How can scribes capture Billy Graham's giant, complex life in newsprint? This will take time

Back in the early 1980s, I sat in a meeting at The Charlotte Observer in which we discussed how the Rev. Billy Graham's hometown newspaper would handle his death. After all, he wasn't that far from the time when ordinary people start talking about retirement.

Graham, however, wasn't "ordinary people" especially in a town with a major road called the Billy Graham Parkway. The Observer team needed a plan. 

How do you sum up Graham's giant, complex, sprawling life in a few paragraphs? Try to imagine being the Associated Press pro who had to come up with the first bulletin that moved when the world's most famous evangelist died early Wednesday morning. Here is that story in its entirety:

The Rev. Billy Graham, who transformed American religious life through his preaching and activism, becoming a counselor to presidents and the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history, has died.
Spokesman Mark DeMoss says Graham, who long suffered from cancer, pneumonia and other ailments, died at his home in North Carolina on Wednesday morning. He was 99.
Graham reached more than 200 million through his appearances and millions more through his pioneering use of television and radio. Unlike many traditional evangelists, he abandoned narrow fundamentalism to engage broader society.

The priorities there seem solid, to me. The AP, of course, quickly released a full-length obituary.

As you would expect, there were stumbles in other newsrooms -- some of them almost Freudian. Consider the opening of the Graham obituary at The Daily Beast:

The Rev. Billy Graham, an evangelist preacher who changed American politics, has died at the age of 99. ...

Uh, no.

There were also some struggles to grasp the precise meanings of key religious words. For example, Graham was often called "America's pastor," but he spent very, very little time as a pastor, in terms of leading a congregation. There were some struggles, as always, with variations on words such as "evangelist," "evangelical" and "evangelizing." Was Graham a "fundamentalist"? The true fundamentalists would certainly say "no."

One Washington Post commentary -- first published in 2015, then updated -- opened like this:

The death of charismatic evangelist Billy Graham on Wednesday put an end to his six-decades-long presence as “America's pastor” that reverberated far beyond U.S. borders.

That would be a surprise to leaders of the Charismatic Renewal Movement, noted one GetReligion reader. Graham was certainly a "charismatic" person, but he was not a "charismatic." Was there any way to use the "charismatic evangelist" label without that language issue?

Moving on. While Graham's relationship with journalism was a positive one, for the most part, there were journalists who did little to hide their negative views of one of America's most admired men. For example, from Teen Vogue:

The Newhouse organization's MASSLive site was a bit more subtle, with this survey material inviting reader responses:

Rev. Billy Graham, the evangelist known as "America's pastor," has died at age 99. President Trump tweeted Graham was "a very special man" and George W. Bush said in a statement "Billy touched the hearts of not only Christians, but people of all faiths." Others argue, however, that Graham's legacy should not be celebrated. He was an outspoken homophobe, claiming homosexuality was a "sinister form of perversion," and he created the sexist Billy Graham rule. What do you think?

It was also rather easy to catch the theological content in the Charlotte Observer's editorial page tribute to Graham. Read carefully, as the editors discussed where he stepped out of line:

Graham was not perfect. Some, including Harry Truman, thought he was too eager for publicity. Women were stung by dismissive comments he made in 1970 about feminism.
In 1972, after attending a prayer breakfast with President Richard Nixon, Graham was caught on tape decrying the “stranglehold” Jews had over Hollywood and the media. When the tapes were released in 2002, Graham apologized and said his words then “do not reflect my views.”
In his later years, he disappointed some followers and friends who thought his inclusive Christian message was tainted by full-page newspaper ads urging people to vote “for biblical values” and oppose same-sex marriage. ...
But this is also true about Billy Graham: He embraced integration and the Civil Rights movement at a time it might have alienated his core supporters. In 1953, he told ushers not to erect barriers that separated whites and blacks in his audience, and he warned a white audience against feeling superior to blacks. In 1957, he invited black ministers to serve on his New York crusade’s executive committee, and he welcomed Martin Luther King, Jr., to join him in the pulpit in New York City.
Later, he told a Ku Klux Klan member: “It touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross.”
What does that tell us? That all of us have sinned, and all of us are forgiven, and all of it, according to the Rev. Graham, “is only a beginning. It is a lifetime of problems, troubles and difficulties. But you are meeting them with the help of Christ and the Holy Spirit who lives in your heart.”

Read that final paragraph again. There is something crucial missing in that salvation formula, if the goal is to salute Graham -- repentance. Also, the best way to summarize the evangelist's take on theology is to note his mantra "the Bible says," not a reference to the human heart, alone.

Readers seeking a fair-minded survey of the man's strengths and weaknesses can turn to the magisterial New York Times obit, with a Laurie Goodstein byline. However, as you work your way through it -- and you should -- note that it is filled with quick references to complex debates that would require full-length books to address, if the goal was to survey the views of Graham defenders and critics. There's just too much to cover.

So it's going to take for journalists to work through some of the important issues. For example, I appreciated this Religion News Service piece that looks at Graham's complex and flawed relationship with the Jewish community and leaders in other world religions. Graham was, of course, not a Universalist when it came to theology, but he tried to be honest and fair -- even about his glaring mistakes (think Richard Nixon tapes).

Several CNN pieces also probed the evangelist's trailblazing -- everyone would agree on that -- efforts at racial reconciliation. This is a Southern Baptist, after all, who once bailed the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., out of jail.

As a son of the Bible Belt, did Graham go far enough? CNN noted, in the main obit:

... During at least two crusades in the early 1950s in Tennessee and Mississippi, Graham literally removed the racial barrier -- taking down the ropes that separated blacks and whites -- according to Martin and Cliff Barrows, Graham's longtime music and program director for the Evangelistic Association. "Billy himself went and took the rope down and said, 'We don't have segregated meetings, whatever their reason for segregating them. They can sit wherever they want to.' And he took a stand for his belief that every man is equal before Christ and the gospel was for everyone."
At his Madison Square Garden crusade, Graham asked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver a prayer. Although Graham preached that racial segregation was unbiblical, he was criticized by some civil rights leaders for not being more involved in the movement.
A week after the deadly bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, Graham told fellow evangelicals: "We should have been leading the way to racial justice but we failed. Let's confess it, let's admit it, and let's do something about it."

The Atlanta Journal Constitution dedicated an entire piece to that subject. Here is a chunk of that, including a quote from an important website among young evangelicals today:

The Rev. Bernice King, CEO of the King Center in Atlanta, also was interviewed for the video.
“Both Dr. Graham and my father were trying to make the world a better place,” she said in the clip. “They were different, obviously, in their style and their approach. But I think their heart and their goal was the same.”
The Gospel Coalition noted Graham’s devoted friendship with Rev. King in its piece highlighting interesting facts about the late spiritual leader:
“In 1955, Graham invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to join him in the pulpit at his 16-week revival in New York City, where 2.3 million gathered at Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, and Times Square to hear them. In his autobiography, Graham says he and King developed a close friendship and that he was eventually one of the few people who referred to King as “Mike,” a nickname which King asked only his closest friends to call him. In 1963, Graham posted bail for King to be released from jail during the civil rights protests in Birmingham.”
Graham was opposed to racial intolerance on not only moral but also spiritual grounds.
“There is no excuse ever for hatred. There is no excuse, ever, for bigotry and intolerance and prejudice,” he said in the video. “We are to love as God loves us.”

Obviously, I could go on and on.

Look for further commentary on the Graham news coverage in the days ahead, including our "Crossroads" podcast and the Friday Five feature from Bobby Ross, Jr. And please keep sending us URLs to outstanding examples of coverage of Graham's life and legacy, as well as the clunkers.

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