The End of An End of An Era
More than Billy Graham died with Billy Graham’s death
The list of people who did not attend Billy Graham’s funeral Friday seemed more important than the roster of those who did. Not quite 11 years ago, three former presidents attended the dedication of Graham’s library. On Friday, only the current president and vice president showed, along with former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and Texas televangelist Joel Osteen—figures whose influence is either limited or diminished with the years. Most of the crowd of 2,000 was older; the array of heads under the funeral tent looked like a cotton field. It was a reminder of, after five decades of prominence in American life, how much Graham’s influence had faded in the previous two.
It’s hard to imagine anyone now, in an atomized country and culture, enjoying recognition so broad. Graham appeared on Gallup’s Top 10 “Most Admired Man” list a record 61 times since 1948, nearly twice as many as the runner-up, Ronald Reagan. A colleague of mine observed Friday that if you’re 30 or younger, chances are good that you’ve never heard of Billy Graham.
So the funeral had a strange tone, as if mourners had made their peace with Graham’s passing years ago. Graham himself sensed it during the library dedication in 2007. “I feel like I've been attending my own funeral,” he said then. In trying to make sense of the withdrawal that preceded his physical end, I stumbled across something remarkable: Billy Graham delivering a TED Talk.
I know: strange. “You can imagine how out of place I feel,” Graham says at its start. “I feel like a fish out of water.” It was February 1998. Graham was 79 and already ailing; he needed assistance onto and off the stage in Monterey, California. TED was in its infancy then, and a preacher born four days before the end of World War I delivered a talk that looked in the other direction: “I know that as you have been peering into the future, and as we've heard some of it here tonight, I would like to live in that age and see what is going to be.”
He spoke specifically about technology, the emerging omnipresence of the Internet, and the inability of it or any other tool to help people answer the existential questions: Why am I here? What am I here for? Why does evil exist? Why does suffering exist? Why do we die?
You see, the Bible teaches that we're more than a body and a mind. We are a soul. And there's something inside of us that is beyond our understanding. That's the part of us that yearns for God, for something more than we find in technology. Your soul is that part of you that yearns for meaning in life, and which seeks for something beyond this life. It's the part of you that yearns, really, for God.
There was no way for him or anyone else in the audience that day to predict the upheavals, technological and otherwise, to come. February 1998 was pre-9/11, pre-War On Terror, pre-financial crisis, pre-President Obama, pre-Arab Spring, pre-Syrian Civil War, pre-President Trump, pre-Trumpism, pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, pre-smartphone. Graham knew about radio and television, and on a surface level about the Internet, but he had no point of reference for the alienating effects of technology, the capacity of cyberlife to divorce people from each other, themselves, and reality itself.
That’s one reason, perhaps, why the funeral seemed to float out of time, like the re-enactment of a fading memory. The cultural dominance Graham represented is starting to fade as well. In 2015, the Pew Research Center announced that the Christian share of the U.S. population, though still in the majority, was declining, and the number of American adults who don’t identify with any organized religion is growing. The same report pinpointed mainline Protestantism, of which Graham was an avatar for so long, as the subgroup with the greatest losses in numbers.
You can argue about the reasons for that, but one that’s surely contributed is the alliance of the evangelical church with partisan politics and its embrace—led enthusiastically by Franklin Graham, who’s headed his father’s organization since 2000—of open bigotry against LGBT people, Muslims, and other groups of God’s children that fall outside the evangelical roster of the saved. Even in his eulogy, Franklin Graham couldn’t resist chiding “the world, with all of its political correctness,” that right-wing boogeyman, for suggesting “that there are many roads to God. It’s just not true.”
Billy Graham preached that the Christian way was the only way to salvation, all right, but in a spirit that tended to welcome rather than exclude. The movement he led now functions more as a spiritual gated community, concerned more with preserving itself than extending its arms in embrace. More than Billy Graham died with his passing.