of man brought about through sin and the works of Satan. Humans could not hope to save themselves, even if they could bring about incremental improvements, according to Graham. Humanity’s ultimate hope, Graham preached, was in the promise of the Gospel, Christ’s offer of spiritual restoration for all who follow Him, and the prophesied restoration of all creation with His Second Coming — the need for which was demonstrated by the continual challenge of evil in the world. To champion federal legislation as the cure for any evil, in Graham’s view, would have been to hold man above God and God’s promises and to deny man’s need for Christ.
Graham also shied away from promoting legislation or wading into the realm of political debate because, according to Grant Wacker, a historian from Duke University and author of “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation,” his goal was always to keep the focus on the person and the story of Jesus Christ.
“He would say, ‘I’m here to talk about Jesus,’ not to cast aspersions upon other belief systems,” Wacker said, according to Christian Science Monitor.
That policy allowed Graham to pull off a lasting feat that Sutton did not acknowledge – bridging the divide between liberal and conservative Christians so as to work with all aspects of the body of Christ toward spiritual revival.
“Beforehand, conservative Protestants didn’t have anything to do with [liberal] Protestants or Catholics, but Graham was willing to work with them,” Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, told CSM. “That really served as a lightning rod in a lot of ways because he did get a lot of critique from the theological right and fundamentalist sectors who said, ‘What are you doing?'”
If Graham’s sermons ever had a political bent, the leaning could be best described as “Christian libertarian.” Graham held no trust in federal welfare programs like the New Deal or in the ostensible benevolence of workers’ unions or in any institution that forcibly compelled people to join, pay dues, or limit their rights. These, after all, were human institutions and therefore marred by the human condition, to which only Christ was the answer, according to Graham. Graham’s suspicion toward increasing federal power was likely due in part to his witnessing the rule of oppressive regimes like the Soviet Union during his overseas ministry tours.
Sutton acknowledges that Graham was not right-wing crank” or a “paranoid anti-intellectual,” and also notes that Graham did urge Christians to do their part in caring for the world and their fellow man.
“We must not feel that we are to sit back and do nothing to fight evil just because some day the four horsemen will come with full and final force upon the earth,” Graham wrote, according to Sutton.
Sutton’s characterization of Graham as “apocalyptic” however, is dubious, as he accused Graham of fear mongering and blamed Graham for an alleged modern apocalypse brought about by racial tensions and global warming.
“Graham had good intentions, as his work desegregating his crusades demonstrated. But when his influence really would have counted, when he could have effected real change, real social transformation, he was too locked into last-days fear mongering to recognize the potential of the state to do good. We are all paying the price,” Sutton wrote.
Sutton also misrepresented Graham’s writing. Sutton claimed that Graham’s 1977 book The Jesus Generation was a book “on the coming apocalypse,” when in reality the book’s focus was on the youth culture of the Jesus movement at the time. Graham certainly referenced the “end times” and the Second Coming of Christ in his other books, like his 1992 work Storm Warning, but usually in reference to Christ’s promise of ultimate restoration as a message of hope in the midst of modern darkness, rather than a fiery pronouncement of doom.
Graham, in fact, reserved his pronouncements of doom for “the unrighteous” and “the lost,” otherwise known as those who reject Christ. Rather than apocalyptic, Graham was characterized as the “kinder, gentler face of evangelicalism,” and consistently ranked as one of the 10 most admired men in the world in Gallup surveys from 1956 to 2006, according to CSM. If by “obsessed with the apocayplse” Sutton meant “obsessed with the fulfillment of Christ’s promise,” Sutton’s assessment would be fair, though that is, after all, the focal point of Christianity.
While Graham’s distrust of federal power may have influenced the evangelical movement, as Sutton claimed, perhaps the more influential factor contributing to modern distrust of the government among evangelicals has been the spike in government infringements on religious liberty in recent years.
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