This article originally appeared in the November 18, 1988 issue of Christianity Today.

Why invent something new about Billy Graham as he enters his eighth decade? Integrity demands that, when invited, one say to his face what for years one has said, as it were, behind his back. This I shall do.

The task for the church historian begins rather simply: Locate the subject in space and time. And Graham's space has been global. From an almost hardscrabble early life in North Carolina, the precincts of small Bible colleges, and Los Angeles tent revivals, he has come to be, with the Pope, one of the two best-known figures in the Christian world—or in the world, for that matter. From the years when, still in insecurity, he was a name-dropper of kings and celebrities, he has come to be the one whose name statecrafters and notables drop. And Graham made the move in status without any evident malformation of his ego.

To locate him in time: Certainly, a hundred years from now, people in my historical profession will cite Graham as the shaper of evangelism in our half-century, as, in their time, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Grandison Finney, Dwight L. Moody, and (alas!, I have to say) Billy Sunday served in theirs.

However, Graham had a more difficult task, for he was the first to carry on his work in a culture not decisively shaped by a Protestantism that was responsive to evangelism. He has had to build community in a pluralist America, one in which neither his kind of camp nor any camp singularly "ran the show." He had to rely on old evangelistic vocabularies where he could, as in leftover parts of the oldish South. Then he had to translate them as it became the newish South, the worldly Sunbelt. Graham had to find languages to communicate, to "sing the Lord's song" in many strange lands, some of them named America. Secular America. Post-Protestant America. Religious America.

The "non-mean" man

As for the man himself: What have I been saying for years? That in the world of religious leadership, words like Left and Right, liberal or conservative mean less than mean and non-mean, and Graham—to our great fortune—has been "non-mean."

"Non-mean" is a negative-sounding category. Translate it from psychological to theological terms and say that one finds in such types—and, one says in assessment of and tribute to Graham—that the "fruit of the Spirit" has been evident in him: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. … Against such there is no law" (Gal. 5:22-23). He could have been a demagogue in these fateful decades. He could have formed formal coalitions with corrupting political forces, could have divided our Christian and national house, could have set us each against the other. He did not.

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Decades ago I recall holding up against him the fear lest a "woe" be pronounced when "all men speak well" of a disciple of Jesus. Of course, not everyone did. When Graham first appeared on the scene, still part cornball, part jejune analyst of "the signs of the times," part misusable young comer, he gave good reasons for others to criticize him. He is the first to acknowledge this. One can still find ripe anthologies of apocalyptic embarrassments in his early Cold War sermons, indexable as long as books shall last. And you will find, with the help of magazine indexes, some early grumping about Graham's gaucheries in my own early reports on his rise. Fortunately for my own self-perspective, these were few and, in retrospect, always ambiguous and mild.

Back then, in the 1950s, mainstream Protestantism was still credible enough to produce a critic like Reinhold Niebuhr, who took Graham to task for separating saved sheep and lost goats so simplistically that he undercut the "ambiguity of all human virtues, the serious perplexities of guilt and responsibility, and particularly of guilt associated with responsibility, which each true Christian must continually face." But Graham answered credibly enough, and he changed his message and mien enough that such criticisms diminished.

For what it is worth, which may not be much, I was in the (semi-anonymous) company of people at the other end of the phone asking Graham to pronounce judgment on the American policy of bombing Cambodia at Christmas 1972. So I was among the disappointed when he called back to announce that he was called not to be an Old Testament prophet but a New Testament evangelist. He had prophesied too much to use such a dodge. For a professedly nonpolitical man, he had seemed too close to Richard Nixon, and had to suffer for the delusions that association had bred.

Since then, there have been reasons for critics from "our side" to rub our eyes as Graham has come to take risky stands for disarmament before these seemed safe and popular in politics. He shocked us by the boldness with which he turned his back on some constituencies and risked more by building ties to leaders in Communist countries, so he could preach and work for peace and justice there. Graham has not been static. He has changed, and grown. Grown: yes, that is the difference between Graham and so many who find their evangelistic voice when young. One of the gifts of the Spirit to his spirit is to have provided some core, some inner continuity, that has allowed for change without the corruption that comes to celebrities in the world of religion. Put it down boldly: In the television era, Christianity and celebrity rarely mix well. The celebrity is only as good as her last act; her next one must be ever more sensational. One creates a persona to meet the fads and fashions of the moment. Graham, however, for all his fame, keeps being who he is and doing what he did, and remaining a self, a saved sinner, a wounded healer.

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Sometimes I think he was lucky to have formed his vocation just before television took over. While his association uses the medium artfully, its camera picks up on the Graham who does what he did before it came to dominate. His cameras eavesdrop on evangelistic rallies that would be the same without television. He has had to build an association, a huge one. But he has not built a denomination, a movement, a cathedral; he has permitted the building of a museum and (hurrah! say we historians) an archive and study center. But he needs no gushing fountains, no political arm, no self-centered churchlet to undercut the churches.

All to say that Graham brought neoevangelicalism, now evangelicalism, into an ecumenical orbit without having it lose its soul. Evangelicalism may have lost some of its soul in the years of its prosperity. Observers see it to be the most worldly, success-obsessed, triumphalist among the Christian movements today; and Graham must grieve over the ways it changed more to meet the world than the world changed under its influence. But Graham kept its soul and his soul in the perspective of eternity and of the needs of the whole church.

So, I have noted to fellow observers and inquirers for years, while many fundamentalists and evangelicals kept huddled in sectarian pride, Graham would refuse to come to your town unless there was broad "church federation" backing. He would not like to be on stage unless the United Methodist bishop or even, he has hoped since 1965, the Catholic bishop was there, too. When people at his rallies converted or were restored or reaffirmed, his computers would not help him establish a monopoly on their energies. He turned such folk over to the churches, and thus the church. These computers were not programmed to pick and choose just this narrow stripe of one denomination as acceptable. They trusted Christians of many sorts to nurture the Graham converts. And this he did without ever muting criticism of modernists or liberals.

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Those of us who appreciate irony have seen some irony in the Graham cause. Not a few have noted that he preached a particular, "Jesus Only Saves" exclusivist gospel—and yet he became acceptable to the culture at large, including its Jews, its universalists, its many secular people. A man of good will, he must have enjoyed their friendliness and benediction but squirmed lest their embrace might suffocate, their good words confuse. It is hard to influence America by being exclusivist and sectarian. But one also has nothing with which to influence America if one is inclusivist and wishy-washy. If Billy Graham has been a victim of this ironic circumstance, let us write it off to the human condition. That ambiguity may have been the price to pay, the limit set by the human condition.

Considering all the alternatives, it has to be the least-worst fate for a man who has offered so many better things to the world near the end of the second millennium after Christ: As, first of all and always, a witness to Jesus Christ. That is Graham's core, his continuity. It should serve him well in the decade or two or three left him.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, a columnist for The Christian Century, author of numerous books on American religion, and a Graham watcher since he reported on the New York Crusade in 1957.