It was may turn out to be one of his last great gifts to America, 93-year-old evangelist Billy Graham publicly endorsed North Carolina’s marriage amendment shortly before the vote, helping guarantee its passage by a large margin.
“Watching the moral decline of our country causes me great concern,” Graham said in ads that his ministry published in North Carolina newspapers. “I believe the home and marriage is the foundation of our society and must be protected.”
“At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage,” he deadpanned. “The Bible is clear — God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman. I want to urge my fellow North Carolinians to vote for the marriage amendment.”
There had been some indications shortly before the May 7 vote that the margins of victory for Amendment One were narrowing. But in the end it received over 60 percent of the vote. As always, cultural elites were flummoxed. Same sex marriage is supposed to be inevitable, after all. They wonder: why won’t voters just accept it and move on?
Graham, even in retirement, remains America’s most revered religious figure. Now in the public eye for over 60 years, he is possibly America’s most influential clergy ever. Who would rival him? Colonial New England’s Puritan divines, culminating with Jonathan Edwards in the 1750s, deeply shaped America’s religious conscience. Evangelists from George Whitefield to Francis Asbury to Charles Finney to Dwight Moody to Billy Sunday shaped America’s populist religion from the late 1700s to the early 20th century. In the mid-20th century, Roman Catholic prelates like the media savvy Bishop Fulton Sheen brought their faith out of ethnic ghettoes and into the mainstream of American public life. Martin Luther King, across a tumultuous but relatively brief 15 years, became the chief icon of the civil rights movement.
But Graham has been an unavoidable public figure since 1949, in America, and around the world. He routinely filled stadiums before his retirement in 2007. With Queen Elizabeth, he is among the very few people who have personally known every U.S. president since Harry Truman. He was close friends to at least half a dozen of them, especially Nixon, Johnson, Reagan, and both Bushes. Graham has known Winston Churchill, Chiang Kai-shek, Konrad Adenauer, Haile Selassie, Indira Gandhi, and several popes, along with virtually every major public figure in American and Western public life of the last half century. He dealt with them as an equal, because his celebrity and following were typically as large as or larger than theirs. He led evangelicals to become America’s largest religious demographic as part of a wider global evangelical revival involving hundreds of millions in the late 20th century and beyond.
Usually, if not always, Graham has tried to avoid political controversies and focused on his core evangelistic message. Privately, Graham’s close links to LBJ and Nixon became political. And each round of newly released Watergate tapes potentially reveals embarrassing comments between him and Nixon. Since Watergate, Graham has been more careful. As the culture wars over abortion and school prayer exploded in the 1960s and 1970s, he tried to remain politically aloof without compromising his evangelical faith.
Even Jerry Falwell, after founding the Moral Majority, encouraged his fellow Baptist to abstain from partisan entanglements that might distract from Graham’s unique public role as America’s chief preacher. Graham’s eagerness to befriend in pursuit of evangelistic opportunity sometimes seemed excessive. His trips to the Soviet Union and North Korea in the 1980s and 1990s excessively avoided any appearance of criticism for those tyrannies so as to gain access for his Gospel message. A friendly acquaintance to both Bill and Hillary Clinton, he ignited needless controversy by seemingly likening President Clinton to King David during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
But Graham has always been quick to apologize, his regrets always seeming sincere. He’s helped to foster good will between once suspicious Protestants and Catholics. Rose Kennedy, matriarch of the political dynasty, once assured him that she never heard him preach anything about which she, an ardent Catholic, disagreed. He has successfully befriended Jews and Muslims, among other faiths, without abandoning his conviction about the Gospel’s unique truth.
Likely no other preacher or any public figure could have so appropriately filled the pulpit at National Cathedral after 9/11, when Graham, before all of official Washington in the audience, and the entire nation on television, reassured America with words about both justice and grace. He surmised in his sermon that “many” of 9/11’s victims had ascended to heaven without trying to identify who by what means. Graham, with a half century of experience, was masterful at both civil religion and evangelical revivalism.
In defending traditional marriage to North Carolinians, Graham naturally quoted the Bible, which he knows so well. But he knows much more, as the witness to much of the 20th century, as the visitor to nearly every nation, as a friend to persons of all faiths. Graham knows humanity and the moral architecture that sustains it. Liberal clergy, led by Episcopal and United Methodist bishops, plus Presbyterian moderators, signed their own newspaper ad, opposing North Carolina’s marriage amendment. They unconvincingly claimed it would harm children, battered women, and widows. Few listened or believed. Graham far more plausibly appealed succinctly to ancient truth that most people in every culture intuit: “I believe the home and marriage is the foundation of our society and must be protected.”
Commentators pro and con were surprised by Graham’s intervention in the marriage debate and surmised he would only have done so under the strongest conviction. No doubt. North Carolinians and Americans can be grateful.
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