The Slatest

“America’s Pastor”

For good and for ill, Billy Graham’s impact on the culture at large—not to mention evangelicalism in particular—is nearly incalculable.

Billy Graham addresses the audience from the stage during the Billy Graham Library dedication service on May 31, 2007, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Billy Graham addresses the audience from the stage during the Billy Graham Library dedication service on May 31, 2007, in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Davis Turner/Getty Images.

Billy Graham, the most prominent evangelist of the 20th century, died Wednesday at age 99. Graham was said to have preached the Christian message to some 200 million people over the course of his seven-decade career. He counseled presidents, built institutions, and publicly weighed in on almost every political and social issue of his long era. Commanding and charismatic, he did more than anyone else to make evangelicalism a mainstream movement in America.

“America’s pastor” was only briefly the pastor of his own church. Instead, Graham made his name as an itinerant preacher whose “crusades” attracted thousands of people and plentiful news coverage all over the world. A Billy Graham crusade was a tent revival with better production values: live music, prayer, and a rousing sermon ending in a call to come forward and turn one’s life over to Jesus. His crusade in New York in 1957 lasted more than three months, averaging 18,000 attendees in Madison Square Garden each night and including a massive rally at Yankee Stadium. By the end of his life, he had headlined more than 400 crusades in 185 countries. He was tall and handsome, and he brought a kind of tasteful glamour to the alternately gaudy and stodgy world of evangelism. In covering the opening of his New York crusade in 1957, the New York Times called him “probably the world’s best-dressed minister of the gospel,” though the paper also noted that his suits rarely cost more than $75.

Graham had an instinctively moderate approach that continues to define the spirit of mainstream white evangelicalism. He was careful not to get too cozy with mainline Protestants, whom fundamentalists suspected of trading Biblical correctness for a squishy concern with “social issues.” But he also pushed back against fundamentalism, which he started distancing himself from in the 1950s. “The one badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy but love,” he told a gathering of evangelical leaders in the 1950s, appalling conservatives. He spoke at liberal seminaries, asked Catholics and liberal Protestant pastors to sit onstage during his crusades, and told reporters around that time that “God has his people in all churches.” But his own theology remained unshakably conservative, with an emphasis on personal salvation and the foundational necessity of belief in Jesus.

The impact of the crusades that made him famous is hard to measure. Surveys conducted after his 1957 residency in New York, for example, suggested that the events did not produce many lasting conversions; the majority of the signed “decision cards” came from people who were already church members, and most of the others never followed up. But Graham’s impact on the culture at large—not to mention evangelicalism in particular—is nearly incalculable. Early in his career, Graham was one of the most influential promoters of the conflation between white-picket-fence “normalcy” and Christianity. He framed the Cold War as a spiritual battle, preaching that “the greatest and most effective weapon against communism today is to be a born-again Christian.” He argued in that era that a Christian wife should “keep herself attractive,” husbands should buy flowers, children should obey their parents, and all should obey the law. He associated Jesus with “rugged individualism” and once referred to the Garden of Eden as a place with “no union dues.” Later in life, he came to regret this intertwining of patriotism and faith. By the 1970s, he was telling other evangelists that he no longer identified “the Kingdom of God with the American way of life.” He also moderated his anti-Communist stance, preaching behind the Iron Curtain and attending a pro-Soviet peace conference in the early 1980s against the advice of the State Department.

True to his instinctive preference for patience and stability, Graham spent his career building and nurturing institutions that survive him. He founded Christianity Today, now the most important and well-respected evangelical magazine in America. He helped launch organizations including Youth for Christ, the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. He was also the author of dozens of inspirational books, including best-sellers like How to Be Born Again and Hope for the Troubled Heart.

Graham identified racism as a serious issue early in his career, but he saw it as a problem best tackled by individual politeness rather than public policy. It’s an approach to race that remains dominant in many white evangelical settings. Against his own stated preferences, he held segregated meetings in the South in the early 1950s in a move he framed as a deference to local custom. After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, however, he vowed he would never again hold a segregated gathering. If “the extremists on both sides will quiet down,” he once wrote President Eisenhower, “we can have a peaceful social readjustment over the next ten-year period.” This kind of gradualism pleased few, but he persisted in it. He invited Martin Luther King Jr. to give a public prayer at his New York crusade in 1957, but when King sat in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, Graham told the New York Times that King should “put on the brakes a bit.”

Many of Graham’s allegiances and stances have not aged well. He famously met with every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, but he was especially close with Richard Nixon. A lifelong registered Democrat, he defended Nixon’s integrity deep into the Watergate scandal. When the White House released tapes that finally proved the president’s involvement in the break-in, Graham’s first reaction was to express shock at the president’s use of profanity. In 2002, Graham was again humiliated by his coziness with Nixon when the National Archives released Oval Office tapes that captured Graham referring to a Jewish “stranglehold” and suggesting the Jews he was friendly with “don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to this country.” Graham was horrified and publicly apologized. But even before those tapes emerged, Graham had come to deeply regret how blindly he trusted the president. “I wonder whether I might have exaggerated his spirituality in my own mind,” he later said.

Over the years, Graham developed a distaste for partisan politics. “It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right,” he told Parade magazine in the early 1980s, as the ascendant religious right was reveling in that exact marriage.

He was predictably awful on LGBTQ issues when he stumbled into them. He once suggested, then later tried to walk back, that AIDS was a punishment from God. Now he is survived by children and grandchildren who have widely different ideas about his legacy. His son Franklin Graham, gifted with little of his father’s capacity for subtlety or self-reflection, has become one of the most forceful evangelical defenders of Donald Trump. As Billy’s health declined in recent years, the statements issued under his name through the evangelistic organization run by Franklin have veered rightward. “Billy Graham” supported a state ban on gay marriage in 2012 and dismissed “hope and change” as something like blasphemy.

The evangelical landscape Graham leaves behind is fractious and fractured, unlikely to ever unify again in the way it did under his unofficial leadership in the mid–20th century. In the coming days and months, his legacy will be debated by those who want to claim him for one team or another, to assess his public life for various strains of rightness or wrongness. This is perfectly reasonable, because Graham lived an almost entirely public life and engaged almost all the global and national controversies of his near century on Earth. But he always returned to the centrality of private faith in the Christian life. “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead,” he once wrote. “Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. … I will have gone into the presence of God.”

Ruth Graham is a regular Slate contributor. She lives in New Hampshire.