The Gospel According to Graham
For most of the past decade, the Rev. Billy Graham has been preaching his gospel abroad. But last month--after nearly eight months of preparation--the symbolic leader of American evangelism brought his crusade home. His current, two-month evangelical campaign will sweep through eight major cities in six New England states. And when the crusade culminates at Boston University's Nickerson Field next month, more than 100,000 people are expected to pack the stadium to hear Graham spread the gospel he has been preaching since 1939.
Mainstream evangelism is on the rise nationwide. Evangelistic Christian publications are increasing in prominence and circulation. Christian fellowships are growing on campuses across the nation, and many Protestants are moving from fundamentalist churches to more moderate evangelical faiths.
Though Harvard's Divinity School remains a stronghold of theological liberalism and social action, even here officials and students are beginning to recognize the evangelical trend. Jane I. Smith, dean of academic affairs at the Div School, says that faculty members have discussed establishing a chair in evangelical studies. While resources are not adequate to fund such a chair, Smith calls the discussions a recognition on the part of the Div School that the historical and theological study of evangelical Christianity "has not been adequately covered" at Harvard. She says that more and more attention has been focused on evangelism during the past few years because there are "more members of the student body who feel that they come from conservative or evangelical backgrounds." This fall, the Div School and the Gordon-Conwell Seminary--an evangelical school--jointly organized a series of talks on the differences between liberal and evangelical theology.
Members of the undergraduate Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship are also showing increased interest in evangelical Christianity. Earlier this week, more than 100 Harvard students, including more than half of the Fellowship, helped at Graham's religious service in the Memorial Church by counseling participants in the service. Although Graham began his sermon by talking about an eventual, worldwide freeze on the production of nuclear weapons, most of the student counselors attended the service because of their commitment to evangelism and not necessarily out of agreement with Graham's political statements. Raymond Ortman '83, one of the student counselors, says that he volunteered to counsel because "it gives us something that's really an important thing to be spending our time with." Ortman added that Graham's primary purpose is to reaffirm Christian faith, and has "next to nothing" to do with what he discussed Tuesday night.
An important part of evangelism is communicating Christian ideas to people who are shaky or undecided about being Christian. Explaining the role of religion is not only important to the crusaders and the people who attend meetings, but it also reaffirms the faith of the people who counsel participants in the Graham services, says Todd Lake '83, a Christian Fellowship member.
Evangelism involves a personal commitment to Christ as the bridge between flawed humanity and God and the absolver of human sins. In evangelism, the Bible is the sole source of information, belief, and religious philosophy. Evangelists believe that spreading the gospel--as one of the sacrifices they feel is necessary to being a Christian--is a way of life.
Misconceptions of evangelical philosophy tend to stem from a popular misunderstanding of evangelical methods and a notion that these methods are pushy, fear-inspiring, or reactionary. Graham calls the misconception "the ideas of brimstone and hell and so forth."
Evangelism is broader than the Southern Baptist church, the Billy Graham Crusade, or the Moral Majority, and it transcends divisions between Christian churches. Most evangelists describe their work as spreading the gospel or "telling the good news," as the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, head of the United Ministry here and the chairman of the ad hoc committee which invited Graham to Harvard, explains Graham himself says he used to resent being called an evangelist until he learned that the word can mean "another."
Evangelism--its philosophy and techniques--extends from the Rev. Jerry Falwell's brand of fundamentalism, which includes conservative political action and endorsements of candidates to socially oriented churches such as the Society of Friends and the Mennonites. These "peace churches are definitely evangelical," says Mark Smutny, a third-year Div School student. Many biblical Christian churches, such as the Southern Baptists, fall somewhere in between these two extremes and comprise the mainstream of American evangelism.
The Rev. Mary Beth Moehl, a Southern Baptist minister and a member of the Harvard-Radcliffe United Ministry, says evangelical methods as she sees them should consist of personal interaction, especially sermons in local churches. Moehl criticizes the fundamentalist churches for their methods of television evangelism, saying that the "electronic church" draws people away from localized religion. Many of the misconceptions about mainstream evangelism stem from a confusion of theological conservatism--the intensive concentration on the Bible as the source of religious views and sermons--with fundamentalism. Moehl says. While she is not sure of the historical origins of this tendency to lump all evangelists under a conservative label, "there are a lot of misconceptions about Southerners in general and about Southern Baptists."
