The Common Good
July-August 1998

A Life of Integrity

by Tony Campolo | July-August 1998

Billy Graham's walk with the Lord.

Just As I Am is the biography of a humble man. While outlining the development of his ministry, Billy Graham’s biography is anything but an exercise in self-glorification. He describes his evangelistic crusades from their early beginnings in tent meetings in Los Angeles to "the more recent massive gatherings in sports stadiums." He tells about his encounters with powerful heads of state. He recounts his special friends who made up the support group that kept him faithful to his mission and nurtured an integrity that even those who reject his message respect. Graham takes us with him as he meets with presidents over nine administrations, amusing us as he describes his brash holier-than-thou attitude in his first meeting with Harry Truman, and inspiring us as he describes his compassionate pastoral attitude toward Bill Clinton.

Through it all he critiques himself in ways that will help those who would make him a role model to escape his pitfalls. There is a kind of self-deprecation in this autobiography that only serves to enhance his stature.

Particularly interesting are the roles that he played in facing the pressing social concerns that have troubled the nation over the last half-century. Critics might attack him for not expressing opposition to the Vietnam War or being more specific in supporting civil rights legislation, but his autobiography reveals that he accomplished more to further social justice causes than these critics might imagine.

For instance, in the early 1950s, Graham ended racial segregation at his crusades in the deep South, even in the face of bitter criticism of local clergy. As he tells his life story, we learn of his close ties with Martin Luther King Jr., and we discover that King directed Graham not to get directly involved with the civil rights movement. King believed that such involvement would hinder Graham’s ability to get "Christian" racists to listen to what the Bible says about people being one in Christ Jesus.

WHAT GRAHAM FAILS to describe in his life story is his gradual commitment to an anti-nuclear weapons stance. He came to describe himself as a "nuclear pacifist," but he does not state this in his biography nor spell out what led him to this commitment. This evangelist, always trying to keep focused on winning converts, even in his biography seems reluctant to raise controversial social issues that he himself worked out in the course of his ministry, lest these issues deflect the reader from what he believes is his primary mission.

Beyond touching millions with the gospel, Graham accomplished much indirectly. As a case in point, this evangelical Baptist transcended a narrow fundamentalism and forged an evangelistic movement that brought together Christians of every theological stripe. Catholics, mainline Protestants, independent fundamentalists, and charismatics all came together as he waved the banner of the cross before them. He may have done more for the ecumenical movement than all of the "unity" conferences that well-meaning clerics have sponsored.

This book is a must for Christians who are seeking a modern hero. We’ll not be seeing the likes of this man again for a long time, so it will do us well to read what he has to say about himself.

TONY CAMPOLO is professor of sociology at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, and the author, most recently, of Following Jesus Without Embarrasing God (Word, 1997).

Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham. Billy Graham. harperCollins/Zondervan, 1997.

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