Faith, mass marketing and ‘God’s machine gun’

Good news: Unlike many famous evangelists, Graham lived modestly and avoided scandal.

Is faith a public or private matter? For Billy Graham, it was certainly the former. He rose from humble origins to become the world’s most influential evangelist. Did he set a good example?

“The first thing I am going to do when I get to heaven,” Billy Graham once said, “is ask: ‘Why me, Lord? Why did you choose a farm boy from North Carolina to preach to so many people?’”

Graham’s time has come. The world’s most famous evangelist died this week aged 99. Though he had lately stayed out of the public eye, for half a century he commanded a huge following. He delivered his sermons to packed stadiums; he is thought to have preached directly to 215m people in 185 countries.

Handsome and charismatic, Graham was made for the age of television. He spoke fast and forcefully, hence his nickname: “God’s machine gun.” He offered a simple — some said simplistic — version of the gospel that focused on prayer and Bible reading, and promised instant salvation. He converted many.

Crucially, Graham kept his message as broad as possible. He spoke to all Christians, not just one denomination. He addressed mixed-race audiences when to do so was still controversial. He visited pariah states like North Korea. Although he had the ear of every president, he rarely intervened in politics, and regretted it when he did.

The scriptures encourage Christians to spread the word of God. “Give praise to the lord, proclaim his name,” commands Psalm 105. Radio, TV and the internet have made this easier than ever, and “televangelists” like Graham have exploited such technologies to brilliant effect.

That said, many religious people feel no need to preach. They can also take inspiration from the Bible, which says: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door.” Despite new broadcast media, evangelicalism is often said to be on the decline in the West; this may be linked to growing secularism.

Attitudes vary between countries. In the USA today, nobody becomes president without clearly proclaiming their Christian faith. But British leaders rarely mention God - even Theresa May, the daughter of an Anglican vicar. Polls show that a large majority of Britons see religion as a personal, not a public, matter.

Which is it?

My Lord, our Lord

The faithful should be vocal about their faith, say some. They believe that religion makes life better. Moreover, their religion teaches them to help others. So preaching makes perfect sense. If everyone kept their beliefs private, religion as we know it would not even exist — and the world would be a poorer place.

Not true, reply others. One’s faith is so closely tied to one’s personal circumstances that it makes no sense to try to impose it on others. When people do, they often end up dumbing down or distorting religion’s message. If everyone kept their faith to themselves, there would be no cults, less discrimination and far fewer wars.

You Decide

  1. Do you think your views on religion will ever change?
  2. Is religion a force for good?

Activities

  1. Interview a religious figure in your community about the role of religion in society. How would they answer the questions raised by this article?
  2. Why do you think Graham was so successful? Read about his life, starting with the links in Become An Expert. Then write an answer to the question he asks at the start of this article.

Some People Say...

“Christianity has died many times and risen again; for its God knew the way out of the grave.”

G.K. Chesterton

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Religion is declining in the West — but rising elsewhere. One survey found that more than half of all Britons now have no religious beliefs. Meanwhile, birthrates are booming in the Muslim world, as well as Christian Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Islam is set to become the world’s largest religion by 2075, according to one analysis.
What do we not know?
Why some individuals are religious and others are not. Some factors, like one’s upbringing, are clearly important. The educated appear to be less faithful, the elderly more so. A traumatic event can push one towards, or away from, God. Scientists have linked religiosity to various psychological traits, like “intuition”. But as such things are hard to measure, and faiths vary a lot anyway, it is hard to know for sure.

Word Watch

Evangelist
One who preaches Christianity, especially to large audiences. The word comes from the Greek for “good tidings”, ie, Jesus’ message that anyone can find salvation.
Simplistic
Overly simplified, to the point of being misleading.
The gospel
Jesus’ message about salvation, coupled with the details of his life.
Denomination
A subgroup of a religion, such as Roman Catholicism or Sunni Islam.
Every president
Graham once said that Dwight Eisenhower was the most spiritual of all the presidents he met, but that he felt closest to Ronald Reagan. However, Graham is most often associated with Richard Nixon. The evangelist drew criticism for continuing to support Nixon after the Watergate Scandal. A leaked tape of the pair saying anti-Semitic things also caused controversy.
The scriptures
Religious texts. In Christianity’s case, the Bible, which comprises the Old and New Testaments.
Growing secularism
See Q&A.
Polls show
For instance, in a 2012 poll by YouGov, 67% of respondents said that religion in the UK should be a personal matter only. A mere 24% thought that it should be more public.

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