Did you know Woody Allen once interviewed Billy Graham about pre-marital sex? A recording of the interview is prominently featured at the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. The library, which I visited this week, opened in 2007 amid much justified hoopla, with Presidents Bush I, Carter, and Clinton attending.
A few cynical critics have derided the library as Evangelical kitsch and the Disneyfication of faith, citing the talking cow who greets visitors at the entrance of the barn shaped museum. There is also a silo, and the facility sits immediately behind Billy Graham’s relocated boyhood home, with the site recalling his rural upbringing, which included daily cow milking. The talking cow speaks in the voice of a sassy black woman and is actually quite charming.
Most of the library and museum is far more serious than the mechanical animal might suggest. Even religious skeptics and scoffers can appreciate it as a superb tour de force of American popular culture for much of the last century, especially the post WWII decades when Graham became a global celebrity. And few Christians or other sympathizers can fail to be moved by the sweeping testimony to the evangelist’s unprecedented influence possible only thanks to his deep faith and lofty character.
Visitors to the library move through a series of rooms devoted to different aspects and episodes of Graham’s evangelistic career. Among the most fascinating is the popular media room, with clips from television interviews, mostly from the 1970s and 1980s, of Graham with the likes of Johnny Carson, Dinah Shore, and Phil Donahue. Woody Allen’s is the most surprising, and of course it’s about sex, with Allen naturally baffled by Christian chastity. Prohibitions on premarital sex are like granting drivers licenses without drivers ed, Allen bemusedly suggests to Graham. Unruffled, Graham replies that the moral order of the universe requires divine standards, however difficult or misunderstood. The interview clearly predates the unsavory revelations of Allen’s personal life.
Phil Donahue aggressively challenges Graham on the need for salvation and the Bible’s truth, with Graham again good-naturedly responding with aplomb. Donahue is relatively respectful, as are all the displayed media interviews. The selections do not distort the overall reality, as Graham won grudging respect from a media not typically friendly to Evangelical preachers. Graham tells Johnny Carson that even Ed McMahon is a sinner, to which McMahon guffaws that few if any had ever doubted.
One of Graham’s greatest triumphs was making Evangelical revivalism, previously confined mostly to America’s disrespected countryside and small towns, mainstream and somewhat respectable without diluting its core beliefs. Graham also helped make Evangelical peace with Roman Catholicism and Mainline Protestantism, synthesizing a new ecumenism that displaced the old liberal Protestant consensus.
Graham’s international celebrity status was based not only on his large stadium crowds and media savvy but also his close friendships with other celebrities, especially U.S. presidents and other heads of state across over 60 years. The library shows him with every president from Truman to Obama. Graham in an 2010 interview with Greta van Susteren recalls President Bush I, who teared up at the 2007 library dedication, as a very close friend dating to Graham’s friendship with Bush’s parents in the 1950s. A photo shows him with the Reagans as young Hollywood stars in the early 1950s. A 1967 photo shows Graham visiting an elderly Truman at his Missouri home, surrounded by stacks of books and clutter. Evidently Truman recovered from his initial distrust when a young Graham, after praying with privately him in the White House, reenacted the prayer on his knees for curious White House reporters.
There are scenes of Graham with Bob Hope, Johnny Cash, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Arnold Palmer, and Muhammad Ali, who visited Graham’s mountain cabin. There are also Willy Brandt, Henry Kissinger, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Chiang Kai-shek, Hosni Mubarak, and even François Mitterrand, who likely didn’t meet many preachers. A photo shows Graham with Martin Luther King, although Graham’s opposition to segregation, as a southern preacher, seems insufficiently recognized. Graham is shown with Queen Elizabeth, who is perhaps nearly the only living world figure whose continuous celebrity predates Graham’s fame.
One room re-creates the no man’s land bestride the Berlin Wall to illustrate Graham’s preaching behind the Iron Curtain. A particularly moving photo shows a Romanian crowd on balconies and atop a roof straining to hear him preach. A less moving photo shows Graham with smiling North Korean henchman Kim Il Sung, who invited Graham to preach in Pyongyang’s puppet church to demonstrate faux religious toleration under Communism. Graham’s visits to such dictatorships were controversial because they required his cordiality towards despicable regimes. Naturally Graham believed the trade off was worth gaining access for winning souls. The library exhibits don’t fully acknowledge this moral conundrum, nor Graham’s sometimes problematic close associations especially with Presidents Nixon and Johnson, who genuinely liked Graham but also politically exploited him, arguably with his cooperation.
Each museum room is hosted by one or more friendly docents. Time precluded my attention to the final room, which evidently included an altar call by a video from Graham’s son and successor, Franklin. A friend who visited earlier in the day, herself a devout Evangelical, was discomfited by the docents’ pressure on her to heed the evangelistic appeal as they offered to pray for her. Doubtless their attempt was well intentioned.
Graham himself, of course, still lives in his North Carolina log cabin, frail, and nearly 96. His beloved wife, Ruth, herself a spiritual force and daughter of missionaries to war-torn pre-WWII China, and whom Graham hailed as the strongest Christian he ever knew, died in 2007 only days after the library’s dedication, which she could not attend. He insisted the library focus more on the Gospel than on him. It tries to do so, but it can’t ignore that Graham for nearly 70 years has been a religious-cultural-political force in world affairs without parallel.