Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy had him lead White House prayer breakfasts. His friend Lyndon Johnson asked him to consider running for president. He was an important counsel to Richard Nixon and he visits Jimmy Carter’s bornagain White House. Billy Graham is far and away the most influential and powerful evangelist at work today. His “crusades” pack the biggest halls and stadiums in the world for days on end. Parts of his eight-day crusade in Toronto this month were videotaped for later showing across North America and abroad. His weekly radio program The Hour of Decision is broadcast by more than 900 stations around the world.
Prominence is generally accompanied by controversy, and Billy Graham’s case is no exception. The Charlotte Observer in Graham’s home state of North Carolina last year revealed the existence of a previously unpublicized arm of the Graham organization, known as the World Evangelical and Christian Education Fund, with assets—in land and blue-chip stocks—reported to total $22.9 million. The evangelist’s only comment was that he makes $39,500 a year, and any other information on the income of his Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is private. In fact, though his organization is widely reported to be worth in the neighborhood of $40 million, he says he doesn’t even know whether he’s a millionaire.
Now 59, Graham has been an evangelist for more than 30 years. He has written 11 books (one of them, Angels: God’s Secret Agents, has sold over 1.25 million copies, second only to Roots in the history of the Doubleday publishing company); he has been married for 34 years; and he has five children (the youngest is now 20). Maclean’s contributing editor Philip Fleishman spoke with Graham in Toronto just before his latest crusade.
Maclean’s: Isn’t it more difficult to believe in God in a world where terrorism and warfare have become the norm?
Graham: I think that what we’re seeing is a shuffling of the stage, building up toward that eschatological period. That doesn’t mean that the earth is going to be destroyed, but it does mean that evil is going to be destroyed, and the Messiah is going to come. And of course I believe that the Messiah will be Jesus Christ. Jews believe that the Messiah will be someone else. Maclean’s: What does the word “sin ’’mean to you today?
Graham: Exactly what it’s always meant. It
means rebellion against God, and the breaking of his laws. It means coming short of his requirements for salvation, for righteousness. He said “Be ye holy as I am holy.” None of us can say that we are holy in ourselves, so we have to have a holiness and a righteousness provided for us and that’s what Jesus Christ did on the Cross. Sin is moral imperfection. Every person ever bom, since Adam and Eve, is morally imperfect. He has a tendency to lie, to steal, to hate, greed, prejudice, lust.
Maclean’s: In your book, World Aflame, you wrote that unless the Church quickly recovers the authoritative biblical message, millions of Christians may leave the institutional Church to find spiritual food. Graham: I think that prediction has already come true. But they’re coming back to the Church now. There’s a great movement among these young people to realize that they have a responsibility to the Church, but that the Church, if it does not have a full program during the week of Bible teaching and prayer, that people are going to find that in home prayer groups and Bible study groups, of which there are hundreds of thousands. They’re springing up everywhere, with people reaching from the lowest to the highest social strata. Maclean’s: What is the born-again phenomenon all about?
Graham: It’s not a phenomenon. Jesus used that expression. He said,“You must
No, religion is not ‘the opiate of the masses.’ It’s the only hope they have
be born again unto the Kingdom of God.” And then Charles Colson’s book came out, Born Again, and then the presidential candidates, Mr. Ford and Mr. Carter, said “I have been born again.” It’s a biblical expression, and it means that you repent of your sins, you receive Christ as your Savior, and then the Holy Spirit comes and gives you a new heart, new attitudes. In other words he changes the direction of your life.
Maclean’s: Why is this happening now in America?
Graham: It’s happening worldwide. It’s not just American society. It’s happening more, I would think, in the Far East than in any other place. And in Africa. If the present trend continues, Africa will be a bornagain continent in 20 years, according to the statistics. We’re coming back to a theology in the Church—not so much in Europe but it’s beginning in Europe—in which we are accepting the Bible as the authoritative word of God, and the fact that men and women need to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, which one could call being born again. Now some churches believe that this regeneration, as it’s called, happens when they’re baptized. Others think that it happens when you’re confirmed. Others believe that it happens later on. Only the Holy Spirit would know the exact moment that a person is born again. Jesus said, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” I think we can pretty well tell; there’s a chemistry that we know—almost from when we shake hands with a person—that they know Christ as their Savior. Maclean’s: What’s the impetus for it? Graham: I think it’s a movement of the Holy Spirit. I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’re witnessing a moving of the spirit of God. It has not affected the majority of humanity. It has not affected the majority of Americans. But it has affected a very large minority. We’re seeing more people go to church per capita in the United States today than ever before in American history.
Maclean’s: Could that have anything to do with the legacy of Vietnam?
Graham: I think that’s a part of it. Part of it, though, and the major part, is disillusionment with materialism, with technology. Our young people in the ’60s said, “We don’t want it. There’s something else in life.” So some turned to drugs, some turned to the occult, and some turned to Christ.
