By Josh Needs
The name Billy Graham was once synonymous with evangelical Christianity, but with the rise in anti-church sentiment and non-religious households his legacy may forever remain in the realms of nursing homes.
Billy Graham, the leader of the crusades which claimed stadium records in Sydney and brought evangelism into the mainstream, and people’s homes, died last month aged ninety-nine. Some people may see the death of Billy Graham as a reflection of the demise of religion, but particularly for Christianity in Australia, and they wouldn’t be wrong in assuming that.
At the time of his first crusades to Australia in 1959 religion was the mainstream and in particular the, western religion, Christianity, as the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen explained to the ABC,
“the 1950’s it was a time when the churches were full. The Sunday Schools were huge. There were Sunday Schools of a thousand or more”.
Today it is common to see scandals emerging out of organised religions, particularly churches surrounding sexual assault claims and more, therefore it’s reasonable to think that Billy Graham could have been surrounded in scandal. Edward Hungerford, who studied at Moore Theological College and is now a pastor, explains,
“Religious leaders being caught in scandals was a reality in Billy’s day as it is today and as it is for all prominent individuals. It was on this basis that Billy and his colleagues made a firm resolution to live and minister with integrity so as not to undermine their ministry of the gospel. They therefore crafted in 1948 which has later become known as the Modesto Manifesto. It addressed four key areas that had previously been pitfalls for other religious leaders – finance, marital fidelity, church unity and deceptive reporting. For Billy and his team, integrity was not a desired option (as it is for others in the public eye), but an indispensable priority.”
This ‘Modesto Manifesto’ was Graham’s way of avoiding scandal which had befallen other religious leaders, and still does today. However, this didn’t mean he was able to remain completely free of accusations of misconduct, with claims against him with the way he approached the civil rights movement and also of anti-Semitic views.
Mr Hungerford refutes the claims of Graham being a racist pointing to his actions,
“To claim Billy was a racist because he did not make the civil rights movement his primary focus would be tantamount to claiming that Martin Luther King (an ordained Christian minister) was not interested in the gospel because he gave himself primarily to the civil rights movement and not to evangelistic preaching. On many an occasion Billy clearly preached that the gospel of Jesus Christ is incompatible with racism. He firmly believed that all are made in God’s image and that Christ came and died for all. And thus, it was on this basis he publicly opposed segregation – refusing to preach to segregated gatherings and even personally pulling down barricades at a gathering in Tennessee.”
Billy Graham was accused of holding anti-Semitic views when a recording of a conversation between he and the president at the time, Richard Nixon, was released, on the recording it can be heard Graham saying, “this stranglehold has got to be broken or this country is going down the drain”. Graham later apologised however it is non the less a blemish which has left a mark on his ministry.
It is known he set stadium records at the time, but what was the impact Billy Graham had on Australia and its society through his crusades. Some claim that after the crusades Australia saw a drop-in crime rates, alcohol consumption, and also a brief rise in religious participation and church attendance, however Australia’s subsequent religious decline had quickly made the numerical effects of the crusades obsolete.
With this year also marking the fiftieth year since his second crusades, 1968 in Australia it can be clear to see how the individual Australian has shifted away from Graham and his Christian religion. This change in cultural identity can be represented by the next generation coming through moving further away from religion. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Census in 2016, young Australians, aged between 18-34 only 12% identified as being affiliated with Christianity whereas 39% attested to not having a religion.
This is downturn for Christianity amongst young adults reflects the overarching trend of all Australians over the past ten years. In 2006 the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported only 18.7% of Australians selected no religion, with Catholicism being the most common choice at 25.8%. Since then Catholicism has dropped to 22.6% in 2016 and people choosing the, no religion, option has risen to 30.1%.
At a time where Billy Graham is becoming only the fourth non-president to receive the honour to lie at Capitol Hill, it is easy to ask whether Graham would be accepted into Australian society today the way he was previously.
As Christianity declines in Australia ‘The Center for the Study of Global Christianity’, acknowledges that it is within the first world nations which Christianity is declining in popularity, whereas within third world nations, such as Africa where growth is occurring. They project that by 2050 approximately 53% of all Christians will be living in Africa up from 41% currently.
Christianity and Christians in Australia are reducing, the concept of organised religion in Australia is also reducing. This can be seen through a reflection on Billy Graham’s death as an end of an era, possibly the last religious figure to be held in such high esteem globally, and also in Australia.