23: Jim Daly

23: Jim Daly

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 23 •
JIM DALY

President of Focus on the Family ministry, and host of its radio broadcast

Growing up in a broken home, I often found myself longing for a hero. My parents divorced when I was five. My mom was my rock, but she passed away when I was nine. Loneliness swept over me. There were days when I would have given anything to have a dad who kept his promises, but my father was tragically seized by the wicked grip of alcoholism. He passed away when I was twelve.

So, unable to find that bright light of hope and guidance within my own family, I turned my attention outward. It was the later part of the 1960s and several professional athletes grabbed my attention, as did the astronauts of the famed Apollo 11 moon landing. Yet through the 70s and 80s as I matured in both my faith and my professional interests, I began to admire from afar two giants of my day: California Governor Ronald Reagan and Dr. Billy Graham.

Little did I know at the time that they were dear friends and shared many of the same characteristics. Their history together was more than simply interesting to me. It was instructive.

At the time Dr. Billy Graham and Ronald Reagan first met in 1953, both men were rising stars, one in the pulpit and the other in a pseudo-political role. Mr. Reagan was on the verge of signing a lucrative deal as a corporate spokesman for General Electric, a move that would not only make him a good living, but also put him in everyone’s living room for the next eight years. Still, Dr. Graham’s future appeared even brighter. The great Los Angeles Crusade in the fall of 1949, held under a hot Ringling Brothers circus tent, had made Billy Graham a household name all across the nation. By the hundreds of thousands they were flocking to stadiums and arenas to hear his crisp and lilting Carolina drawl. With enthusiastic and robust evangelical fervor, the tall and lanky Graham was single-handedly sparking spiritual revival all throughout post-World War II America.

That first meeting was memorable for another reason. They met for the first time in Dallas to help raise funds for a retired film actor’s home. On the dais with the two men was Dr. W.A. Criswell, the senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas, one of the country’s largest and most influential Protestant congregations. The forty-four-year-old Criswell was known for strong opinions, both in and out of the pulpit. With Graham looking on, the Southern Baptist clergyman was true to form. Movies were of the devil, he told Reagan. Graham was incredulous. All the while, Mr. Reagan listened politely. He then proceeded to share with Criswell his perspective on the upside to the movie industry and just how many good, wholesome films were being made out in Hollywood. To his credit, the fiery pastor absorbed the thoughtful response. When it was over, he spoke. “I’m going to start going to some movies,” he replied. “And I’ll tell my congregation that it’s not a sin to see certain types of movies.”

The incident greatly impressed Dr. Graham, who marveled at his new friend’s keen ability to navigate cantankerous criticism. “Ron had not only changed a man’s mind,” he would later write, “but he had done it with charm, conviction, and humor — traits I would see repeatedly as I got to know him.”

These same traits and shared interests pulled and kept the Reagans and Grahams close through the years. The close ties also put the evangelist in a tough spot when Mr. Reagan was running for president in 1980. Just prior to the Republican Convention, Dr. Graham crossed paths with Reagan during a trip through Indiana. The polls were tightening, and Mr. Reagan said he especially needed help in North Carolina, the Grahams’ home state. Would Dr. Graham be willing to say a kind word about him? It was the first time he had ever asked for political help, and he was only doing so because it could very well make the difference in the race.

“Governor, I can’t do that,” the Reverend Graham told him. “You and I have been friends for a long time, and I have great confidence in you. I believe you’re going to win the nomination and be elected president. But I think it would hurt us both, and certainly hurt my ministry, if I publicly endorsed any candidate.”

Mr. Reagan said that he understood, though his aides appeared frustrated. Still, just like that, the tension between the two quickly faded.

This wasn’t the first time Dr. Graham had been forced to navigate the confluence of politics and religion. Over the years it had become a predictable and, in many ways, unavoidable source of tension for the evangelist, and how could it not? To be sure he wasn’t always entirely successful at steering clear of partisan activity. By his own admission he occasionally strayed too close for comfort. But when he did, he quickly adjusted and apologized. And in his course correction, Dr. Graham demonstrated strength of character: He bluntly and boldly admitted error.

For a man of his stature to be so candid and forthcoming about his own faults reflects a humble spirit as well as a confidence in the truth of the Gospel he so proudly and unapologetically has professed all these years. The church of Jesus Christ would be stronger if more of its leaders acknowledged their own weaknesses, echoing the words of the apostle Paul. “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses,” he wrote, “so that the power of Christ may rest upon me… For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7,9).

Now I am President of Focus on the Family and host of our daily radio show which reaches over 220 million people around the world, and I continue to thank God for the life and ministry of Dr. Billy Graham, a great man whom the Lord called to do even greater things. He has modeled God’s truth with Christ’s heart, inspiring and challenging millions all across the globe — this former orphan among them.

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