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Evangelical Leader Remembers Billy Graham's Life And Legacy


Let's take a moment to remember Billy Graham, who has died at the age of 99. He was called America's pastor, but he was, more particularly, a Southern Baptist preacher. And we're going to talk about him with Russell Moore, who leads the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist leadership convention. Welcome back to the program, sir.

RUSSELL MOORE: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: I think, perhaps, a younger generation is much less familiar with Billy Graham since he wasn't as active in his last years as he was 30 years ago, 40 years ago, 50 years ago. What was the place that he held in American life?

MOORE: Well, Billy Graham was someone who was able to speak to the entire nation. And so for most of the 20th century, one cannot imagine a national crisis or emergency in which Billy Graham was not present speaking to the country. And then beyond that, I think more importantly, Billy Graham was, in my view, the most significant Christian evangelist since the apostle Paul, reaching people all over the country through a variety of media. And so even those younger people who might not be familiar with Billy Graham right now, those younger Christians are often being discipled or led to Christ by people who came to know Christ through Billy Graham.

INSKEEP: Was that the reason for him being so influential? You said a variety of media. He became famous in the 1950s, when you might not just have a tent with a few hundred or a few thousand people, you might be able to reach millions of people through television and radio and magazines.

MOORE: I think part of it was the fact that he was very media savvy. He really had a burden to reach people in whatever way that he could. But I think beyond that, it was the content of his message. So Billy Graham did not try to tailor Christianity either by going in the direction of rejecting the supernatural, as some liberal Protestants did in the early 20th century, or by abandoning the gospel for politics or health and wealth prosperity, as some evangelists did later in the 20th century.

He had a key integrity both of message and of his person. I mean, think of all of the controversies that happened in the 20th century from "Elmer Gantry" the novel all the way through to the numerous evangelists that we saw falling into sexual or financial scandal in the 1980s and 1990s. Billy Graham was never one of those. His integrity was unquestioned. And so I think that was a significant part of his appeal as well.

INSKEEP: Our colleague, Tom Gjelten, in an obituary, noted a couple of interesting things about Billy Graham. One being that early in his career, he would sometimes tolerate segregated audiences at his revival meetings or services. But in later years, he was noted for being very supportive of Martin Luther King. What happened to him?

MOORE: Well, he very significantly refused, after a certain point, to even allow crusades to go forward if they were segregated. And I think what happened to him was the content of his own preaching. He was preaching every single day about the fact that all human beings are created in the image of God, that Jesus died for humanity and that the message of the Gospel, the invitation is for all people to be reconciled to God and to one another through the blood of Jesus Christ.

And so Billy Graham said, I'm going to consistently preach that message. And that means we're not going to have separate categories for black people and white people in my crusades because there's not separate categories for people at the cross of Jesus Christ. So I think he was living consistently.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, speaking as someone who clearly admired Billy Graham, do you think most evangelicals today are following his example? Evangelical leaders, I mean.

MOORE: Well, I don't think that evangelicals of any era often follow the example of Billy Graham the way that we should, but I think we aspire to. And I think that Billy Graham's a unifying presence in evangelicalism and should be in the future.

INSKEEP: Russell Moore, thanks very much for the time, really appreciate it.

MOORE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's talking with us on the occasion of the death of Billy Graham. He directs the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist leadership convention. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.