For Billy Graham’s 90th birthday, I tried to think of a way that our ReadTheSpirit coverage could share something with a fresh viewpoint. I ran though my files from covering Graham as a journalist over the decades and I turned up this story, a book review really, that I wrote a decade ago. As a reporter who has chronicled many years of American religious life, I have huge respect for the man. This story takes a clear-eyed view of his life and, I think, is a fresh way, today, to say:
Happy Birthday, Billy!
BILLY GRAHAM, “JUST AS I AM”
By DAVID CRUMM
It’s easy to make fun of sincerity these days. Too many times in
recent years, the veneer has been stripped away from our heroes,
revealing moral flaws and self-interest lurking just below the surface.
Nearly every high-profile profession has been tarnished—from
movie stars and talk-show hosts to professional athletes and
presidents. We’ve learned that their sincerity is about as deep as a
10-second sound bite.
And the profession that has fallen
farthest from grace is the one that should have set the highest
standards for sincerity: evangelism, the work of trying to stir up our faith. Time and time again,
investigative reporters have unmasked big-name evangelists, proving
that many of them are far more interested in money and power than the
humble basics of Christianity.
It’s almost a miracle that Billy Graham has survived it all.
fact, the publishers of his autobiography are proudly proclaiming in
promotions for the book: “Unlike many of his contemporaries in the
world of evangelism, Graham has maintained a reputation for total
integrity with no trace of scandal.”
worst that can be said of Graham is that he was a bit of a hotshot in
his youth, he was a little too chummy with Richard Nixon and that he
remains somewhat naive about world politics.
However, it’s a
credit to Graham’s sincerity that he admits to being guilty of all
three offenses in “Just As I Am,” a disarmingly honest book in which
Graham stretches out and spins yarn after yarn about growing up in
North Carolina just after World War I, barnstorming the country as a
red-hot revivalist, touring the world as a senior ambassador for
Christianity—and hobnobbing with kings, queens, presidents and the
pope along the way.
To put it simply: This is an entertaining
story about a great person who doesn’t mind poking fun at himself from
time to time.
Graham opens the book with one of the most
infamous incidents from his brash early years: his first visit to the
White House to meet President Harry Truman.
“It was July 14,
1950,” Graham writes, “and I was about to make a fool of myself. …
I was just a tanned, lanky, 31-year old, crowned by a heavy thatch of
wavy blond hair, wearing what Time magazine would later describe as a
‘pistachio-green’ suit with rust-colored socks and a hand-painted tie.
My three colleagues were similarly attired.”
respectfully—if cautiously—greeted Graham and his evangelical pals
and even agreed to pray with them. It was a cordial meeting, until
Graham left the White House doors and encountered the press corps. At
the urging of reporters, Graham turned the event into a circus,
boasting about his private meeting with Truman and even posing, bowed
in prayer, on the White House lawn.
When he saw the press
coverage, Truman was furious. He dismissed Graham as a flamboyant
self-promoter and refused to speak with him again for many years.
admits that his own youthful ignorance and enthusiasm were to blame.
But he learned from the experience. Afterward, Graham vowed never to
publicly reveal details of his meetings with prominent people.
that sometimes allowed politicians to manipulate him. Graham argues
fairly convincingly that Nixon used their friendship in ways the
evangelist never intended. Among the incidents Graham recalls was a
long walk with Nixon along the beach at Key Biscayne, Fla., in December
1967, when Nixon was mourning the recent loss of his mother and
pondering whether to run for president.
Graham had a bad cold
that day. He accepted Nixon’s invitation to take a walk, but he was
thinking more about his own ill health than politics. In fact, Graham
writes, he had firmly resolved not to give Nixon any specific advice
about the presidency. After all, the evangelist also was a friend of
Lyndon Johnson. During the walk, the only reassurance Graham offered
Nixon was his standard promise: “I will pray for you, that the Lord
will give you the wisdom to make the right choice.”
years later, Graham learned that Nixon had told other people a far
different story about that stroll along the beach. In Nixon’s version,
Graham had blessed his run for office—and had insisted that Nixon had
a divine obligation to run!
In retrospect, Graham concludes
that he wishes he had understood more about the pitfalls of world
politics and had avoided some awkward situations in this country and
Overall, however, Graham is justifiably proud of the
thousands of people he was able to inspire and lead toward a satisfying
faith in Christianity. Much of the book is divided into brief vignettes
about successful preaching crusades in which people found new meaning
in their lives. These chapters read like the labels plastered on an old
suitcase. One section is titled: “Augusta, Modesto, Miami, Baltimore,
Altoona.” Another lists: “Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam,
It will seem fitting for any of the 230 million
people who have attended Billy Graham revivals over the past half
century that Graham closes his book with a sincere appeal on behalf of
the Christian faith.
At age 78, he is suffering from
Parkinson’s disease, but he writes: “I don’t know the future, but I do
know this: The best is yet to be! Heaven awaits us, and that will be
far, far more glorious than anything we can ever imagine.”
line is a good litmus test. If you’re comfortable in reading that kind
of pure-hearted, evangelical message, you’ll probably love “Just As I
Am” and come away from the book feeling you’ve had a refreshing visit
with a great and honest man.
TODAY, more than a decade later, Billy’s still with us. So, please, let’s wish him a Happy Birthday! If you’d like to send me a note about this, please click here and I’ll try to round up some of our readers’ thoughts on this milestone.