Billy Graham, America’s pastor, died Wednesday at age 99. Many mainstream media outlets took care to point out Graham had made statements about being uncomfortable with Jews and gays but otherwise treated the death of a man who is said to have led millions of people to Jesus with respect.
But there were a few exceptions.
“Billy Graham was on the wrong side of history,” is the headline on a story in The Guardian. “Racial tensions are rising, the earth is warming, and evangelicals are doing little to help,” reads the subhead. “That may be Graham’s most significant, and saddest, legacy.”
Author Matthew Avery Sutton then saves Peter the trouble of a Pearly Gates meeting with Graham.
“When Billy Graham stands before the judgment seat of God, he may finally realize how badly he failed his country, and perhaps his God. On civil rights and the environmental crisis, the most important issues of his lifetime, he championed the wrong policies.”
Sutton admitted that Graham integrated his revivals – many held in the Deep South – in the 1950s and he “seemed to support the burgeoning civil rights movements.”
This, he said, “is the Graham most Americans remember.”
Sutton wrote that Graham ignored Martin Luther King, criticized civil rights activists for focusing on changing laws rather than hearts, and committed the cardinal sin of telling young people to “reject the federal government as a tool for rectifying injustices.”
Graham had the opportunity to lead fundamentalists into a new era, but he squandered it, the story said, by not holding up government as the solution to all problems.
“For six decades, Graham taught Americans that the federal government could not be an instrument of God to bring about justice, not on race matters and not on other significant issues,” Sutton wrote. “Although he believed in racial equality, his theology blinded him to what we now know was the best means for achieving that equality.”
Graham came of age during Franklin Roosevelt’s dramatic expansion of government, Sutton pointed out. “But rather than join with social gospel advocates like Roosevelt’s aide Harry Hopkins in promoting the creation of a welfare state to serve the needy, the future evangelist was more influenced by apocalypse-obsessed rabble-rousers who rejected New Deal liberalism,” Sutton lamented.
“Graham had the opportunity to lead fundamentalists into a new era. He could have pushed them to take social reform seriously as a God-given mandate to save the world from environmental destruction. He could have tackled racism, America’s original sin, by championing the federal government’s aggressive civil rights policies.
“But he squandered it. He could not overcome the speculative end-times schemes of his cohort of evangelicals, with their anti-government hostilities.”
“A different kind of last days may soon be upon us,” Sutton said. “Racial tensions are rising, the earth is warming, and evangelicals are doing little to help. That may be Graham’s most significant, and saddest, legacy.”