LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Billy Graham almost never spoke about economic or social controversies. The evangelist, who died last week at 99, preached the Christian faith and largely left good works to take care of themselves. Arguably, American society would have benefited from a more activist Graham.
Obviously, could-have-been theories of history are pure speculation. Still, the Protestant superstar lived through a period when many Christians around the world decided that the social mission was an integral and obligatory part of living out the gospel. Graham could plausibly have joined them.
After all, he responded warmly to the Roman Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council, whose 1965 document on “The Church in the Modern World” began with an expression of solidarity: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted”.
This did not merely restate the Catholic Church’s social teaching, which had been developing for over 80 years. It vastly expanded its scope. What was once primarily a statement of solidarity with oppressed Catholic workers became a call for justice for all, believers and non-believers alike. The church had signed up fully to the fight against global poverty and social exclusion. In Europe, that required working closely with secular governments.
Many Protestants endorsed a similar vision. The 1974 Lausanne Covenant was a statement of evangelical intent signed by representatives of many often-antagonistic denominations. Its 15 clauses include one on “Christian Social Responsibility”, which stated: “The message of salvation implies also a message of judgment upon every form of alienation, oppression and discrimination, and we should not be afraid to denounce evil and injustice wherever they exist.” Paul VI, who was then the leader of the Catholic Church, would have signed up to that, had he been invited.
Graham organised the Lausanne meeting and helped to draft the Covenant. However, his own vision of social responsibility was in practice narrower, limited to a firm opposition to communism and tepid support for the U.S. civil-rights movement. Basically, he was persuaded that the fruits of true Christian conversion would inevitably include good works for the poor.
It is easy to understand why Graham was wary of the Christian social agenda. In the American Protestant world, the most enthusiastic social reformers were political and social liberals. Graham had no time for them, and not only because they often sneered at his psychologically naive approach to conversion. In his eyes, these self-proclaimed Christians were often walking on the wide, secular road that led to moral relativism, sexual depravity, and eternal damnation. Their willingness to cooperate with socialist political forces only added to his mistrust.
Graham’s single-minded focus on conversion and church-building helped lead American evangelical Protestants away from economic politics. Universal welfare, education and healthcare programmes, which Catholics were enthusiastically endorsing in Europe, were far from his mind. He did not even spend much energy promoting the traditional American church outreach into troubled communities.
Neither the bishops of Vatican II nor the dignitaries at Lausanne a decade later recognised just how fast the Christian influence on the societies of developed economies was about to decline. Organised Christianity is no longer the driving political or social force.
What are left are two quite different legacies. The European Union is just as hostile as any American liberal to the Church’s teachings on sexuality and marriage. However, the Christian social agenda, which was also largely endorsed by the continent’s Protestant minority, along with socialists and paternalists, remains official policy in almost all the Old Continent.
In other words, while Catholic bishops have no clout, some of their message still lingers. And the durability of the European welfare systems which they endorsed has economic and political implications. They have promoted social mobility, spread education more widely and probably slowed the development of populism. This social post-Christianity has many problems, right now particularly with the church-endorsed welcoming of migrants, but its accomplishments remain substantial.
It is quite different in the United States, where Protestants outnumber Catholics two-to-one. Evangelicals still decry sexual immorality, but they are far more hostile to European-style welfare programmes than Catholics or secularists. White evangelicals overall were very receptive to the populism of Donald Trump, despite his three marriages and multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.
Works of charity have lost out. The current opioid crisis, which disproportionately struck the white Protestant heartland, bears witness. Faith undoubtedly still overcomes the darkness of the soul for people who hear the call that Graham so effectively preached. However, the rise in what Princeton University professors Angus Deaton and Anne Case call “deaths of despair” – from drugs, alcohol and suicide – is almost an indictment of evangelicals’ narrow approach to good works.
Of course, the decisions of a single reverend did not cause America’s social, economic and political problems. Such big changes inevitably have many causes. Still, it is fair to wonder whether a more active social legacy on the part of America’s great preacher would have made America greater.
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