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Billy Graham: Unwitting Father of the MAGA Christian Cult

Stan Moody:

I write this in a spirit of sorrow, caring far less about which ego-driven candidate wins the 2024 presidency than about the abandonment of the pivotal doctrine of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God by the American Evangelical Community. Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and even Billy Graham were folk heroes in the post-60s evolution of the American Dream ethic of prosperity and success. They also had fallen victim to the corrupting effects of the drive within all of us to become somebodies in business, politics, and religion.

In terms of numbers reached for Christ, there has likely never been a greater advocate for eternal hope than Billy Graham. I vividly recall the convicting effect of his piercing eyes following me around the room from the TV screen. He personalized Christ in a way made to order for the digital world.

Billy’s keynote address at my seminary graduation in 1993 was a wake-up call for me. He confessed that the greatest regret of his life was failure to receive a theological education. Was he experiencing a nagging regret that he may have yielded to the temptation of turning away from the Sovereignty of God and toward the more popular Cheap Grace over which theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer sacrificed his life in on April 9, 1944?[1], albeit in a futile attempt to overthrow the Nazi regime in Germany.

The Chaos Left Behind:

That Billy was an anointed servant of God calling America to faith is of no historical dispute. We know what Billy did right! What kind of chaos might he have left behind, however, from which the Confessing Church now seems incapable of extricating itself?

It began at the Los Angeles crusade in 1949. Billy was about to throw in the towel:

Had it not been for the Los Angeles Crusade, the world may have never known Billy Graham. Right before the extraordinary event began, the young evangelist struggled with doubts about the Bible and about his calling. God used the Crusade to transform the lives of those who attended—and the man who faithfully shared the Gospel message.[2]

The catalyst for revival of his ministry turned out to be the days-earlier testing of an atomic bomb by the Soviet Union and the kickoff of the anti-communist crusade of the Cold War.  Graham picked up on the hysteria and dragged Christian faith into the more popular political arena. Religious authors Grant Wacker and Susan Harding traced the change in focus forward to Rev. Jerry Falwell in the 1980s and, by caveat, to today’s rising tide of Christian Nationalism. “Graham was not just becoming a great evangelist, he’s becoming an evangelist with a political profile,” said Harding, noting Graham’s talent for “riding the crest of the moment.”[3]

According to Wacker,

He was speaking to—and from—the heartland’s moral world. He personified the moral dimension of a Norman Rockwell world of small towns and summer nights—and a clear overlay of right and wrong. He delineated the strongly normative path to salvation for individuals and for the culture.[4]

So Where Are We Now?

Billy Graham’s campaign in targeting communism as the boogeyman enemy of both Christ and America became a template for thousands of aspiring Grahams to move the Confessing Church away from personal discipleship to a focus on OPS – “Other People’s Sin”. The damage done to the gospel in the name of Christ has become an art form under the skillsets of the Church Growth Movement. I believe we have reached the point of no return outside a cataclysmic act of God.

Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, the defining theme of 1980’s Evangelicalism, was disbanded in 1989. Yet, the way had been paved for Christianity to evolve into a political movement not unlike that of Islam. Could it be said, for example, that the MAGA Christian cult favors a sort of Christian Sharia Law, bringing judgment on liberal Christians and infidels? Is Jihad, an Islamic holy war against the infidels of this world, not a template for piecemealing the US Constitution with the Bible?

Tired of Waiting for God and Taking Power into our Own Hands:

Jettisoning the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus as present, dynamic, and ultimately victorious over sin and death, has brought the Confessing Church to exalt those who would promote moral precepts as the path to national redemption. The result has been a gospel that no longer initiates ongoing transformation of the believer through the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2). Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – love of neighbor; love of enemy; pursuit of righteousness and thereby love of God has become a wholly-future hope for “raptured” Evangelicals. We have sidelined the transforming grace of God in favor of control.

The MAGA Christian cult, focused as it is on an autocratic future for America, puts its trust in populism, rather than in God, to advance its agenda of control. At its root is fear of minority status. Hate of “other” emerges; the Rule of Law becomes despised for its objectivity; professing Christians seeking the rule of God in their lives become enemies; the weak and broken among us become disposable; the Church loses its power through God to speak hope to American culture.

The explosion and refinement of the invitation system through Billy Graham (“Say these words, and you will go to heaven someday!”) has cheapened the Gospel, placed our eternal destinies in our own hands, denigrated the Christian life to a veneer of theocracy and, tragically, has rendered the person and work of Jesus optional.

If the Christ of Calvary becomes optional to seizing the political moment, can we expect anything other than a waning interest in Church? How much hope can there be in a gospel that promotes no hope other than a polished version of American Evangelicalism?

[4] Ibid

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