When I was growing up as the son of a Southern Baptist preacher in towns around Kentucky and Ohio, the Rev. Billy Graham was the most famous minister on the planet.
In raw numbers the Roman Catholic pope had more followers, but we Baptists hardly knew who the pope was, and besides, the pope didn’t hold televised revival services in which movie stars, athletes, and pop singers gave testimonials.
For us Baptists, Billy Graham was our pope.
He lent us marginalized evangelicals an air of respectability. We basked in his glory.
He counseled U.S. presidents. He appeared on the covers of national magazines. Polls consistently ranked him among the country’s most admired citizens.
Back in the day, I knew households where the family’s one TV set remained unalterably tuned to Graham for as many nights as his televised revivals lasted. It was a parental fiat.
That never happened in our house — my dad was too devoted to his westerns to make such a rule. We watched Graham’s rallies, but not if that meant missing “Gunsmoke” or “Bonanza.”
Still, after I became an adult, among the highlights of my journalistic career was the time I got to meet Graham in person.
Sort of meet him, anyway.
He visited Louisville in 1994. There was a press conference, and I was among the reporters present. I sat 10 feet away from him. He would have been in his 70s then.
That day he was everything I might have hoped for — at ease, funny, friendly, modest. He definitely knew how to work a gaggle of reporters.
As I sat there, I kept thinking, “I’m in the same room with Billy Graham. In the flesh.” It was as if some biblical figure had materialized from the pages of the New Testament.
Behold, the man.
A remarkable, legendary man.
But still, when all was said and done, just a man.
On the plus side, he preached in person to 215 million people in 185 countries and territories on every continent but Antarctica.
According to Christianity Today’s website, he logged 3 million known conversions.
Although he was tall, handsome and charismatic, never was there a whiff of sexual scandal about him. No money scandals, either.
Long before it was acceptable among white, conservative, evangelical congregations, he insisted on racially integrating his “crusades,” as he called his revivals.
Yet he walked on clay feet.
Graham’s kids have described him as essentially an absentee father, and several have struggled through well-publicized rebellions, drug issues, marital problems and the like.
For years, he preached a fundamentalist brimstone message that dismissed other faiths and extolled conservative political causes.
He maintained close relationships — critics said mutually exploitative relationships — with a succession of U.S. presidents, sometimes to his detriment. He was heard on an old White House tape insulting Jews to Richard Nixon.
Nevertheless I’d argue Graham was an exemplary Christian.
Through it all, he displayed two remarkable virtues for a fellow so idolized and accomplished.
First, when he messed up, he admitted it, accepted responsibility and made amends.
Second, he never quit learning and evolving, even into his old age.
In August 2006, I wrote about a startling interview the elderly Graham had recently given Newsweek’s Jon Meacham.
Among other things, Graham, once ultra-conservative in his theology, told Newsweek that Christians shouldn’t take every word of the Bible literally, and that equally sincere believers could find very different meanings in the Scriptures.
“I’m not a literalist in the sense that every single jot and tittle is from the Lord,” he said. “This is a little difference in my thinking through the years.”
Instead of clinging to biblical inerrancy, he’d come to ponder the mysteries inherent in our limited knowledge of God, he said. He’d realized there were a lot more things he didn’t understand than things he did.
Of his early political pronouncements, he said, in part, “a lot of things that I commented on years ago would not have been of the Lord, I’m sure.”
Asked whether he thought God would accept Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and secularists into heaven, the revivalist responded:
“Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t … I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.”
Even before that Newsweek article, he’d apologized to Jews for his anti-Semitic comments: “Much of my life has been a pilgrimage —constantly learning, changing, growing and maturing,” he said.
I believe that to have been the case.
As St. Paul told us, we all see through a glass darkly. We’re all doomed to say stupid things and hold errant views and do counterproductive deeds.
What set Graham apart from many religious leaders — in addition to his being one of the great orators ever to stand behind a pulpit — was his willingness to admit his faults, reject them, learn from them and grow.
You can’t ask more from a saint than that. Or from a sinner, either.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.