Alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., Billy Graham was undoubtedly the U.S. religious leader with the highest public profile of the 20th century. Graham is a figure of the post-World War II era, a time of optimism and a time of Christendom, when Christian values were predominant in public discourse. For nearly 50 years, Graham was the closest we had to a national preacher and pastor. He was a close advisor and confidante over decades to presidents, Republican and Democratic alike, from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
But we live in a different time. We are now more religiously rich and diverse as a nation. We are more polarized and our civic debate is less civil. Christian evangelicals feel more alienated, and many leaders, including Graham’s son Franklin, have become more combative and more directly political than Graham.
Graham should be understood not only as a product of his historical time, but as a history-shaping leader. He proclaimed the good news of the gospel around the country and around the world. He was an American preacher—who became in effect America’s preacher—at a time when the national story promised development and advancement for the world.
Graham seized this post-War, Cold War period to preach to the stadium-scale masses, inviting people to salvation and freedom in Christ. At the same time, another very American phenomenon was taking place: the demographic and religious widening of the U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, standing at the base of the Statue of Liberty, signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act in 1965, which removed immigration quotas favoring Europe and reopened immigration to many cultures and nationalities. From 1965 to 2001, the U.S. welcomed immigrants from a wider swath of the world than at any other time in our history.
In that era of Christendom, America did not make an easy distinction between the freedom offered in Christ and the political freedom offered in this country. Graham and other evangelists preached Christ around the world, but they also shared American hope.
Although he expressed moral perspectives that had political overtones—taking traditional positions on human sexuality and Christian supersessionism, for instance—Graham also managed to avoid overtly political debates. In contrast to Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and other evangelical leaders, Graham steered clear of the culture wars instead of throwing fire on them.
Not everyone agreed with Graham, but he helped set the frame of debate. He helped U.S. presidents to advance what sociologist Robert Bellah famously labeled America’s civil religion—a national narrative deeply informed by Christian language and biblical themes of exodus, sin, chosen-ness, and redemption.
Graham’s public presence and America’s civil religion seems a product of another era. America’s civil religion and civil discourse may have been more—well—civil in 1950, but it was also marked by segregation, sexism, and anti-Semitism. Powerful Christian stories like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan may not have the same broad resonance with the American people, but we have also made progress in realizing the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and non-religious people alike. Our public debate is highly fractious in person and online, but at least there is space for many disparate voices to speak.
Today it is hard to imagine a religious leader achieving the level of public recognition and influence that Graham enjoyed. We long for moral and religious leaders to bring people together. We want to find solutions to pressing issues like violence, poverty, education, and employment. For better and for worse, there is no Billy Graham (or Martin Luther King, Jr.) waiting in the wings, and our current reality would probably not enable such a religious leader to arise in any case. We face an arguably harder task—and a real opportunity—to build coalitions and alliances across religious, moral, and political camps. This would be wholly consistent with Graham’s hopeful message of good news, only applied to our time.
Douglas A. Hicks is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Religion and the Dean at Oxford College of Emory University.