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Billy Graham, a man of religion for the Entertainment Age 

Each epoch of civilization has its own outstanding personalities. It is argued here that the evangelist Billy Graham was such a person for the fourth civilization, the age of entertainment.

The second epoch of civilization was an age that culminated in the institution of world religion. In particular, it was dominated by the religions of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. This was fundamentally an age of great philosophers and prophets. Traditional religion, based on rituals, was being transformed by the power of ideas.

The founders of the three world religions - Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed - were the greatest of personalities during this period. But there were others, too: Moses, Zoroaster, Jeremiah, Second Isaiah, Confucius, the apostle Paul. These were men of ideas who foresaw that the world might be changed for the good or might be replaced by a Kingdom of God.

The third epoch of civilization appeared when institutional religion had been in existence for thousands of years. Commerce and secular education were its dominant institutions. So far as religion was concerned, the great personalities were scholars and others who interpreted religious texts. Martin Luther was perhaps the greatest within a Christian context. John Calvin, St. Ignatius Loyola, John Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards also made important contributions to Christian teaching. Joseph Smith established the Mormon religion as a distinctly American Christian denomination. The emphasis was upon doctrinal purity which each denomination believed had reached a peak in its own organization.

How did religion fare in the fourth epoch of civilization, focused on popular entertainment? The values of the entertainment world would seem to stand in sharp contrast to those of traditional religion. Yet, religion had a place in the spectrum of popular culture. It, too, could make use of the new electronic technologies that amplified the preacher’s image to a broad audience. The televangelist was the outstanding religious personality of this culture; and among them, the greatest was Billy Graham.

Born in North Carolina (a stronghold of the Southern Baptist culture), Billy Graham came to Minnesota in the 1940s. He became president of the Northwestern Bible College in 1948, serving in that capacity until 1952. However, his calling was not to teach Christian theology but to spread the Gospel through evangelistic rallies. In 1950, he and others formed the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association with headquarters in Minneapolis. In the course of fifty years, this association put on mass rallies, or crusades for Christ, in cities around the world, featuring Billy Graham as the speaker.

Graham’s breakthrough Crusade came in 1949 in Los Angeles, center of the entertainment world. William Randolph Hearst, the publisher of several major newspapers, gave instructions to his editors: “Puff Graham”. Given extensive news coverage, the Crusades drew increasing audiences. The message delivered was a nondenominational commitment to the person of Jesus Christ, light on theology but heavy on commitment.

The events each began with a speech by Graham urging a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Then, with a background of Gospel music, those in the audience were invited to leave their seats and come forward to the stage to declare their intention to commit their lives to Christ. Such a heavy commitment in response to Graham’s stirring words made this event seem like a peak experience in life. The Graham crusades bolstered church attendance and gave communities where Graham preached a greater religious presence.

Keep in mind that Graham was working from a position of cultural weakness. The tide of popular culture was running against religion. In the aftermath of World War II, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation focused serious thought on science and technology, making Christianity seem irrelevant. Movies and popular songs had sexual overtones. Yet, many were attracted to Graham’s message because he was a man of faith resisting the tides of earthly fortune who promised to bring the nation back to its moral foundation.

Another factor was that Billy Graham was a Southern Baptist from North Carolina. The American South at that time was considered a cultural backwater, a place of poverty and racism, whose culture of fundamentalist religion contributed to the region’s backwardness. For that reason, Graham decided to locate his headquarters in the northern city of Minneapolis. But again, his uncompromising advocacy of religion in its southern variation was attractive to many. Graham was resisting the worldly tide.

Over the years, Billy Graham gained personal prominence and respectability. He was a friend to every U.S. President since Harry Truman. In 2006, Graham was again on the list of the world’s ten most admired men - the fiftieth time that his name appeared on that list. A reason, perhaps, was that Graham had remained steadfast in his calling. Unlike some other televangelists, he had avoided personal scandal or the temptation to exercise political influence and power. Over a half century, in unwavering fashion, he had simply preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the people of his time.

Some of those other televangelists include Jimmy Swaggart, a preacher from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, whose career was destroyed by reports that he had consorted with a prostitute; Pat Robertson, a media mogul who once ran for President; Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority; and Oral Roberts, head of a university bearing his name. While they all used television effectively, none ever attracted the live audiences that Graham was able to attract. None enjoyed the reputation and stature that Graham was able to achieve.

Now the prospect of his own mortality faces Billy Graham. His body is ridden with Parkinson’s disease, prostate cancer, hip problems, severe sinus, pneumonia, and macular degeneration. The aging evangelist, confined to his home in North Carolina, said recently in an interview: “My greatest comfort comes from knowing that I belong to Christ, and that, no matter what happens, he will never leave me or forsake me. He will be with me as long as I’m on this Earth, and some day I will go to be with him in heaven forever.”

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