When Billy Graham stands before the judgment seat of God, he may finally realize how badly he failed his country, and perhaps his God. On civil rights and the environmental crisis, the most important issues of his lifetime, he championed the wrong policies.
Graham was on the wrong side of history.
The world’s most famous evangelist let his apocalyptic anticipation of the coming kingdom of God blind him to the realities of living in this world.
For Graham, the Bible had a clear message for Christians living in what he believed were humans’ last days on earth. Individuals alone can achieve salvation; governments cannot. Conversions change behaviors; federal policies do not.
These convictions shaped the evangelist’s views on civil rights.
In the late 1950s, Graham integrated his revivals and seemed to support the burgeoning civil rights movement. This is the Graham most Americans remember.
But as the movement grew, expanded and became increasingly confrontational, the evangelist’s position changed.
Once leaders like Martin Luther King Jr began practicing civil disobedience and asking for the federal government to guarantee African Americans’ rights, Graham’s support evaporated.
Within days of the publication of King’s famous 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Graham told reporters that the Baptist minister should “put the brakes on a little bit”.
He criticized civil rights activists for focusing on changing laws rather than hearts.
In 1971, Graham published The Jesus Generation, a book on the coming apocalypse. Looking for signs of Jesus’s second coming had become an obsession of Graham’s, as it was for millions of other evangelicals in the mid-20th century.
In the book, Graham praised the wisdom of young people who rejected the federal government as a tool for rectifying injustices.
“These young people don’t put much stock in the old slogans of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society,” he said. “They believe that utopia will arrive only when Jesus returns. Thus these young people are on sound Biblical ground.”
For six decades, Graham taught Americans that the federal government could not be an instrument of God to bring about justice, not on race matters and not on other significant issues. Although he believed in racial equality, his theology blinded him to what we now know was the best means for achieving that equality.
More recently, the evangelist denied the threat of global warming and rejected federal efforts to stymie it.
In a 1992 book focused on the…