Being Ruth Graham

Billy Graham has hovered over me my whole life, and not just because I share a name with his wife and daughter.

Evangelist Billy Graham addresses the audience from the stage during the Billy Graham Library Dedication Service on May 31, 2007, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Evangelist Billy Graham addresses the audience from the stage during the Billy Graham Library Dedication Service on May 31, 2007, in Charlotte, North Carolina. Davis Turner/Getty Images

Ruth Graham died in 2007 when I was about to embark on a daylong hike in the Great Smoky Mountains. Browsing a rack of newspapers on a coffee run before heading into the woods, I was jarred to see my own name in the headlines. Feeling uncharacteristically superstitious, I called my dad to let him know where I was going and what time I’d be back.

I felt a similar shiver of affinity on Wednesday morning when I read that Ruth’s husband, the legendary 20th-century evangelist the Rev. Billy Graham, had died at age 99. I’m not related to that Graham family, but they have hovered over my whole life in more ways than our not-uncommon last name suggests. I am the granddaughter of a theologically conservative Protestant pastor and a woman named Ruth Graham. My childhood bedroom overlooked the cupola of the Billy Graham Center, a large building that opened the year after I was born. When I was 18, I moved a half-mile across the tracks to that same campus, Wheaton College, Billy and Ruth Graham’s alma mater. And I’ve spent much of my career reporting on evangelical culture, where Graham is revered as a lion of the faith.

At times, my shadow identity has generated some funny mix-ups. Just a few weeks ago, a publicist helping me set up a time-sensitive interview with a different prominent evangelical accidentally sent the interview details to Graham’s daughter—yet another Ruth Graham—leading to a minor comedy of errors. In college, a woman emailed me at my address to thank me for my ministry during a particular crusade decades earlier. On a campus where Graham’s name loomed so large, I fielded questions at least weekly about whether Billy was my grandfather. This was the evangelical equivalent of being constantly mistaken for the granddaughter of the pope. Since then, my name has broken the ice during countless interviews, and been the subject of biting and bemused comments online about my work. Though I’ve never misrepresented myself, I have to suspect the name has at least gotten my emails opened by church secretaries and Christian PR reps. After all, what if?

But being Ruth Graham has meant more to me than an occasional laugh or frisson of reflected glory. It has nudged me to periodically re-evaluate the evangelical world I was raised in, and which Billy Graham presided over unofficially for decades. Having to clarify that I’m not biologically related to Graham means I’ve had to do a lot of thinking about whether I might be spiritually related to him anyway.

These days I no longer consider myself an evangelical. I’m not an “ex-evangelical,” I just don’t believe it anymore—no drama! But as far as I’ve drifted from the fold, I have to admit that I still reflexively view Graham’s style of Christianity as the one against others are measured. He emphasized a personal relationship with Jesus, a literal Heaven and Hell, and other basic tenets of theologically conservative Christianity. For as much as his legacy in the secular world rests of his political influence, the theme he returned to over and over was the saving grace of a loving God.

I winced, then, as I scrolled through the dismissive burns proliferating online after Graham’s family announced his death this week:

It’s not that I could blame them, exactly. I can’t defend Graham’s tone-deaf forays into LGBTQ issues, though he wasn’t nearly as concerned with the issue as many of his peers. He was arguably ahead of most white pastors on the racial conflicts of the 1950s and 1960s, but certainly no crusader. He was caught on tape denigrating Jews in the Oval Office during the Nixon administration. Ninety-nine years on Earth provides a lot of time for growth and self-reflection, and Graham eventually apologized for these moral errors. But he never flipped around and became an activist with sustained attention to social justice. No one is obligated to forgive him.

That said, many of his critics this week seem to be conflating him with the generation of politically aggressive conservative Christian leaders who rose in the late 1970s and ’80s, including Jerry Falwell and, later, Falwell’s and Graham’s sons. It was a problem he anticipated. “It would be unfortunate if people got the impression that all evangelists belong to that group,” he told Parade magazine in 1981. “I don’t wish to be identified with them. I’m for morality. But morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice.” He supported contraception as early as the 1950s, and after Roe v. Wade, he convened a meeting to “determine a proper Biblical response to abortion-on-demand”— meaning abortion for any reason rather than just due to, say, rape or incest—suggesting a relatively nuanced approach. He preached to American evangelicals about global poverty and advocated for an expansion of foreign aid in the 1950s. He visited South Africa in 1973 under the condition that his gatherings be fully integrated. He said in 1997 that “we’re closer to Islam than we really think we are.” And he didn’t promise wealth or health in return for piety or donations. A low bar, perhaps, but his cultural stature outlived the sleazy televangelists and GOP minions who competed for the attention of the faithful in his era.

Outlived until now, that is. When President Obama tweeted his respects on Wednesday, his mentions lit up with rebukes for honoring a “monster” like Graham. Decency, respectability, civility—lately it feels like these qualities are sometimes read as code words for a failure to speak truth to power. Indeed, it’s tempting to daydream about what theologically conservative Christianity might look like in 2018 if Graham had been just slightly more willing to afflict the comfortable. Instead, he was a natural moderate who had the misfortune to die in a moment in which fence-sitting has fallen out of favor. Perhaps that’s for the best, at least for this moment in history. But I believe something will be lost if Graham is remembered warmly only by his fellow theological conservatives. Call it self-interest, but I hope his good name endures.