The Wrong side of history? Billy Graham, passion and priorities

Matthew Avery Sutton has written a hatchet job on Billy Graham in the Guardian . The premise of it is that because Sutton disagrees with what he perceived to be Graham’s position on segregation and racial prejudice that he was on the wrong side of history.

Stephen Kneale has provided a brilliant resposte to the article. It is a nonsense to talk about someone being on the wrong side of history because history is an abstract entity. History is something that we evaluate. What the author is at best saying is that Graham disagreed with the dominant view held by people today and what he really means is that he disagreed. However, I guess that doesn’t make for newspaper selling headlines.

The focus of this article is that Sutton believes that Graham failed to take an active stand on the  civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s. To do this, he has to significantly downplay the point that Graham proactively took down the segregation ropes at his rallies and that it was Graham who bailed out Martin Luther King after his 1963 arrest whether or not he agreed with Kings strategy. He also has to ignore the King family’s assessment of the relationship between the two men – but why let actual history get in the way of your grandiose claims about history’s verdict?

I want to push our thinking a little further because you will notice that Sutton’s argument is not that Graham was racist or that he was supporting discrimination against blacks. Rather it is that he did not do enough because:

1. He didn’t agree with a direct action strategy

2. He didn’t see the state – specifically in a US context the Federal Government as having the ability to solve every problem.

3. He had made his priority Gospel preaching because he believed the real solution to societies problems was the heart change that the Gospel brought.

Now at this point you can see how ridiculously hyperbolic the argument is. This isn’t surprising because we have already had some serious hyperbole in his claim that ” civil rights and the environmental crisis” were “the most important issues of his lifetime.” Now remember that Billy Graham’s life time included The Great Depression and the Credit Crunch, The Cold War and the rise of radical Islamist terrorism not to mention the legalisation of abortion, the sexual revolution and the prolification of pornography and the #MeToo movement responding to horrendous cases of harassment and abuse, who does Sutton think he is to single out just two issues as ” The most important”?

Maybe, just maybe Graham saw that life was messier and our world more deeply damaged than could be simplified into two issues. Maybe he recognised over a life time that today’s great evil will be replaced by tomorrow’s. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the reason why he believed not that ” individuals alone could achieve salvation…” rather than governments but that only God in Christ Jesus.

This brings me to the point I want to make here. Graham did not prevent others from getting on with being involved as activitists. However, he did not let specific single issues distract him  from his calling.  This is something you see throughout history. A comparable situation is the relationship between John Wesley and the campaign to abolish the slave trade. Did Wesley make this his life work? No he didn’t. Does that put him on the wrong side of history on this? No it doesn’t. We know he was resolute against this evil because we have his rewarded thoughts. Others like Wilberforce and Clarkeson made it their life work. Wesley made his life work preaching the Gospel.

This was important because the campaign was a long and exhausting one. Wilberforce faced many set backs along the way. What kept him going? I would suggest that it was not just his passion for the cause but the strength he found from being rooted in Christ. That strength was available because there were people who prioritised preaching the Gospel and teaching God’s Word.

Pastors and evangelists will be presented on a weekly basis with issues that are certainly important. Those who are particular engaged with the issue will see it as the singularly most important issue at that time. It will be to them.  However, we need to keep our focus on preaching the Gospel. It does not mean that we don’t care about the environment, class division, racial reconciliation, abortion, euthanasia etc. We will and we must speak and act on those issues as need and opportunity arises but if we make any one of them the most important issue then we will do two things. First, we will diminish the importance of all the other issues affecting people and secondly (but more importantly) we will neglect our own calling.

In fact, the best thing we can give to those who are passionate about these issues and have a calling to campaign on them is to keep the focus on our calling. It’s what CS Lewis called putting first things first. By prioritising the Gospel we help those who campaign to do so for the right motives and to find the strength and resources needed in the Gospel for the long haul.