The death Wednesday of Billy Graham inevitably drew instant tributes from all over the world.
Perhaps no single figure has been on the national stage for so long with a consistent message: do good and love one another.
The 99-year-old evangelist, crippled by Parkinson’s disease, and losing his sight and hearing, was a bastion of respectable morality during an era where the involvement of religion in politics became more marked and more shrill.
In his early days, Graham paved the way for Christian ministry to enter the television era, had a newspaper advice column and wrote more than 30 books on morality that laid the baseline for ethical behavior for generations throughout the world.
He was showered with accolades from unexpected quarters. As well as honorary degrees and presidential and Congressional medals, he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and earned an honorary knighthood from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.
He traveled the world hosting emotional revivals, sharing his perspective on the Christian gospel and offering millions “hope for the troubled heart,” which was one of his book titles. At the height of his prominence, he officiated presidential funerals for Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Most notably in recent years, he helped the nation mourn after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
His Stone Age views on the role of women have been widely dissected and quite rightly criticized.
He managed to stay aloof from the televangelist sex and money scandals of the 1970s and 1980s, and unlike his more extreme firebrand son, Franklin, did not embrace the rigid intolerance of some facets of today’s Christian right wing.
What’s sometimes forgotten about Graham, however, is his outspoken courage in calling on Americans to tear down racial barriers, beginning way back in the 1950s. Although he and Martin Luther King Jr. differed radically in their approach to the Vietnam War, their lives criss-crossed repeatedly at the height of the civil rights movement; Graham once even bailed King out of jail.
Graham, originally a Democrat, was an adviser to presidents, beginning with Truman and moving into the modern era. Staunch in his Protestantism, he shared mistrust about Kennedy’s Catholicism, but years later was flexible enough to embrace Mitt Romney’s aspirations for high office and put aside an earlier view that the Mormon religion was a “cult.” Critics have suggested some hypocrisy over Graham’s loud public support for Israel when declassified portions of taped conversations with Nixon revealed appalling comments about the power of Jews in America, especially in media ownership.
However, people from across the political spectrum have long admired Graham’s consistent beliefs and the need for everyone to “love thy neighbor.”
He was a product of his time, as devout in his hatred for Communism as he was strong in his Christian beliefs. However history remembers him, we likely will not see his kind again.
The certainty of Graham’s faith is reflected in his often-quoted comment: “Someday, you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address.”