Over the past few days, I have heard one question more than any other: How do I think the Rev. Billy Graham would have handled the current divisions inside American evangelicalism? When you dig a bit deeper, what people are really asking is how Graham the elder (as opposed to Franklin Graham) would have handled Donald Trump.
GetReligion readers will not be surprised that this topic came up during this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.
In the old tradition of Southern preaching, I would like to answer with three points and a poem.
(I) How would Graham, in his prime, have handled Trump? Well, how did he relate to Bill Clinton, another man who had a loose connection to truth and fidelity? Graham praised the good in Clinton and then gentled criticized the bad, primarily by affirming basic Christian standards of life and behavior. He didn't endorse, but he provided personal support. He never, in public, attacked Clinton or his partner, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Graham took flak for this stance, but he was used to that.
(II) My second point is a story, a kind of parable, about the 1987 Graham crusade in Denver's Mile High Stadium.
One morning during the crusade, the evangelist's crack media team called all of the major newsrooms in that very competitive news market (where The Denver Post and The Rocky Mountain News were fighting an epic newspaper war). They wanted us to know that Graham was going to preach that night -- his first sermon on this topic -- about AIDS. This was news, because of Graham's de facto status as the Protestant pope, in the eyes of editors.
Graham's staff knew that reporters would be on deadline that night (press runs for early state editions would have been soon after 10 p.m.) and would need to line up quick telephone interviews with people who could react to whatever he said in the sermon.
Through a series of connections, I ended up interviewing a local associate pastor in an LGBTQ-affirming congregation. This man was a former Southern Baptist pastor, now out gay, who was HIV positive. As a child, he had made his profession of Christian faith at a Graham crusade. He still considered Graham a hero, although he disagreed with the evangelist's beliefs on sexuality.
The pastor agreed to listen to the sermon on the radio. And he added: "We both know that Billy isn't going to say anything tonight that will hurt anybody."
Sure enough, Graham preached a sermon on AIDS that never mentioned homosexuality. He said AIDS was another sign, one of many, that all of American culture -- repeat "all" -- was messed up on sexuality and marriage. He defended Christian teachings, but stressed that all sins are the same in the eyes of God.
As for AIDS, Graham said: "It may be a warning from God. We don't know. We're not sure." But as for America as a whole: "I do know that our sins are catching up with us."
The gay pastor noted that Graham had not attacked gays, had not separated AIDS from other sexuality issues and had not exploited homosexuality "in the way that, let's say, Jerry Falwell has." He still disagreed with many of Graham's beliefs, but he noted that the sermon was another example of the evangelist refusing to attack hurting people.
Let us attend.
(III) Graham never, ever, wanted to have arguments in public. He had his trusted critics and advisers and some were inside his own house -- literally. I think he would have heard lots of feedback on anything he did, if facing the likes of Trump.
Those critics? When I wrote my farewell column at the Rocky in 1990 -- a series of 20 quips and questions -- this was No. 10:
Allowed to interview one living religious figure, I would choose Ruth Bell Graham, the media-shy Presbyterian poet who also happens to be married to the world's best-known Southern Baptist preacher.
Billy Graham always stressed that there was only one person in his house who could read New Testament Greek and it wasn't him. It was his wife. And all those years in the North Carolina mountains, Ruth kept walking down to the local Presbyterian church. She was her own person and, from all accounts that I heard, she spoke her mind -- in private.
This brings me to the poem, which we didn't have time to read and discuss in the podcast. This is from "Sitting By My Laughing Fire," a book of Ruth Graham's poems. It was out of print for quite some time, but is now available. Read between the lines on this.
if you must --
but privately cry ...
the heart will adjust
to the length of his stride,
the song he is singing,
the trail he must ride,
the tensions that make him
the man he is,
the world he must face,
the life that is his.
if you must --
but privately cry;
the heart will adjust
to being the heart,
not the forefront of life;
a part of himself,
not the object --