If you are a practicing Christian — regardless of denomination — then the news of Billy Graham’s passing may have prompted a memory of how he touched your life, directly or indirectly. Even the rigidly secular mainstream media paused in brief remembrance, recalling how a succession of postwar presidents once publicly sought Reverend Graham’s counsel. Some commentators even seemed surprised that Reverend Graham was still around, recalling a far simpler time in our history. Can you remember when Americans could be rallied to a higher purpose, when naked self-interest and partisan politics didn’t prejudice every question — social, cultural or moral?
Billy Graham could remember such a time, and now he is going to meet his Maker even as the country mourned another school shooting and even with doubt, confusion and soul-searching dominating every headline. While our punditry obsessed over more intrusive background checks, better gun control or improved data-sharing between law enforcement agencies, were these really our most pressing questions?
That famous curmudgeon Pat Buchanan has been bold enough to suggest otherwise:
“We are a formerly Christian society in an advanced state of decomposition…Before the Death of God and repeal of the Ten Commandments, in those dark old days, the 1950s, atrocities common now were almost nonexistent.”
Additional evidence for this advanced state of moral decomposition: the forced removal of prayer from public schools; the parallel banning of God from the public square; the war on Christmas; and the veneration of abortion as a natural right, even as something of a public sacrament. All have become familiar landmarks of our new secular religion, our shared conviction that “It’s All About Me.”
For over a half-century, Billy Graham was the living refutation of such modern yet ancient sophistries, fearlessly preaching in his distinctive North Carolina accent that “Christ is the ANSUH!”
His audiences, which eventually numbered — all told — in the hundreds of millions, began just after World War II. At first, it was humble crusades held in circus tents.
One man whose life was transformed was Louis Zamperini, a former Olympic runner and wartime bombardier who had been tortured by the Japanese while a POW. Although Zamperini’s biography is outlined by the 2014 movie “Unbroken,” only Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book tells the full story: How a badly broken Lou surrendered his life to Christ at a Billy Graham crusade, learning to forgive his former enemies and becoming a much-loved evangelist in his own right.
Similar stories became part of the Billy Graham tradition, echoed and re-echoed across the generations and all parts of the United States as well as many countries across the globe. It is a measure of his stature as a statesman that his ministries overcame deep-seated religious (Catholic-Protestant) prejudices and even racial (black-white) barriers; his crusades were always inter-denominational and well-integrated. Fundamentalist Christians questioned decisions that took crusades to countries behind what was then the Iron Curtain. His unanswerable defense was the Great Commission, Christ’s command that his followers “go and make disciples of all nations.”
As a preacher’s kid, I grew up watching Billy Graham’s crusades and evangelical outreach set a new standard for American churches, once hopelessly enmeshed in all the prejudices common to the 1950s. But when a Billy Graham crusade came anywhere within the adjacent five-state area, everything changed. Suddenly, it was no longer enough to stay within the confines of one’s home church, denomination or their (mostly) segregated congregations. Instead, churches of every description had to accommodate new believers whose changed lives confirmed their re-discovery of dynamic faith. Equally important: Daily newspapers, radio programs and ubiquitous televised images brought visible proof that the Christian gospel could reach people across every conceivable earthly barrier.
Like Louis Zamperini, I eventually experienced my own Billy-Graham-style conversion, right down to the singing of “Just As I Am.” But can such personal testimonies mean very much, especially when compared to the pervasive troubles of a secular society with growing contradictions? Here in Texas, you may remember that we experienced the destruction of Hurricane Harvey as well as the unspeakable madness of Sutherland Springs, where 26 worshippers were killed in church. Both the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse (the charity run by Franklin Graham) were among the first agencies on the scenes of both disasters, a deeply personal commitment that continues months later.
Doing such things while proclaiming the unchanging message of Christian love was what made Billy Graham’s influence remarkable for nearly a century. Like the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament and the Apostle Paul in the New, Reverend Graham was an unblinking lighthouse. His vital message: Not even a secular society bent on its own destruction is beyond the reach of God’s amazing grace.
Colonel Kenneth Allard is a former Army intelligence officer, West Point professor and military analyst for NBC News.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.