All my life I’ve known of Billy Graham. Even my Jewish father liked to watch the televised crusades of the great evangelist, though Dad never embraced Mr. Graham’s message. However, for me, Billy Graham only played in the background, that is, until I met my wife, Cheryl, in the church where I would give my life to Jesus. You see, it was Billy Graham who planted the seed of faith in my wife’s heart.
When I enrolled in Bible college to become a minister, Graham became my role model, the exemplar of everything it meant to be a preacher, evangelist, and ambassador for Christ. I would later emulate him in the pulpit and model my own organization after his. When I attended his 1983 International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists in Amsterdam, Holland, I was thrilled when I was given an outdoor preaching assignment near where Mr. Graham himself was witnessing to young people in a park–incognito. Shortly after, I would meet him personally for the first time. It was like meeting a superhero.
Over the next few decades, Billy Graham would remain the gold standard for me, and countless other young Christian leaders in my world. We watched how Graham conducted himself in all kinds of settings, how he eschewed the pomp and circumstance; the glitzy lifestyle of the rich and famous, and temptation to become insular. He treated all comers equally—rich, poor, black, white, young, old, liberal, conservative. Many of us actually kept to “the Billy Graham Rule,” which meant doing everything honestly, transparently, modestly, and, with a view toward answering the questions, “Is this being done for my glory or the glory of God? Am I treating people the way Jesus would treat them?”
Then something began to change for me. Over time, I would begin to blur the lines between faith and politics, replacing the old-time religion with the Grand Ole’ Party. I would trade Billy Graham for Ronald Reagan, and the simple gospel Mr. Graham preached for the party platform promoted by politicians. By 2005, I had lost my spiritual bearings and could no longer tell where the true north of the gospel was located. In the process, I turned on my one-time mentor. In my highly politicized mind, Mr. Graham went from being the great gospel crusader to the weak political compromiser. When I was invited to his last public crusade in Flushing Meadows Park, Queens, New York, I sat in the front row. That’s when I saw Bill and Hillary Clinton step out on the stage with the walker-assisted evangelist. When he took them with him to the podium, I was livid. How could this great man parade two people that were anathema in my conservative universe in front of a sacred assembly of those seeking salvation? It was scandalous. As Mr. Graham gave the mic to President Clinton, joking that the Democrat should be an evangelist and “leave his wife to run the country,” I stood up and very publicly stormed out of the gathering.
Today I am ashamed of my behavior on that day, but my greater regret goes beyond my walking out on my role model’s last large-scale crusade. My greatest regret is that I am so sorry I never expressed my remorse to Mr. Graham. I would have liked to have begged his pardon, to repent for my obnoxious sanctimoniousness, and my impudent rejection of his tutelage in human diplomacy. In his son Franklin’s memorial tribute to his father, the now heir of this great legacy, he referred to the incomparable evangelist as a “public ambassador.” Indeed, he was, in the best sense, as St. Paul uses the term, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20 ESV). An ambassador does not display his own bias, but dutifully represents his sovereign to all. God has never declared himself to be a Republican, a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative. He most certainly doesn’t favor one politician over another when it comes to his gracious offer of salvation. That’s why Billy Graham could be so gracious to the Clintons. After all, at that time, Hillary was the Senator from New York and Bill was the former president. (Not to mention Mr. Graham was a life-long member of the Democratic Party.)
All this to say that my mentor-from-afar was much wiser than I, but I didn’t think so in 2005. He knew that to impose a political filter atop his gospel message would only be to restrict its reach to those in a particular political class. Mr. Graham didn’t see the Clintons as political actors or propagandists, but public servants, respected and admired by a lot of New Yorkers—likely the vast majority of those seated in front of him in that park. For him, the last word was not a political one, but a spiritual one: “God so loved the world . . .”, and every person in it, including the Clintons. He believed and obeyed God’s Word, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:7 ESV). Billy Graham knew that the right thing to do on that day in 2005 was to give respect and honor to a former president and a sitting U.S. senator. He was right to do that; I was wrong to walk out on him.
I really wish I could have told Mr. Graham that. Maybe I’ll still get the chance, when, in the not-too-distant future, I stand before the gracious throne of heaven with him and the millions of souls he won to the Savior. In my upcoming memoir, Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope and Love, I write about Mr. Graham’s influence on me. Those memories mean more to me now than ever. Thank you, Billy Graham, for being God’s gift to me and so very many others. Thank you for serving our Lord so faithfully, for proclaiming the gospel so clearly, for modeling ministry with such integrity, for treating everyone so fairly. I learned invaluable lessons from you—even when I rejected them.
Please pardon my juvenile disrespect.