HEIDELBERG, Germany — In the summer of 1954, 25,000 West Germans gathered in Düsseldorf’s Rheinstadium to hear “America’s Pastor,” Billy Graham. Two hundred trombones and a 1,300-person choir roared Protestant hymns before Mr. Graham preached with his signature verve and altar call, inviting repentant hearts to come forward and accept Christ as their personal savior. Hundreds did. A few days later, so did hundreds more, when Mr. Graham preached to 80,000 people in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. Mr. Graham returned to West Germany the next year for an even bigger tour, and then again in 1960, 1963 and 1966.
The German press nicknamed him “God’s machine gun” for his aggressive, staccato preaching, but the name also fit for deeper reasons. Mr. Graham described these trips as “crusades” and saw West Germany as ground zero in what he called “Battleground Europe,” a Cold War fight to redeem the “land of Luther” from its Nazi past and secure its future as a stronghold for American-style democracy, capitalism and evangelicalism.
In the wake of Mr. Graham’s death on Feb. 21, the world is once again debating his titanic legacy. But few have noted his significance as a global actor who preached on every continent save Antarctica. Some have decided that Mr. Graham was “the last nonpartisan evangelical” while others have condemned him to “the wrong side of history,” both in reference to American domestic politics. But Billy Graham’s culture wars are inseparable from his role as an international Cold Warrior. He wasn’t just America’s pastor; he was God’s Cold War machine gun.
Mr. Graham insisted that his German crusades were apolitical, but his sermons suggested otherwise. In Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, he elevated the city’s geospiritual significance in an emerging world order. “Berlin is prayed for in the world more than any other city,” he declared, calling the city “a battleground, a continent for conquest” — not for earthly power, as the world wars had been, but a new battle “for the hearts and minds of the people.”
In so many words, Mr. Graham was talking about the Communists. Amid rising Cold War tensions and debates over German remilitarization, he affirmed that West Germans were his “brothers in arms” literally as well as spiritually. To strengthen a Christian democratic West against a godless Soviet East, he cast his weight behind German rearmament.
He spoke for most Americans, but also for leading politicians like President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of West Germany. Adenauer made a point of meeting with Mr. Graham in 1963 as he steered his country westward. In the aftermath of the war and the American-led Marshall Plan for Europe’s reconstruction, ordinary West Germans experienced Americanization in various forms, and for many, Mr. Graham portended a similar Americanization of German religion with its emphasis on conversion and its use of modern communication technologies for evangelism. Mr. Graham’s crusades offered German Protestants the chance to experience these modern, American religious developments. Many looked to Mr. Graham not only as a promise against secularization, but also as a means of aligning themselves with the West.
Though his German Crusades were astoundingly well-attended and supported by leaders like Adenauer, they also met with plenty of criticism. Some Germans deemed Mr. Graham a Hollywood huckster who, as the German news media put it, “advertised the Bible like toothpaste and chewing gum.” Others sensed an unnerving parallel between his mass gatherings and Germany’s fascist past. The June 1954 issue of Der Spiegel featured Mr. Graham on the cover with mischievous eyes and a mouth pursed in what could be a sales pitch as much as a sermon. The magazine’s feature was disparagingly titled “Religion for Mass-Consumption,” and argued that Mr. Graham’s real goal was to steer souls away from Communism more than toward God. Unsurprisingly, the East German press was even more critical, one paper characterizing the crusades as tools of “American propaganda in the psychological Cold War.”
Liberal Protestants in the United States and Germany felt themselves caught in the middle of Mr. Graham’s bifurcated world. While prominent theologians like the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller and the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr supported Germany’s democratization, they protested Mr. Graham’s equation of Christianity with America, anti-Communism and free-market capitalism. If many mainline protestants had used similar language in the immediate aftermath of World War II, by the mid-1950s they had departed drastically from seeing socialism as anathema to Christianity. Mainline liberals accused Mr. Graham of raising international tensions by identifying Berlin as the beacon of the West in a sea of Communist red. His call for spiritual armament risked a new military conflict.
After the Watergate scandal, Mr. Graham withdrew from political debates and returned to his early focus on simply “preaching the gospel.” Yet his role in provoking a global debate about the shape of democracy, capitalism, nationalism and secularism in the modern world remains one of his lasting legacies. If the Cold War is gone and the evangelical culture wars have lost much of their steam, we remain ensconced in similar debates today, and — despite recanting his theopolitics in the end — the alliances that Mr. Graham forged and the battle lines he drew have endured. In this respect, God’s Machine Gun was tragically prophetic of our modern world.
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