While Graham's New England crusade consists of huge meetings, his methods differ from television evangelism, which Smutny says often includes direct appeals for financial contributions. Graham says that television figures promise "eternal happiness" with the signing of a check--and, while his sermons to crowds may seem impersonal. Graham's organizers have trained thousands of counselors for each city. Crusade officials say that the counselors will spread Graham's message on a more personal level.
Graham probably never imagined when he was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister in 1939 that a shift in his views would be the most visible sign of a general, political shift in Christianity. But he is now using the concept of a nuclear freeze as one way to explain Christian theology. His close association with then-President Richard M. Nixon during the Vietnam War led many people to assume he supported the war and to exhibit surprise at his recent public statements in favor of an eventual freeze on the production of nuclear weapons. Graham has been asked to explain this shift, and he says that his position on the Vietnam War, which he characterizes as "neutral," may have been wrong. Graham is also finding support from unexpected quarters: the Rev. Larry Hill, a member of the Society of Friends and the United Ministry, invited him last year to speak at a nuclear disarmament conference. Explaining the evangelical involvement in the issue. Smutny says. "We think it's important for people actively involved in peace activities to get involved in the nuclear disarmament issue. And that includes evangelicals."
Graham explained his position at the Mem Church service simply by saying that nuclear weapons are something which threaten human existence, thereby contradicting Christian principles.
Graham focuses on the Christian message first, making sure that his followers have realized the gospel he preaches, says Robert C. Williams, the assistant director of Graham's regional crusade committee. While he takes some political stands, they will serve as a jumping-off point for his Christian sermon. Williams explains that Graham's sermon. Williams explains that Graham's political positions are part of his Biblical attitude toward the world. "One of the reasons why we need to be concerned with the ways God uses people is the nuclear disarmament issue," Williams says.
The shift to Graham's style of evangelism is part of a shift from conservative to liberal Christianity occurring nationwide, but mainly in the Midwest, Smutny says. And the Phoenix reported last week that the Moral Majority is in financial trouble.
Smutny says the shift is occurring especially in western Pennsylvania and Ohio, the strongholds of the traditionally German denominations such as the Quakers. He mentions the Sojourners, a group of liberal Christians who publish Sojourner magazine, as one group of evangelists who have always been active pacifists.
Perversely, the Moral Majority's prominence may have helped cause the shift in strength. "A growth of the Moral Majority and the television evangelism has given an impetus for the left side of evangelism to grow." "Smutny says.
While Graham's positions come into direct conflict with fundamentalist views on issues such as defense spending, they come into conflict on the other hand with socially oriented Christians who think that his positions are not hard-line enough Graham is careful not to antagonize either side on political issues. He has stressed, each time he states his position on nuclear disarmament, that he does not support unilateral disarmament, and that the relationship between the styles of evangelism is different but not adversary. "I'm not a pacifist," he said Tuesday at his Institute of Politics (IOP) speech.
Graham organizers are careful not to be overly antagonistic towards the fundamentalist wings of Christianity. Williams emphasizes freedom of speech, saying. "We've learned to sort of coexist." But he says that a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible can be dangerous. "There are people who can look at the Bible and attempt to prove that any people who are not white. Aryan people were intended by God to be second-class citizens."
Graham's approach to politics also comes under fire from more socially oriented Christians. Members of Harvard's Seymour Society--a group of predominantly Black Christian social activists--protested at Graham's speech at the IOP, and Seymour Society president Jacqueline Cook asked the evangelist how he could justify his "criminal silence" on South African apartheid and U.S. military aid to Latin American dictatorships.
Sister Gladys Marhefka, a member of a local Gray Nuns chapter, explains that the Catholic Church--although conservative in its views on contraception and abortion--believes in actively seeking to solve social problems. Evangelism, Marhefka says, "is not just going out and telling people that Jesus loves you. It's coming to meet some of their basic human needs."
There is a theological side to Graham's position on nuclear weapons, and a reason for what socially oriented Christians see as his relative inaction on this position. While he believes that man should strive to eliminate war, and therefore nuclear weapons, he says. "There is going to come an Armageddon, Man stands before the Armageddon, ready to blow himself up, and God is going to intervene."
When Graham speaks, at Nickerson Field, and 100,000 people gather, many of them won't be there because of Graham's new political message. They will be there because they want to hear the gospel according to the man who has been preaching it since 1939. While his two-month crusade will focus attention on the rapidly growing ecumenical involvement in the nuclear disarmament movement, the main force behind its scope is a new, nationwide rise in mainstream, moderate evangelism.