(RNS) — How did Billy Graham become the most famous evangelist in America? Does he deserve blame for paving the way for the religious right? How should we see his place in America’s political and spiritual history?
The PBS series “American Experience” explores these questions in a fascinating two-hour documentary premiering Monday (May 17), offering an authoritative look at Graham’s life and ministry, from his beginnings as a dairy farmer’s son from Charlotte, North Carolina, to his death in February 2018 at age 99.
The historians and scholars in the film, including William Martin and Grant Wacker, the authors of two definitive Graham biographies, chronicle how Graham sought the ear of presidents, most notably Richard Nixon, and they agree that his cultivation of political power is a blot on his legacy (one that Graham, to his credit, confessed to in later years).
But director Sarah Colt, who devoted nearly two years to Graham, sifting through 300 hours of archival video and audio, looking at nearly 2,000 photographs and conducting 19 on-air interviews, could have spent more time with some of the 215 million people Graham preached to around the world. A film so rich in scholarship is diminished only by the missing voices of those whose lives Billy Graham made sweeter.
Colt introduces us to Billy at an age when he loved baseball and girls, but knew better than to miss his parents’ nightly Bible reading and prayer sessions. At age 16, for reasons Graham could not himself explain, he made his decision to accept Christ into his life at a revival held in Charlotte by traveling evangelist Mordecai Ham. Graham’s decision card, shown in one of the documentary’s grainy photos, is dated Nov. 1, 1934.
Already the Carolinas’ most successful Fuller Brush salesman, the teenage Graham unleashed his smooth-talking gifts “selling” Christ. In 1949, his tent revival drew the attention of newspaper mogul William Randolph, who figured he could sell papers by pushing Graham. In 1957, the evangelist’s New York crusade made him a star. He preached to 2 million people over 16 weeks. More than 56,000 made decisions for Christ.
The world had discovered what author Kenneth L. Woodward describes in the film as Graham’s animal magnetism. That long, lean frame. The trademark head of hair, distinctive even as it turned from golden to silver. A voice that Graham’s brother-in-law, evangelist Leighton Ford, likens to a train whistle on a prairie.
But the humility Graham projected hid a deep-seated ambition. Historian Randall Balmer claims in “Billy Graham” that its subject was drawn to politics as if it were a narcotic. In 1950, Graham nabbed an Oval Office audience with President Harry Truman. Truman didn’t care for Graham’s heavy-handed faith, but it was all the entree Graham needed. Mixing patriotism with Christian piety, he worked to align himself with politicians, and though he feigned impartiality he preferred conservative ones.