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Famous Evangelist, 'America's Pastor' Billy Graham Dies At 99


The Reverend Billy Graham died today at his home in Montreat, N.C. He was 99 years old. Graham had a unique role as religious adviser to U.S. presidents. We'll hear about that in a few moments. First NPR's Tom Gjelten reports on the Billy Graham ministry as a force in politics.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: With Christians in the United States as polarized as everybody else, it may be hard to recall the time when one minister could be known as America's pastor. Billy Graham was an evangelical, conservative in theology and pious in his personal life, but he tried to steer clear of the issues that divide people, including people of faith.


BILLY GRAHAM: I've been asked by 300 news organizations to make comments about certain things that have been happening in the world of religion. I haven't made a comment yet. I'm trying to stay out of it.


GJELTEN: This was at a rally in 1987. A big religion story then was the rise of the Moral Majority, the Christian right.


B. GRAHAM: I just keep preaching the Gospel because there's nothing coming out of Washington or any of those places that are going to save the world, are going to transform men and women. It's Christ.


GJELTEN: Billy Graham was great at staying on message. Grant Wacker wrote a book on Graham titled "America's Pastor."

GRANT WACKER: He did not think it was his job to criticize other traditions within Christianity, or outside Christianity, for that matter. He insisted that his sole job was to proclaim the Gospel.

GJELTEN: In this regard, Billy Graham differed not only from the conservative preachers who preceded him but from those who followed him, like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, or his own son, Franklin, all of whom seemed eager to wade into politics. As Graham's ministry became larger than himself, however, it was harder to know which views were his alone and which were the views of those who spoke on his behalf. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was producing radio and TV programs, books, magazines and newspaper columns all prepared by association staff.

By the 1990s, the whole enterprise was run by Franklin Graham. Inevitably, there were questions whether the organization would still reflect Billy Graham's thinking after he was gone even on key religious issues. In the early years of his ministry, Graham suggested that those who don't take Jesus Christ as their personal savior would go to hell. But in a 2005 CNN interview with Larry King, Graham distanced himself from fundamentalists who pass judgment on people, telling King he could not say where non-Christians would spend eternity.


B. GRAHAM: That's not my calling. My calling is to preach the love of God and the forgiveness of God. In my earlier ministry, I did the same. But as I got older I guess I became more mellow, and more forgiving and more loving.

GJELTEN: In 2015, however, long after Graham had stopped making any public statements, he showed up as the author of a book whose message on heaven and hell was the opposite of what Graham had told Larry King 10 years earlier. In that book, titled, "Where I Am," hell is described as the place of punishment for those who reject Christ.

WACKER: My personal view is that he had next to no involvement in the writing of that book.

GJELTEN: Grant Wacker, the Billy Graham biographer, notes that Graham at the time was 95 years old, in failing health and suffering from severe memory loss - hard to write a book in that condition.

WACKER: More than that, that book reflected the views of the early Graham - the late '40s, the early 1950s. It did not reflect the views of the later Graham.

GJELTEN: The fiery idea of hell, however, was in keeping with what his son, Franklin, thought. The book thus raised the question of whether Franklin was using his father's byline to promote his own views. It's a charge he dismisses.


FRANKLIN GRAHAM: I don't have time to write my own books (laughter) much less my father's books. (Laughter) There's no way.

GJELTEN: In that 2017 interview with NPR, Franklin Graham denied that his father's views on heaven and hell had changed over the years.


F. GRAHAM: My father always believed that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and no man comes to the Father but through Him.

GJELTEN: In the years after "Where I Am" was published, however, Billy Graham himself never said a word about the book. He appeared no longer to have control over his message or his ministry. His son, Franklin, had his own priorities - humanitarian work through his organization Samaritan's Purse, plus conservative activism. In 2017, Franklin Graham put the family name at the service of Donald Trump and the Republican Party, exactly 30 years after Billy Graham swore to stay out of politics. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.
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