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. His death may be seen as a reflection of the demise of religion, and particularly Christianity, in Australia.
At the time of his first crusades in Australia in 1959, religion was the mainstream. Christianity was the most popular, 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,” he said.
Currently, it is common to see scandals emerging out of organised religions, particularly with the sexual assault claims surrounding various Catholic Churches. The ‘Modesto Manifesto’ was Billy Graham’s way of avoiding scandal which had befallen other religious leaders, and still does today. 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… known as the Modesto Manifesto… For Billy… integrity was not a desired option (as it is for others in the public eye), but an indispensable priority.”
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 by 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, Graham can be heard saying, “this stranglehold has got to be broken or this country is going down the drain”.
Graham later apologised. However, it is nonetheless 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?
Historian Judith Smart agrees with claims that after the crusades Australia saw a drop-in crime rates and alcohol consumption. It also saw 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 in 1968, the decline in religious numbers can demonstrate how Australians have shifted away from Graham and his Christian religion. This change in cultural identity can be demonstrated by the newer generations moving further away from religion. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics Census in 2016, out of Australians aged between 18-34, only 12% identified as being affiliated with Christianity, whereas 39% attested to not having a religion.
This 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 has become the fourth non-president to receive the honour to lie at Capitol Hill, it is easy to ask whether Graham would be embraced by 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 the first of the world nations in which Christianity is declining in popularity. On the other hand, in third world nations, such as Africa, growth is occurring. They project that by 2050, the number of Christians living in Africa will rise from 41% to 53%.
The number of Christians in Australia is reducing and so is the concept of organised religion in Australia. 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 within Australia.
Sub-edited by: Natalie Di Paola