By DAVID C. STEINMETZ
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
For most of his public career Billy Graham has been the voice of moderate evangelicalism in America.
His moderation did not please hard-core fundamentalists, who were appalled at the beginning of his career by his willingness to cooperate with non-fundamentalist clergy and churches in the sponsorship of his evangelistic crusades. The proclamation of the Gospel in their view required the exclusion of more liberal Christians whose doctrinal positions on one or another of the so-called fundamentals of the faith (like the verbal inspiration of the Bible) seemed to them exceedingly shaky.
His moderation still does not please some members of the religious right, who cannot understand how Graham can refuse to discuss the hot-button issues of his time like abortion and gay marriage. Some wonder how he can still consider himself a Democrat of sorts or be friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be deeply suspicious of evangelistic preaching of any kind, since it seems to them inherently intolerant of alternative religious views and inevitably divisive. While they applaud Graham's steadfast refusal to preach to segregated audiences back in the bad old days of Jim Crow, they wish he would speak up on such pressing social issues as the care of the environment and the elimination of world poverty.
The middle ground
However, Graham has held steadfastly to a middle course. He does not deny for a moment that someone should be addressing the moral and social dilemmas that confront the church at the beginning of the 21st century. He is, however, convinced that he is not that someone.
What he seems to have in mind is the New Testament image of the church as a body with many members who perform different unique functions, all of which are essential to the health and well-being of the body as a whole. It is important for each part to know what its gifts and functions are and to stick to its proper business. Eyes see. Ears hear. Feet walk.
Graham thinks of himself, not as a pastor or even as a theologian, but as an evangelist, someone who introduces outsiders to the basics of Christianity and convinces them to commit their lives to God. That is his gift and function.
As an evangelist, he does not promise converts a problem-free life or an escape from suffering, as his own medical problems poignantly illustrate. What he offers is what Christians of every variety have always thought they were offering -- a relationship to God that transforms all other relationships. Call it mere Christianity.
Graham is not certain why he is more successful at what he does than anyone else in living memory. He knows what his calling is, however, and he intends to stick to business.
If he were not an evangelist, he might have followed a different path. However, he feared that taking public stands on controversial issues might turn off potential converts before they gave him a fair hearing. Nothing in his view should deflect the attention of people listening to the message of God's forgiving love for the first time from the message itself, certainly not the evanescent and shadowy world of politics.
Who remembers, after all, the hot-button issues of 1957, when Graham first preached for 16 weeks in New York's Madison Square Garden? Politics change, but the fundamental need of human beings for God does not. In his view, it is a bad bargain to become entangled in worthy, but secondary matters, and miss what is ultimately important.
Secret of success
To what does Graham owe his spectacular success?
Some critics will cite his good looks -- his piercing blue eyes and shock of brown (now white) hair -- or his natural sales ability. However, Graham himself is more likely to agree with the Roman Catholic apologist, G. K. Chesterton, who once remarked that the secret of the success of Christianity was Christianity itself.
Like Chesterton, Graham is serenely confident that what he is advocating is true and will carry the day, even if imperfectly represented. The message matters but not the messenger. Try as he may, he cannot take himself seriously.
However, it is his serene confidence in what ultimately matters that makes him curious and open and inclusive and unthreatened by divergent views. He ends his career as he began it, as the good-humored voice of moderate evangelicalism.
It is a voice that will be sorely missed.
X Steinmetz is the Amos Ragan Kearns Professor of the History of Christianity at the Divinity School of Duke University. He wrote this commentary for The Orlando Sentinel.