WashU Expert: Billy Graham leaves controversial legacy for the #MeToo generation

President Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy greet Billy Graham in 1981 at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons.)

In his long career, the evangelical preacher Billy Graham — who died Feb. 21 at age 99 — offered one piece of advice that may be especially relevant to men in the current age of #MeToo sexual harassment scandals — never dine, drink or spend time alone with women other than your wife.


Known as the “Billy Graham Rule,” the advice was in line with cultural and sexual norms of the 1950s and later decades, when many of Graham’s contemporary evangelical preachers fell from grace after widely publicized extramarital affairs, said R. Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.

“The culture of evangelicalism already looks far different today than it did during Billy Graham’s religious dominance, to the chagrin of many who lament their apparent co-optation by the forces of misogyny, xenophobia and racism that helped elect Donald Trump,” said Griffith, author of a new book on the history of America’s religious debates over sex and sexuality.

As Griffith notes in a discussion of her book, “Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics” (Basic Books, 2017), Graham was a great example of someone who often preached, from very early on, against sexual degradation.

“He was, of course, preaching throughout the 1960s and 1970s, when sexual mores were dramatically shifting in America, and popular culture was celebrating sexual freedom as they saw it,” she said. “Graham repeatedly denounced that, sometimes equating it with communism or a kind of communist plot. He seemed to see changing sexual norms as a terrifying sign of people denying God, and turning their backs on God. He warned about the consequences not just for individual damnation, but for the damnation of the entire nation.”

The Billy Graham Rule may have its roots in 1950s America, but it continues to influence the social and business protocols of many modern American leaders, including Vice President Mike Pence, who has proclaimed himself an adherent to the rule. The rule also has stirred backlash from modern feminists who see it as a way to exclude women from important one-on-one mentoring time with male business and political leaders.

While some of Graham’s spiritual guidance may seem dated in today’s modern world, Griffith suggests that his death may provide an opportunity for the evangelical community to re-examine its current political stance in light of the traditional moral teachings embodied by Graham.

“Billy Graham was the most influential evangelist of the 20th century, one who did more than anyone else to define what being ‘evangelical’ meant,” Griffith said. “Love of God and country went hand in hand for him, as he preached against communism and advocated the American way, as he saw it.

“Submitting to Christ and leading a morally pure life also went hand in hand for him; sexual chastity was a particular theme that he repeatedly emphasized throughout his career,” she said. “Although a critic of feminism and many other social reform movements, he always welcomed strangers and newcomers into his midst, embodying a kindness of spirit not always exemplified by his co-religionists.

“His departure from the public circuit some years ago left a void that many have tried to fill, but none have done so with his broad success.”

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