On May 9, 1979, I attended a Billy Graham Crusade at Randwick Racecourse in Sydney. I had access to the lawn area in front of the blue grandstand. I don’t remember that. It says so on the ticket I kept from that night.
I don’t really remember anything from Billy Graham’s talk that night either. But I do recall hundreds of people going forward in response to the appeal to invite Jesus into their life.
I went forward too. But not to give my life to Jesus. I just went forward to see what happened to all those who did. I meandered through the crowd, overhearing the respondees repeating the sinner’s prayer after their counselor, phrase after phrase like wedding vows.
It must have had a big impact on me because I kept my ticket all these years.
The 1979 crusade was Billy Graham’s third in Australia. He first landed on our shores in 1959 and that crusade is considered a watershed event in Australia’s religious history. During the ’59 meetings 130,000 Aussies went forward in response to Graham’s altar call. In Sydney alone it was nearly 57,000. It was the closest thing to a revival the city had ever seen.
But the Billy Graham phenomenon had begun only ten years earlier in Los Angeles in September 1949.
At just 30 years of age, the Southern Baptist preacher from North Carolina was on the brink of folding his evangelistic ministry after a series of disappointing revivals in other cities. But the Los Angeles crusades changed everything.
While characterized as a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah by Graham himself, the truth was that Los Angeles was full of conservative Christians. During the Great Depression, fundamentalist Midwesterners flooded into LA, some of them eventually doing very well for themselves in the City of Angels.
They were now among a group of well-to-do Los Angeles businessmen sponsoring the event, which would be held in an enormous tent stretched across a parking lot at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Hill Street. They spent $25,000 on billboards, radio spots and newspaper ads coaxing Californians to visit the “Canvas Cathedral” and hear “America’s Sensational Young Evangelist Preach.”
And more than 350,000 Californians did exactly that.
But there was more going on than just a well-funded, well-run evangelism crusade.
Providentially, the ‘49 Los Angeles crusade coincided with a national marketing campaign created by some of America’s top advertising executives. But this campaign wasn’t selling any old commodity. It was selling religion.
That year, the Religion in American Life campaign blitzed the country with around 10,000 newspaper ads, national radio marketing, and billboards in every city, all designed “to accent the importance of all religious institutions as the basis of American life.”
And major corporations bankrolled it.
Why, you might ask.
They were fighting what they saw as the insidious left-wing forces of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the trade union movement, and socially progressive churches.
The New Deal had introduced the regulatory state which curbed corporate power. The labor unions were fighting for workers’ rights. And ministers from the Baptist, Presbyterian and Methodist denominations were preaching what would later be disparagingly referred to as the “social gospel”, a theology that affirmed both personal piety and social justice.
Inspired by the writings of Christian socialist, Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist pastor from New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, and the example of social reformer, Mark Matthews, a Presbyterian minister in Seattle, the social gospel movement applied Christian ethics to social problems. They denounced economic systems that promoted inequality and poverty. They insisted on strong labor unions, free education, nationalized health, racial reconciliation and, in many cases, pacifism.
Corporate America couldn’t have that!
Initially they tried traditional lobbying and PR campaigns. But it wasn’t until 1949 that some business leaders saw the galvanizing effects of religion on society. The Religion in American Life campaign was born, linking Christianity, Republican politics and libertarian economics to help drive a wave of public piety in the 1950s.
Essentially, the campaign sought to advance the idea that unfettered capitalism and Christianity are soul mates
In his book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Princeton historian, Kevin Kruse points out that business leaders, anxious about the emergence of the social gospel, looked around for an exemplar of the kind of Christianity they preferred – the pietistic, individualistic, privatized kind.
Billy Graham fitted the bill. He didn’t address issues of social justice, sticking to a call for individual acceptance of Christ as savior. He promoted a form of personal piety that eschewed sexual immorality and condemned drinking, communism, and later rock ‘n’ roll music.
Graham was quoted as saying, “I’m trying to stay out of [social/political issues] and just keep preaching the Gospel, because there’s nothing coming out of Washington or any of those places that are going to save the world or transform men and women.”
All this led the ageing media magnate, William Randolph Hearst to instruct all his papers right across the country to “Puff Graham.”
With the backing of corporate America, the 1949 Los Angeles crusade, which was booked to run for three weeks, lasted eight. Three thousand people were “born again.”
Time magazine founder Henry Luce met with Graham and started promoting his work.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was off and running.
Throughout the 1950s, the Religion in American Life campaign gave the US its national motto, In God We Trust (in 1956), and a new line in the Pledge of Allegiance, “one nation under God” (in 1954).
Capitalism, corporate America and conservative Christianity defeated the New Deal and the social gospel. They stomped them to dust, actually. Kevin Kruse explains it this way:
“In [conservative] Christianity, the individual rises to heaven or falls to hell based on his or her own character. They say the free market is just like that. You succeed, you fail, on your own. In their eyes, the state meddles with that purity. That’s the natural process. That’s the godly process. So anything that is working against the system that God himself must have set up, the system of individual merit, must itself be ungodly.”
Does knowing all this diminish the esteem and respect with which we hold Billy Graham?
I don’t see why it should. I respect him enormously. Despite the odd misstep (cosying up to Richard Nixon), Billy Graham had integrity. He was offered movie roles and political office, but he turned them down cold. He felt called to preach the gospel and he remained faithful to that calling, a vocation he discharged with excellence and unflagging energy. He is a giant of the Christian faith.
But there’s nothing untoward about recognizing that Billy Graham was also a man of his time, shaped by the prevailing culture, and influenced by the emergence of corporate interests in the latter part of the 20th century.
It is myopic and potentially dangerous to imagine that Billy Graham sprang up suigeneris, spawned by the Holy Spirit, his impact the work of God alone without any any influence of the world around him. A unique confluence of events occurred after World War 2 that created the perfect storm for the rise of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
I think Australians can happily celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1959 crusades, but without pining for the days in which such crusades were possible. Today, we believe the gospel does have social implications as well as personal ones. We are no longer shaped by the bifurcation of Christ’s message into the competing interests of evangelism or justice. We no longer expect the media and the business world to back our evangelistic crusades. Those day are gone. And I, for one, am happy to see them go.
Let’s stop asking, “Will we ever see those days again?” Instead let’s seek the new shape of faith-sharing, justice-seeking and peace-making in the days ahead.