Maclean’s: In World Aflame, you talk about double think, group think and the lie. Could you explain what you mean by those terms?
Graham: Well, when you have group think, you have the television blaring at us all the time and a whole nation thinking the same thing. We are urged to buy a certain product, we don’t need it, but we are urged to buy it, as a group, as a nation. Double think is thinking good and evil at the same time. For example in the advertisement, we do need it and we don’t need
it, and we don’t have any set convictions about it. People are ready to go out and jeopardize their whole economic future to get something they really don’t need. James Arness can come along and have an instant solution to very complicated problems with his gun and young people had a tendency—I think they see through it more now—not to realize it may take years to get these instant solutions. One of the greatest changes that has taken place in our society is the change in the value system, and the basis of morality. You see, when we throw out the Ten Commandments and the Ser-
mon on the Mount, what do we have? What is our yardstick? There is a moral standard in our universe. When we break it, we’re breaking ourselves. The whole world sits on a cracked foundation of human nature. Every problem that mankind faces today could be solved if it were not for sin.
Maclean’s: If everybody believed in the same system, could we solve every problem in the world?
Graham: Oh I don’t think that, because we’d still be sinners. We’d still have lust and greed and hate and all the rest. Every system has corruption in it. There is no perfect system that I’ve ever seen.
Maclean’s: Have you read Richard Nixon ’s recent book?
Graham: I’m on page 474. He sent me a nice, autographed copy and I put that in the safe and bought one of my own. It’s interesting, you know. I spent a great deal of
time with President Eisenhower. I’ve spent more time with President Johnson. I only spent, I think, three nights at the White House when Mr. Nixon was president and about 23 nights when Johnson was president. But Johnson was that type of a person. If he was reading his paper in the morning, he wanted you to have coffee with him. I knew him better because he was easier to know. I also knew Mr. Nixon quite well because I knew his family first. I participated in his mother’s funeral, and as he tells the story in the book, all the people had gone and then the family came to view the open casket and just as he came to me his eyes met mine. He just crumpled and just wept and fell into my arms, and I told him that God loved him and I believed his mother was in Heaven and she was a wonderful person. And then Pat came and the two girls came and I wrapped my arms around the whole family and had prayer with them. It didn’t begin with Watergate. We can go all the way back to the first administration and we had corruption in various stages in most every form of government. I don’t care whether it’s the United States or the Soviet Union. Maclean’s: Terms like sin and guilt have a very different meanting to a younger generation. They seem anachronistic.
Graham: Guilt is one of the great psychological problems that people face. We have broken God’s law and we are guilty. There’s a punishment to this guilt, and that punishment is separation from God, the second death, which Jesus called hell. And Jesus Christ took that for us. He became the scapegoat. That’s the marvelous thing about the Gospel. You don’t have to go around with this guilt. Y ou can get rid of it, at the Cross.
Maclean’s: When you say Christian, where does that leave the Jews and the Buddhists and the people in Islam?
Graham: It leaves them as Jews and Buddhists and Moslems.
Maclean’s: Does that leave them without hope, in your system?
Graham: Pardon me, I don’t have a system. I only have the biblical system. I don’t teach anything new. I don’t teach anything the Church hasn’t taught in Canada since the beginning of Canada, or the Church of England hasn’t taught in its creeds. We’re taught that God is a God of justice, God is a God of mercy, and I’m going to leave all that up to God. I can’t go around deciding all these questions. I want to go and give the good news to every creature. That’s my responsibility and it’s up to that person to either accept, neglect or reject.
Maclean’s: Do you not see validity in other systems of belief?
Graham: Of course. I believe there’s truth in every major religion in the world. I was just thinking: Ishmael is the father of the Arabs, and Isaac, the father of the Jews. And I thought to myself that in the death of Abraham, their father, they came together in peace. And it does say in Isaiah, I think it’s the 26th chapter, or the 19th chapter,
Yes, I thought Richard Nixon was a good president. He made some errors of course
that there will come a day when God is go ing to bless Syria, Egypt and Israel. But I think that day will come when the Messiah comes.
Maclean’s: How much of the Bible is truly literal?
Graham: That would be impossible to say. For example, I believe there is a literal Adam and Eve. I believe the story of Jonah and the whale. I believe it was literal because Jesus said so. Most of the hard places of the Old Testament to accept were things that Jesus himself referred to, and I would have to doubt his word, I would have to doubt Jesus Christ. I would have to say you’re a liar. Why didn’t you tell us this is wrong if it wasn’t true? But he didn’t. And so I accept them as real events, by faith. Maclean’s: Is there room at all in your belieffor healthy skepticism?
