As a New Yorker who grew up Roman Catholic and now counts himself among the ranks of traditional, confessional Lutheranism, crusades or revivals have not been a part of my life. In fact, even though I am 42 years old and have been writing regularly for more than 15 years, covering the Greater New York Billy Graham Crusade over the weekend of June 24-26 was a new experience.
This 417th crusade led by the 86-year-old Rev. Billy Graham was interesting in terms of both politics and faith.
Let's talk politics first. Leading up to the crusade, there was much said about Graham and politics in the New York newspapers. After all, this man not only has been called America's preacher, but also a pastor to U.S. presidents. It seems that he has befriended every resident of the Oval Office since Truman.
But there was much reporting on the aging and ailing Graham swearing off politics. Widely quoted was a comment from his 1997 "Just As I Am" autobiography: "An evangelist is called to do one thing, and one thing only: to proclaim the Gospel. Becoming involved in strictly political issues or partisan politics inevitably dilutes the evangelist's impact and compromises his message. It is a lesson I wish I had learned earlier."
Newsday quoted him in a recent interview declaring: "One of the things I find very helpful is if I stay away from politics and just preach the Gospel." A Daily News piece reported Graham stating: "If I get up and I talk about some political issue, it divides the audience. What I want is a united audience to hear the Gospel."
Graham, of course, is correct about political involvement potentially damaging the church's message. But one has to be clear on the difference between clergy just playing politics and when the church has a duty to speak out clearly and forcefully on matters in the political realm where Holy Scripture is clear and imperative. Many in the media fail to make such a distinction. For example, it is not mere politics when the church offers guidance on issues such as homosexuality, sex outside of traditional marriage, abortion, embryonic stem cell research and euthanasia. Instead, it is the church's moral and spiritual imperative to do so.
One perhaps can understand Graham's reluctance to tackle the tough, divisive issues in a crusade-style setting. But at the same time, he speaks forcefully about man's fallen nature, sin, and need for forgiveness and redemption. On Friday night, for example, Graham noted that merely to do our own thing, rather than what God wants, is wrong. The cross, after all, not only offers salvation, but also presents challenges and can divide.
Nonetheless, after all of this talk about not wanting to divide via politics, before he began his sermon on Saturday night, Rev. Graham enthusiastically welcomed President Bill Clinton and U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton to the stage, with the former president making some very brief remarks. It's hard to think of two more divisive politicians.
There was some backlash. For example, Rev. Ron Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council and a minister in the Evangelical Church Alliance, according to a press release, walked out once Graham gave President Clinton the microphone. The release said that Schenck considered Billy Graham "his role model for over 25 years." Schenck declared: "This was a deliberate, cunning, purely political move by the Clintons to divide the evangelical vote and assure Hillary a victory in '08."
I would not put anything by the Clintons, but given Graham's embrace of every U.S. president for more than a half century, this introduction and warm recognition wasn't necessarily a surprise for Graham. That is, except for his stated desire not to be political and divisive. Apparently, old habits, and probably some naivete, die hard.
But let's leave politics behind, and get to the point of what may have been Billy Graham's last crusade, that is, faith.
What grabbed my attention over the three days was the vibrant, deep, and public faith on display by the pastors, entertainers and tens of thousands in attendance. It also must be described as emotional and joyous.
Rev. Graham deals powerfully with some of the basics of Christianity, emphasizing salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Roman Catholic Bishop William Murphy, who leads the Rockville Centre diocese on Long Island, was recently quoted in the New York Times about Graham: "He's brought many people to Jesus while deepening the faith of practicing Christians, including Catholics around the world." That's a powerful testament, including because it is from a Catholic bishop directed at an evangelical preacher.
However, there also were issues emphasized at the Graham crusade that raise questions and debate within the Christian community. I certainly had never seen thousands answer Graham's altar call before.
Rev. David Benke, president of the Atlantic District in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, raised a question to me about the Graham altar call at the close of each of his services. Benke said: "The legacy from within the Graham camp has to do with the numerology of the altar call, the quantification of souls that have accepted Christ in a moment of time during a Graham service. In this regard Billy Graham is part of the fabric of the enduring American experience. From George Whitefield to Charles Finney to Dwight Moody, the evangelicalist movement has combined hucksterism, carefully planned manipulation and raw, powerful preaching of Christ crucified and risen to bring individuals to conviction and conversion. Billy Graham takes his place among that pantheon. This numerological legacy is always open to the theological question of how the mystery of divine grace can remain mystery and grace when it is boiled down to the moment just after singing 'Just As I Am, Without One Plea.'"
Related to this, obviously, was the major emphasis on being "born again" over the weekend. I never doubt the power and workings of the Holy Spirit. Many Christians, if not most, have had moments where we feel great emotion or particular closeness to God, as well as serenity when we place our troubles, challenges and shortcomings in God's hands. But is a particular, intense emotional moment necessary for salvation? And does being "born again" really mean a specific moment of inner awakening?
On Friday night at the crusade, Graham preached about Nicodemus and the need to be "born again." However, the traditional meaning of being "born again" is through baptism, and that's clear from John 3:1-5: "Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.' Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.' Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?' Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.'"
There have been other questions raised over the years about Graham's theology. In an August 1997 review of Graham's autobiography in "Commentary" magazine, James Nuechterlein, former editor of "First Things," noted: "Neo-orthodox theologians (like Rheinhold Niebuhr) have judged his preaching simplistic and lacking in moral discernment. Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and high-church Protestants, when they have bothered to acknowledge him at all, have found his ecclesiology and view of the sacraments sadly inadequate."
Having noted such questions and debates, though, let's return to Graham's enormous accomplishments.
Benke, for example, concluded: "Billy Graham in his old age has managed to make exclusive faith claims in an expansive way at exactly the time when that ability is so globally necessary. He demonstrates respect for the knowledge, belief and worship of God from the Law inherent in other faiths while proclaiming the special revelation of God in Christ in the Gospel as unique. In this regard Billy Graham stands head and shoulders above not only his co-religionists today but those evangelicals in that long line back to the founding of the country. It is this legacy that I find compelling. In leaving this legacy, Billy Graham has truly bequeathed us a national treasure."
It's also worth noting the statement of faith offered on the website of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. It offers the following eight points of belief:
There is no doubt that Billy Graham has brought this basic message of the Christian faith to millions of people around the globe. That should be enthusiastically celebrated.
Raymond J. Keating is a columnist with Newsday, and a regular columnist for OrthodoxyToday.org. He can be reached at email@example.com.