- - Thursday, June 4, 2015

William Wilberforce was a political activist whose Evangelical Christian faith compelled him as a lifelong champion for societal moral reform in his day. By comparison and contrast, evangelist Billy Graham, 97, has been a life-long advocate of personal spiritual renewal and transformation in the modern era.

Wilberforce remained true to his cause, persevering to change history by prevailing on his peers in Parliament to vote against self-interest and overturn slavery, resulting in a unique political heritage. Billy Graham remained faithful to his calling, addressing societal issues as “problems of the heart,” challenging audiences around the world towards personal reconciliation with God through His Son, Jesus.

It is difficult to find many individuals whose lifetime influence compares to Billy Graham. A unique confluence of timing and developments in travel and technology enabled him to become the first person to fulfill the Great Commission by “preaching the Gospel to the ends of the earth.” He spoke in-person to a collective audience of nearly 215 million individuals in more than 185 countries on six continents, and countless millions more via radio, television, film and the Internet.

Graham was notably recognized for his unique access to the White House, often described as “Pastor to Presidents,” due to his personal relationship with twelve Administrations over the past six decades. With the exception of Barack Obama, elected several years after Graham concluded his public ministry, Graham knew each leader long before they got into national office.

In the early years of his ministry, Graham was better known as a fiery evangelist and outspoken advocate for America than as a bipartisan spiritual counselor. However, as he matured and traveled the world, the preacher slowly phased his once strong and forceful rhetoric out of his sermons. His was a no-frill yet enormously accessible presentation of the Gospel that placed him at the intersection of faith and culture, preaching with “a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”

Graham’s refusal to get involved in partisan politics enabled him to minister publicly and privately to all leadership and their constituencies regardless of party affiliation or perspective on an issue. Indeed he often said famously, “I am not for the left or the right wing I’m for the whole bird.”

While he retreated from identifying with a political party, Graham did not fear taking a hard line on issues of social, racial and economic justice, even if his views were seen as unpopular. Before the United States Supreme Court banned discrimination based on race, he held desegregated missions even in the Deep South. At his 1953 Chattanooga Crusade, Graham would not allow ropes to separate black and white attendees, removing them himself before the meetings began.

Though invited to preach in South Africa in the 1940s, Graham refused to go for more than 25 years until the meetings could be integrated in 1973. “Jesus was a man, he was human,” he famously declared. “He was not a white man. He was not a black man. He came from that part of the world that touches Africa and Asia and Europe. Christianity is not a white man’s religion, and don’t let anybody ever tell you that it’s white or black. Christ belongs to all people; he belongs to the world.”

The late British journalist David Frost once asked Graham to explain his relationships with political leaders, claiming that Jesus’ approach to politics had been an adversarial one. Graham gently rebutted Frost’s assertion by opining that Jesus never sought to challenge the government during His ministry.

“[Jesus] never said a word against Rome; he was against the religious system, and he dealt primarily with religious questions,” Graham said. “Jesus never said anything against the political system, even though it was corrupt. He seemed to think this was outside his jurisdiction.”

While he avoided directly addressing political entanglements, Graham also had an eye toward brokering peace and reconciliation, hoping to share the Gospel in nations historically closed to mission work and publically hostile toward the Christian faith. For this reason, he often championed international diplomatic efforts frequently at the risk of alienating American supporters.

Graham’s first preaching visit to Eastern Europe was to Yugoslavia in 1967, and that sojourn was the impetus that opened doors for further visits to preach in other Eastern bloc countries, including the former Soviet Union in 1982 and 1984, when it was still under communist rule.

Graham was sharply criticized by many in the religious community for taking the Gospel behind the “Iron Curtain,” particularly when he said he witnessed “a measure of religious freedom” in Moscow churches. Many labeled him nave and felt he was being used as a propaganda pawn. However, amid the controversies, he emphatically stated that he had prayed a great deal about this decision and felt that God had led him to go into all the world to preach the Gospel including into communist countries.

Three months after the Berlin Wall came down, President George H. W. Bush validated Graham’s vision and influence, saying, “It takes a man of God to see the early movement of the hand of God.” The evangelist held an evangelistic rally near the Brandenburg Gate the next month and finally a full evangelistic mission in Moscow in 1991. He also had opportunities to preach in the People’s Republic of China and on two occasions in North Korea, at the invitation of President Kim Il Sung.

During Billy Graham’s lifetime, his counsel was sought by presidents across more than five decades, and his appeal in both the secular and religious arenas is evidenced by the wide range of groups that have given him awards, including numerous honorary doctorates from many institutions in this country and abroad. Like Wilberforce, his passion for treating all humans with dignity no matter what class, status, or nationality has set an unparalleled example for the ages to come.

• A. Larry Ross is president of A. Larry Ross Communications, a Dallas-based public relations agency founded in 1994. For more than 33 years, he served as principle media spokesperson for evangelist Billy Graham.

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