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Billy Graham and America’s Christian Imperative

Nobody did Christianity better than Billy Graham, a quintessential American and American icon. He was definitely a man of God, a rare, beautiful thing to see.

Losing Graham last week released a flood of beautiful and well-earned words summarizing his commitment, passion, energy, focus, humility, earnestness, and non-judgmental effectiveness. These are all good things, and taken in context as just one man, they are an impressive list of achievements and accolades few of us will ever have said about us.

But Graham was more than just one good man we looked to for leadership and inspiration. Graham symbolized much of what America was in its golden age, say the 1950s, and also a great deal of the building blocks our nation is based on:  Biblical at the base, and big-tent-Christianity at the top.

Graham represents America’s Christian imperative. Meaning, it is imperative that America be a Christian nation, and not atheistic or secular.

America is far better as a Christian nation than an atheistic nation. As a religious nation, America is as America was founded. A common morality, shared values. Even if it falls down, a Christian nation can be, always has the potential to be, a moral and ethical place.

On the other hand, the secular atheist nations have been Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, today’s Red China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and so on. Not good places. Very very bad places. Cruel places. Places with no human rights, no individual liberties, no religious freedom, and unlimited state power.

Unlike Europe, American Christianity in general, and Graham’s faith in particular, did not discriminate nor judge nor exclude. It is an inclusive faith. American Christianity has always been different than the discriminatory Europe, which persecuted, burned alive at the stake, and ultimately drove out the early Protestants, our “Puritans” and Quakers. In Europe, state religions remain, such as the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, and the various Catholic churches of France and Spain and elsewhere.

You do not have to be a Christian to feel welcome in Graham’s America, or to be an outstanding American, or even to be emblematic of America. That big-tent-Christianity which our Founders believed in, which Benjamin Franklin and Jefferson so well represented, and which Graham came to represent today, is responsible for that openness, that tolerance. If Europe suffered from religious tests and requirements in order for people to fulfill public roles, America was the opposite: Come one, come all, give your best, we are a meritocracy.

Jefferson’s famous 1805 Letter to the Danbury Baptists contains the “separation of church and state” phrase which is so powerful that many people mistakenly believe is part of our nation’s First Amendment. That may be wrong in fact, but the letter captured and set the tone for the kind of religious belief America would come to represent 213 years later. We may not have had an official church, but most of our early leaders were religious Believers, and they carried that moral code with them into their official positions, where it guided their actions. They carried church around in their hearts, and not necessarily on their sleeves. A uniquely American creation.

American politics has always been about shared values, if not shared beliefs. Traditional religious views, call them the Judeo-Christian pillars of America, are that big tent in which the shared values are assembled. So it is on the shoulders of conservative Catholics, evangelical Christians and Baptists, and yes, even Mormons (please leave us out of endless theological debates, or discussions about dogma) to help right the ship of state now, to rally around the shared values, circle the wagons, and protect our most sacred freedoms and liberties.

In this day and age of confusion in the West, with abandonment of basic human traits and life, Christianity is needed more than ever. It is all-hands-on-deck right now. The Christian imperative is more clearly evident now than it has ever been in my lifetime, and Billy Graham showed us all the way.


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