Terry Mattingly, On Religion
— The Rev. Billy Graham has been worried about the state of America's soul for a long, long time.
So it wasn't surprising that -- when preaching what could be his final sermon -- the 95-year-old evangelist looked straight into the camera and talked about sin and tears, repentance and salvation. And the cross.
"Our country's in great need of a spiritual awakening. There have been times when I've wept as I've gone from city to city and I've seen how far people have wandered from God," said Graham, in a message recorded in his North Carolina mountain home.
"I want to tell people about the meaning of the cross. Not the cross that hangs on the wall or around someone's neck, but the real cross of Christ. It's scarred and bloodstained. His was a rugged cross. I know that many will react to this message, but it is the truth. And with all my heart, I want to leave you with the truth."
Simply called "The Cross," the 30-minute documentary premiered on Fox News, as well as in churches nationwide. It included footage of Graham with leaders ranging from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Pope John Paul II, from Johnny Carson to Johnny Cash. Graham has met with every U.S. president since Harry Truman and the video included John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
The video was also shown at a recent 95th birthday party for Graham in Asheville, N.C., that drew many prominent, and in some cases decidedly non-evangelical, conservatives -- including Donald Trump, Greta Van Susteren and Rupert Murdoch. In his introduction, the Rev. Franklin Graham told viewers that his father's message could "change your life and change the direction of this nation."
It would be hard, however, for critics to find any national politics in this message from the elderly Graham, said sociologist William Martin, author of "A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story."
In particular, there were no echoes of the 2012 advertisements in which the elder Graham was quoted as saying: "As I approach my 94th birthday, I realize this election could be my last. ... I urge you to vote for those who protect the sanctity of life and support the biblical definition of marriage between a man and a woman."
Instead, this video offered "classic Billy," said Martin, reached by telephone.
"Anyone who has been paying attention knows that at the heart of his preaching there has always been a message that this country is in pretty bad shape. That isn't something he started saying just the other day," he said. "I doubt there was anything new at all in this video and, from my point of view, that's a good thing."
Nevertheless, Graham repeatedly told viewers that he knew some of his words would be offensive.
"We deserve the cross. We deserve hell. We deserve judgment and all that that means," he said. "I know that there are many people who dispute that. People don't want to hear that they are sinners. To many people it's an offense. The cross is offensive because it directly confronts to evil that dominates so much of this world. ...
"One reason that the cross is an offense to people is because it demands. It doesn't suggest, it demands -- a new lifestyle in ALL of us."
Throughout the video, the voice of the frail preacher was mixed with the soaring cadences of the evangelist in the prime of life, his words rushing toward the moment when he urged seekers to come forward and make professions of faith.
But this time, the sermon ended with the elderly Graham quietly speaking words he has said in thousands of sermons, to millions of listeners, around the world: "There is no other way of salvation except through the cross of Christ. Jesus said, 'I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No man cometh to the Father except by me.'"
Yes, the words were familiar, said Martin, but it was hard not be affected by the sobering images of the white-haired evangelical patriarch working so hard to share this message one more time.
"That's Billy Graham and this is what he has believed his whole life," said the sociologist. "It's like he was saying, 'This is the old, old story and I'm going to tell it to you one more time.'"
Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.
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