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PBS documentary highlights Billy Graham's impact on US politics, evangelical movement

Billy Graham
PBS' "American Experience" series features its "Billy Graham" documentary on May 17, 2021. |

"American Experience," the Emmy Award-winning history series from PBS, will feature the world-renowned evangelist Billy Graham in its new documentary that delves into his struggles with humility and pride as he single-handedly influenced American politics while leading millions to Jesus.

"American Experience" has highlighted people in history for more than 30 years, and the new documentary on Graham premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET on all PBS stations.

The film opens by telling the evangelist’s story, from his modest beginnings on a North Carolina farm to how he became the dynamic preacher that impacted Christianity and America today.

“As journalist Nancy Gibbs notes in the film, Billy Graham became, at some point in the 1950s, the most famous man in the world,” director of “Billy Graham,” Sarah Colt, told The Christian Post of why PBS chose to highlight the late minister. “That is remarkable. Given this and his role in initiating a new relationship between Christianity and politics in our country’s history, as we argue in the film, his story is a must for 'American Experience.'”

The film argues that Graham and his “early fundamentalist sermons harnessed the apocalyptic anxieties of a post-atomic world, exhorting audiences to adopt the only possible solution: devoting one’s life to Christ,” the synopsis notes. "American Experience" also ventures into how Graham parted ways with his initial preaching style and became an international celebrity who “built a media empire, preached to millions worldwide, and had the ear of tycoons, royalty and presidents.”

“Graham’s relationship to [President Dwight] Eisenhower is critical to understanding his role in initiating a new relationship between Christianity and politics in our nation’s history ...  Graham is an important player in understanding this shift that happens under Eisenhower toward a Christian nationalism,” Colt asserted when speaking of Graham's influence in politics.

By the time of his death at age 99, it's estimated that Graham preached in-person to 210 million people. The film, directed by Colt, produced by Helen Dobrowski and executive produced by Cameo George, showcases how Graham was the catalyst for the current evangelical movement in America, but also how he used his gifts as a speaker to share the Gospel of Christ worldwide.

The following is an edited transcript of Colt’s interview with CP where she shares why "American Experience" chose to highlight Graham’s life and explore some unexplored areas — such as politics, the pastor's “struggle with pride” and social issues. 

The Christian Post: Why was it important to highlight Billy Graham for "American Experience" on PBS?

Colt: Billy Graham is such an iconic figure, but many Americans, especially younger people, if they have heard of him, don’t necessarily understand who he was or know anything about his life and legacy. As journalist Nancy Gibbs notes in the film, "Billy Graham became, at some point in the 1950s, the most famous man in the world." That is remarkable, given this and his role in initiating a new relationship between Christianity and politics in our country’s history. As we argue in the film, his story is a must for "American Experience."

CP: This documentary showcases Graham in a new light, stating that he struggled with the line between "humility and pride." What inspired that narrative of the iconic evangelist?

Colt: We were inspired by his own words and acknowledgment of this struggle, which is documented by his official biographer, William Martin, who interviewed Billy Graham many times in person and wrote Graham’s official biography, A Prophet with Honor. As Martin explains in the film, “There was a war between ambition and humility. He wrestled with that throughout his life.” I was intrigued by this tension in Graham, and, given that we were making a biography, it seemed an important thread to pursue.

CP: His political impact was also heavily featured in the film, saying he "used Christianity to polarize." We see President Truman peg him as a "showman," Eisenhower embrace him, and Graham’s devastation following the Nixon scandal. What were you hoping viewers took away from his involvement in politics?

Colt: Billy Graham’s life is fascinating for lots of reasons, but his role in relation to politics and the presidency seems particularly relevant, especially in light of the 2016 presidential election where many people credit the evangelical vote for [former President] Trump’s victory.  