Graham: When I received Jesus Christ, the greatest problem I had, when I tried to think it through, was that either Jesus Christ was an egomaniac, claiming to be God and he wasn’t, or he deserved to be in a mental hospital, or thirdly, he was what he claimed to be. And it was upon that choice that I made my decision for Christ. I said yes, by faith I am going to accept that he is who he claims to be. My faith has grown stronger, to the point that I don’t even doubt that Jesus Christ was the son of God. I don’t doubt that I’m going to Heaven.
Maclean’s: Tell me when did that change come about?
Graham: A year after I had accepted Christ as Savior. When it came to the Bible, I began to doubt certain passages of scripture. I was in California with a group of seminary students, sitting around a campfire at night and talking. I remember walking out into the woods in the moonlight and I had a Bible and I got down on my knees, and I said “Lord, I don’t understand everything in this book. There are things I just cannot reconcile, that I am going to accept it as your authoritative word by faith.” There are still things in the Bible I can’t reconcile, but I accept it by faith as God’s infallible word.
Maclean’s: Where is God when atrocities occur?
Graham: He hasn’t forsaken his own that are there. Man is doing this to man, not God. This is man’s sin, again. This is man’s corruption, again. It’s never going to end until Christ comes back, until man is regenerated. A person who is a true believer couldn’t participate in that. The Bible is full of teachings that there will be false Christians. We’re going around trying to make the Jews converts at the end of the sword, and that’s why the Jewish people today, in my judgment, are a little bit skittish about some of these evangelistic efforts. They’re not skittish to me so much because they know that I’m their friend. I mean I hold awards from practically every Jewish organization.
Maclean’s: How do you respond to such issues as premarital contraception, abor-
tion—issues that fly in the face of fundamen -tal Christianity?
Graham: First of all, I do not believe that the Bible teaches premarital sex; that’s called fornication and the Bible warns against fornication. I don’t believe in abortion except in matters where the mother’s life is in danger or incest or rape. Contraception, I believe in it. I believe man has always used it in one form or another, and he has every right to use it.
Maclean’s: So there has to be pragmatism. Graham: Of course. The Bible has a great deal to say about the mind. The Bible
doesn’t say when you come to Christ you’re committing intellectual suicide. We’re given great freedom, you know, when Christ comes to liberate us. “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Christ is the truth and he sets people free. God is not a person with a big stick going around “Don’t do this, Don’t do this” to everything that’s a pleasure and joy and happiness. There’s a freedom of conscience that the Bible allows. Now there are certain things that are right and wrong. For example, it is wrong for a young man and a young woman to sleep together before marriage. The Bible definitely says that’s wrong. That is the moral law. Maclean’s: How do you respond to the old cliché about religion being the opiate of the masses?
Graham: Well, of course this is what Marx thought and I think he was totally wrong. It’s the one hope that the masses have, if it’s
true religion. I agree that if you have the wrong kind of religion, it can be devastating. Of course Marx was talking about a sedative that had been given by the establishment in Europe to keep the working classes in line. In that sense of course, he was right, but this is no longer true, largely, in Europe or America or in Canada. Maclean’s: I was going to ask you about the possibility of a nuclear holocaust.
Graham: The world is sitting on a powder keg that could blow up at any time. Certainly the detente that was started under Mr. Nixon has deteriorated very rapidly in the last few months.
Maclean’s: Did you think Nixon was a good president?
Graham: I thought he was a good president. He made some errors, of course. He thought that he could end the Vietnam war in one year when he went in. He was determined to end it. But he found that he had a bear by the tail that somehow he couldn’t turn loose. But it was his idea long before he became president that we must become friends with China, that this barrier must be broken. His goal as president was really peace and prosperity; that sort of undergirded him all the way. And then came Watergate which just destroyed him. I would seriously doubt if he knows what caused Watergate.
Maclean’s: And now the United States has President Carter, a born-again Baptist. Does that in itself harken a new age? Graham: I think that Mr. Carter was elected partially on the grounds of his religious faith.
Maclean’s: After people accept God, are born again, then what do they do?
Graham: Then they work—for Christ, for the kingdom of God in the world, living separated from the sins of the world. We’re not to participate in the sins of the world, but we’re to go into the world and do all we can to heip in solving its problems. Maclean’s: If you weren’t doing what you’re doing today, what else would you be involved in?
Graham: Well, when I was 16, my ambition was to be a baseball player, but I never would have made it. My hitting wasn’t too good. I probably would have been a farmer because I was. born and raised on a farm and my father never wanted me to get an education. He wanted me to stay on the farm. As for politics, I never gave it a thought. I was converted to Christ and called to the ministry before I ever thought of politics. I remember President Johnson, one day at Camp David. He was swimming and I was sitting on the side of the pool. John Chancellor was there as well. The president said “Billy, I think you ought to run for president. You ought to be my successor. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. If you decide to run, I’ll be your campaign manager and my organization will be behind you.” And I said “No, the Lord has called me to preach. I settled that a long time ago.” I have been called by God and I consider it the highest calling in the world. O
God is not a person with a big stick, going around saying: ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that’