Graham’s next crusade might just be his last

Evangelist beset by health problems ponders his encroaching mortality, politics and regrets.

MONTREAT, N.C. — After more than five decades spent preaching to 210 million people in 185 lands, the Rev. Billy Graham is marooned in his log house on a mountaintop ridge.

The evangelist shuffles with a walker down a small ramp into his living room. He has prostate cancer, hydrocephalus and the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and last year broke a hip and his pelvis. He says he leaves the mountain only three or four times a year and cannot even remember his last time down.

“When you get to be 86 years of age, as I am, all of the world is passing you by,” he said, sitting on his front porch for a rare interview.

Nevertheless, Graham is preparing to venture down the mountain to travel to New York City for another evangelistic crusade — a three-day outdoor revival meeting beginning June 24 in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.

“Maybe this will be the last crusade I’ll ever hold,” he said in a conversation during which he reflected on his mortality, his close attention to the funeral of Pope John Paul II, his son Franklin’s comments that Islam is an “evil and wicked” religion (“Let’s say, I didn’t say it”) and his regrets, including anti-Jewish comments he made 30 years ago to President Richard M. Nixon that were tape-recorded.

For the past half-century, Graham has been the central figure behind the dramatic postwar resurgence of evangelical Christianity in America. His crusades delivered new believers to churches nationwide; his embrace of mass media paved the way for a generation of evangelists; and his magazines, training programs and the retreat center he founded helped shape many of today’s prominent Christian leaders.

Now, at a time when other evangelical leaders plunge into political issues, Graham subtly has set himself apart, steadfastly refusing to talk about politics, the evangelical movement or any of the issues important to evangelical conservatives, from abortion to homosexuality to stem-cell research.

“I feel I have only a short time to go, and I have to leave that to the younger people,” he said.

“If I get on these other subjects, it divides the audience on an issue that is not the issue I’m promoting. I’m just promoting the Gospel.”

Graham himself always courted politicians and powerful people, befriending every American president, Republican and Democrat alike, from Harry S. Truman on. The hallway leading to his bedroom is a gallery of the Grahams in younger days, posing with Queen Elizabeth, with Richard Nixon and even with President Kim Il Sung of North Korea.

The evangelist was particularly close with the Bush family. President Bush has said it was a talk with Graham that prompted him at age 40 to stop drinking and get serious about his Christian faith.

But Graham said that while he counted many politicians among his friends, “I never endorsed but one politician that I know of, and that was the governor of Texas many years ago,” he said, referring to John B. Connally, a close friend. “And I regret that, even though he got elected.”

Graham’s last crusade was in Los Angeles in November. He speaks now from a podium designed to allow him to sit down while speaking. He has been invited to do another crusade in London but said he will not decide until he could assess how it went in New York.

Mortality is on his mind. Of the pope’s funeral, he said, “I watched every bit of it.” Asked why, he said, “He was teaching us how to suffer, and he taught us how to die.”

Graham said that with each health setback, “I’ve rejoiced in all of it.” The Lord, he said, was making it possible for him to relate to other suffering people.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The New York Times, via the Indianapolis Star, USA
June 12, 2005
Laurie Goodstein, The New York Times

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