Billy Graham, one of 20th Century America’s towering religious figures and a pioneer in the use of television and mass communication in spreading his evangelical message, died Wednesday at 99.
An advisor to presidents – he prayed or met with leaders from Harry S. Truman, Richard Nixon to Barack Obama – and comforted many Americans at times of crisis – he preached from the National Cathedral after 9/11 and to survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
But among Graham’s most significant contributions to modern culture was his instinctual understanding and rapid adoption of mass media, reaching hundreds of millions of viewers on TV specials and “crusades”, becoming the face of a Protestant evangelicalism that was right-wing but not yet fundamentalist. Long before TV evangelical ministry saw cartoon sideshows Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker or the caustic far-right Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Graham was the very face of the movement, dour, perhaps, but not cruel.
He called his approach to reaching audiences via television, film and massive stage productions “personal evangelism on a mass scale.”
When he was caught making anti-Semitic comments on secret audiotapes of Richard Nixon, he issued an apology and met with Jewish leaders. Mostly, though, in his later years, Graham stayed away from entering the loud debates over social issues dividing the country.
Not that he stayed hidden away, by any means, nor is his legacy likely to fade anytime soon. Just last September, a sequel to the hit faith-based Unbroken was announced, to be called Unbroken: Path to Redemption. The new film will follow the original film’s lead character, WWII hero Louis Zamperini as he struggles to regain his post-war footing. The true story follows Zamperini as he meets and follows the Rev. Billy Graham (to be played in the film by Graham’s grandson Will Graham).