Graham’s relationship with Eisenhower is critical to understanding his role in initiating a new relationship between Christianity and politics in our nation’s history. There is a false narrative that has been put forth in popular culture that the country was founded as a Christian nation. History shows that the founders very consciously made sure that religion and government had their own domains, which they believed would allow each to flourish. It was in the 1950s, for example, when God gets added to the Pledge of Allegiance, paper currency, and to the official motto of the nation. Graham is an important player in understanding this shift that happens under Eisenhower toward Christian nationalism.

After Nixon and Watergate, Graham pulls back from his very public political partisanship, but at that point, he had opened a door that only opens wider in subsequent decades.

CP: How did you get Graham's sister, Jean Ford, to share about her brother's life?

Colt: I am grateful to Graham biographer Grant Wacker, who served as an adviser on the project, for introducing me to Jean and Leighton Ford. Jean Ford is Billy Graham’s younger sister, and she and her husband were incredibly gracious and generous in sharing their insights, knowledge and stories. It was such a pleasure to meet them. Then, when we were working with the archival material, we were thrilled to find footage of young Jean working the switchboard at the Billy Graham Crusade offices in New York City in 1957. Look out for her in the film! 

CP: His moral integrity was something praised by many. He always received an ordinary preacher's salary and made sure to safeguard himself around other women. What can preachers learn from that today? 

Colt: In these aspects, Graham practiced what he preached, and his lack of hypocrisy bolsters his image in the public eye. Many evangelists before him became embroiled in various "scandals" that undermined their message. Billy Graham was determined not to fall into those traps, and he and his colleagues pledged to each other early on that they would be transparent in their financial and personal dealings. To their credit, as far as anyone knows, they lived up to their expectations.

CP: Graham used media to advance the Gospel. Can you share the power of media in helping to share his message?

Colt: Billy Graham is incredibly savvy in his use of media. In many ways, his story is one of the right person at the right time, and clearly, the advent of mass media was hugely important to his success. When we first started digging into the archival material, I was really taken aback by Graham’s earliest television appearances. At a time when people were just figuring out what television was, Billy Graham was instantly a master of it. 

He’s completely comfortable addressing the camera; he really gets the intimacy of the medium. It is extraordinary. He also produces a weekly radio show, writes a newspaper column, and opens a Hollywood studio. All of these outlets expanded the scope and reach of his messaging.

CP: The documentary also said that Graham stood up for racial equality yet still had friendships with segregationists. How do you think that fares in this day and age?

Colt: In the film, we explore Graham’s progressive ideas about racial equality compared to his white Southern colleagues, which comes into tension with his desire to retain and reach the largest possible audience. As his power and fame increase at the same time that the civil rights movement heats up in the early 1960s, Graham chooses not to take part. As journalist Nancy Gibbs explains, “He believed in order. Graham's really is a gospel of obedience. The whole fundamental principle of civil disobedience … is a hard one for him to really understand.” 

I encourage people to visit the "American Experience" website where there is an excellent essay detailing Graham’s relationship with Martin Luther King.

CP: Some people featured in the documentary called Graham an "advocate of power for himself." Would you say that was the truth after showcasing his entire life's work?

Colt: Graham's advocacy of power for himself enabled him to have a broader reach. His relationships with presidents, the highest political office in the United States, allowed him to try to affect policy in a way that aligned with his religious and moral beliefs. 

CP: What are you hoping people take away from the documentary?

Colt: His success as an evangelist was in no way inevitable. It was a result of his tenaciousness in adhering to what he felt was his calling — being innovative and thorough with disseminating that message during a time in American and world history that his message resonated and was easily transmitted. Right man, right place, right time.

Hopefully, people will take away not only a deeper understanding of him, but also an understanding of his complicated legacy when it comes to religion and its role in politics. It is Billy Graham, as we argue in the film, who is responsible for creating a relationship between conservative Christianity and the presidency. 

To watch “Billy Graham” American Experience on PBS, check local listings or visit  PBS.org or the PBS Video App.

Jeannie Law is a reporter for The Christian Post. Reach her at: jeannie.law@christianpost.com Follow her on Twitter: @jlawcp Facebook: JeannieOMusic

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