Tuesday, June 05, 2007

'America's Pastor'

New York Times reports: [edited]

Hundreds of friends, family members, ministers and politicians had gathered to dedicate a library celebrating the ministry of Mr. Graham, whose vast popularity lent him the title 'America’s pastor'.

Standing on a platform before the Billy Graham Library, former President George Bush delivered the keynote address, his voice cracking into a sob as he said Mr. Graham was “the man, the preacher, the humble farmer’s son who changed the world.” Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton also spoke of how Mr. Graham had transformed their lives.

Infirm and rarely appearing in public now, Mr. Graham approached the dais using a walker and noted the sense of completion and twilight that marked the speeches before his.

“I feel like I’ve been attending my own funeral, listening to all these speeches,” he said to the crowd’s nervous laughter. “I’ve been here at the library once, and my one comment when I toured it was that it is too much Billy Graham. My whole life has been to please the Lord and honor Jesus, not to see me and think of me.”

Initiated by the Rev. Franklin Graham, Mr. Graham’s older son, and board members of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the library is to serve as a tribute to the 60 years of Mr. Graham’s ministry around the world.

The $27 million, 40,000-square-foot library is to open on Tuesday. It holds childhood photos of Mr. Graham; his college yearbook, in which he said he wanted to be an evangelist; the tiny engagement ring he gave his wife, Ruth; and footage of his rousing sermons over the decades, from Los Angeles to Moscow, in which he urged people to open their hearts to Christ.

“My father is 88 years old, and he still wants to preach, but his body is just worn out,” Franklin Graham said on a tour of the library before the ceremony. “I hope this library can be an extension of his life. I hope it can be of use long after he’s in heaven.”

Mr. Graham’s crusades filled stadiums even into his old age because of his simple, passionate call to Christianity. He has befriended presidents since Eisenhower, as well as Queen Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II, and he helped fuel the surge in Christianity in the developing world in the last generation.

“Every president, truth be told, is mostly grateful to him for that personal kindness,” Mr. Clinton said. “When he prays with you in the Oval Office, or upstairs in the White House, you feel like he is praying for you, not the president.”

No one among contemporary evangelical leaders approaches Mr. Graham’s stature, scholars said. “Nobody is going to be next the Billy Graham,” said Randall Balmer, professor of American religion at Barnard College. “What we are looking at in the future of evangelism is niche evangelism, based on ethnicity, language, worship style. Graham was no doubt the last of the mass evangelists.”

Mr. Graham rejected the sectarianism that evangelicals had been known for earlier in the 20th century, religion scholars said, without diluting his Christian message. He exploited radio and television early to spread the Gospel. Most significantly, he helped reorientate Christians in the postwar era once more toward evangelizing.

“Billy Graham stayed extremely focused on what he saw as his calling in life: conversion of people to Christianity,” said David Key, director of the Baptist Studies Program at Emory University. “Billy Graham didn’t veer to the left or the right during his ministry — and both those on left and the right have criticized him for that.”

Over the years, Mr. Graham largely eschewed the social justice activism of mainline Christianity, although he integrated his crusades in the mid-1950s and spoke out against nuclear proliferation and apartheid. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Carter recalled how moved they had been to attend his integrated crusades in the segregated South.

“He was constantly broadminded, forgiving, humble in his treatment of others,” Mr. Carter said. “He has reached out equally to all people, black or white, man or woman. I am one of the tens of millions of people whose spiritual lives have been shaped by Billy Graham.”

Mr. Graham cautioned other evangelical Christians that they aligned themselves with politicians at their peril, religion scholars said.

“When the religious right arose, he warned preachers about getting involved, that it was too easy to get manipulated,” said William Martin, professor emeritus of sociology at Rice University and author of “A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story.”

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