So, Billy Graham is dead at ninety-nine. He lived long enough to see the movement he once led, American evangelicalism, become monstrous, complicit in the election of Donald Trump. There was a time when the distinction between fundamentalism and evangelicalism was meaningful. Billy Graham was distrusted by fundamentalists because he was willing to work with all kinds of Christians. Evangelicals shared fundamentalists’ high view of the Bible but they weren’t separatists. They were willing to engage with the world and with theological liberals, to make their case rather than to bunker down in solipsism. They weren’t politically partisan. (There are still many moderate or progressive evangelicals, and even more in Australia, but their quiet witness is not loud enough.)
Somewhere along the line, American evangelicals became co-opted into a culture war that has now gone nuclear. They switched their vote away from the genuinely Christian Democrat Jimmy Carter to the hard-right conservatism of Ronald Reagan. I thought it couldn’t get any worse than George W. Bush and the wars he waged. I was wrong, of course, and it’s been Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, who has been flaming the fans of Trump support among American evangelicals. His father, spiritual advisor to presidents of all convictions, wasn’t even turning in his grave; he was still alive, just.
Billy came to Perth in 1959; my grandfather was, I think, on the organising committee. Billy’s ‘crusades’ (what a terrible choice of name!) appear in fiction and film today as the epitome of the 1950s swept away by the sexual revolution of the sixties. I remember that re-creation of the Perth crusade in the mini-series adaptation of Robert Drewe’s Shark Net. And then, more recently, the Queen’s private audience with him in The Crown. When Franklin Graham came to Perth in 1998, it was an attempt to recapture the glory days of his father’s crusades. He hadn’t turned so political then. I can’t remember if I went forward, like most did, to show my renewed commitment to Jesus. With what Franklin Graham has become, it is now a sore point in my memory that I was there. The Burswood Dome was full that night. It’s gone now, demolished in 2013 to make a car-park for the Perth Stadium.