BEFORE THE duck hunters and zombies took over prime-time TV, there used to be the Rev. Billy Graham. Just a few decades ago, his crusades were television events that preempted regular programming. It’s been years, though, since the man dubbed “America’s pastor” has preached publicly, and the reason is apparent in a short film released this month to coincide with Graham’s 95th birthday. Broadcast on religious networks, Fox, and YouTube, “The Cross” shows Graham (no relation) sitting in a leather chair, petting an old dog, and looking much like an elderly relative shunted to the sidelines of a holiday gathering.
He still has that glorious shock of hair, but the blue eyes are cloudy, and the voice is tentative — as is his health. In the video, a clock ticks quietly, and the dog appears to limp. As vintage footage of a young, vigorous Graham punctuates images of him today, dueling messages emerge: Christ is still the answer, and growing old isn’t for sissies.
An added poignancy: When Billy Graham is gone, there will be no one to fill his place. “State” has plenty of national leaders; after Graham, “church” will have none, even though this is a nation parked resolutely “under God,” if more so in sunnier climes. To whom shall we look for moral leadership, for a unifying voice that transcends political parties and theological divides?
From Jonathan Edwards and his “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” to Billy Sunday with his impassioned ragings against alcohol, America has always had a de facto pastor-in-chief, and a photograph with Billy Graham has been mandatory for presidents all the way back to Truman. But the position is being eliminated, a casualty of “isms” — secularism, led deftly by a well-meaning ACLU; and materialism, as practiced by the prosperity preachers who say God loves us and wants us to be wealthy. Graham, who golfed with presidents and was always nattily dressed, never had an austere lifestyle. But he decided early on, wrote John Pollock in a 1966 biography, that he would never earn more than the pastor of a large-city church, that accumulating wealth would make him a target and distract from his goal of leading souls to God.
“Our country is in great need of a spiritual awakening,” Graham says in “The Cross,” although I suspect he especially means New England. Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire routinely top the list of the nation’s least-religious states, borne there by well-educated skeptics who might be surprised to know that Graham shares their insistence that reason accompany faith.
A former Fuller Brush salesman who is the son of a North Carolina dairy farmer, and the grandson of a Confederate veteran named “Crook,” Graham has two degrees from religious colleges. Perpetually humbled by the limits of such an education, the young Graham asked associates to barrage him with questions, to try to sharpen his mind. He considered reason an aid to faith, not a hindrance, and regretted his early style of “zeal with no knowledge,” he told his biographer.
The Carolinas are fertile with tainted preachers with no such compunctions; disgraced PTL Club president Jim Bakker, astonishingly, is still on the air. The wonder of Billy Graham is not that he preached to millions in a career that spanned 60 years, but that he did this without major controversies.
Graham first came to prominence in 1949, after more than 9,000 people overflowed a crusade tent in Los Angeles, the largest such gathering since Billy Sunday days. After LA, the next stop was Boston. “No city in America,” Pollock wrote, “was more sure to snuff out the fire lit at Los Angeles than Boston: pre-dominantly Catholic . . . Reserved, proud and confident of its intellectual supremacy.” (In other words, pretty much the Boston we have now.)
But 16,000 came to hear Graham at the old Garden, leaving so many outside that the evangelist went out to address them. Events at the Opera House and Mechanics Hall were similarly packed. And 15 years later, Graham filled the Garden again for a 10-day crusade that culminated in a rally on the Common, attended by 75,000. During that visit, Graham met with Cardinal Richard Cushing, archbishop of Boston, and expressed wonder at the turnout. “I’m just as amazed as anyone else that large crowds come to these meetings. I wonder when it will all be over.”
The answer may come soon, and leave a nation bereft in more than one way. Or maybe a new Graham will arise. Miracles do happen, like a salesman turned confidant of kings.
Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe.