74: Sally Quinn

74: Sally Quinn

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Billy Graham & Me

• 74 •

Bestselling author and journalist; founder and editor-in-chief of The Washington Post website’s “On Faith”

When I was little I remember thinking that Billy Graham was the President. I assumed he was President for life, and that all the people he was seen with in the White House were coming to visit him! In my mind he was a benign father figure. When I would see him on television in the early days I remember thinking that he was going to sprout wings and suddenly fly away.

It didn’t occur to me until I was about ten that he wasn’t the President. The tip-off came when General Dwight Eisenhower ran for president. My father was in the military and was very close to Eisenhower. I remember asking him how Eisenhower and Billy Graham could be President at the same time. My father explained that Billy Graham was always there to advise the President.

But as far as what Billy Graham represented, I was conflicted, even at an early age, because of the existence of evil in the world. My father’s regiment liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau in World War II and he had his staff photographer take pictures of all the corpses and emaciated bodies, so when he came home he had scrapbooks of what had happened there. I remember looking at the scrapbooks when I was five or six and thinking that there could not be a God. How could there possibly be a God? No God would ever allow this to happen. I would go down on my knees every night, saying my prayers, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,” and I would say, God bless this person and that person, and then I thought, Why am I saying this? All those people in the prison camps must have been praying to God, too, and God didn’t save them.

I remember telling my father that I didn’t want to go to Sunday school anymore, but my parents made me go, which really annoyed me. When I was thirteen I learned there were atheists, and I called myself an atheist for most of my life, until I started the religion website On Faith, for The Washington Post, which is now in its sixth year and thriving.

What changed my mind was a conversation I had over lunch with Jon Meacham, then editor of Newsweek, who has written books about religion. He talked me out of being an atheist. He said, “You are not really an atheist and the reason you are not is because you are not a negative person. Being an atheist is being negative because you are against something.” He also said that I didn’t know anything about religion, even though I had been rejecting it.

He was right. I had been so hostile to religion. My attitude was that most of the evil in the world had been done in the name of religion. Jon Meacham told me I needed to study the subject before I reached a conclusion. So I did. I learned that there is an enormous amount of good in religion, and I also realized that religion was a huge issue from a journalistic standpoint. It was a story that we weren’t covering, even though religion plays a huge role in politics and foreign policy. It’s a big story all the time. I tried unsuccessfully to persuade the editor at the Post to step up the coverage. Eventually the publisher suggested I set up a website that focused on religion.

I asked Jon Meacham if he would be my co-editor, since I had no credentials in the field. Soon we got some big names in religion on board, including scholars and writers such as Martin E. Marty, Elaine Pagels, and Karen Armstrong, as well as Archbishop Desmond Tutu. And Billy Graham’s written for us, too.

Billy Graham is of course a key religious person, both in the United States and around the world. People have said, after the pope, there is Billy Graham. I was just rereading an old article by Martin Marty about him in Christianity Today (“Reflections on Graham by a Former Grump”). Marty presents Billy Graham as the “non-mean” man in whom the “fruit of the spirit” is evident, as described in Galatians 5:22-23: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” If you want to describe Billy Graham, that’s it.

Billy Graham himself has talked about three areas that were a concern to him in his personal life: finances, morals, and pride. For the first two, he set up ways to prevent even the appearance of impropriety. For his Evangelistic Association, for example, he set up a board that allocated his salary and handled all the financial affairs. This meant that he could never be accused of using his success for personal financial gain. Second, he would never ride in a car, or be alone in any other circumstances, with an unaccompanied woman. That way nobody could accuse him of wrongdoing.

As for the third item on that list, pride, one very important thing about Billy Graham is that it has never been about him. I recall the great opening line of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life: “It’s not about you.” A man like Billy Graham, who had incredible success, who could have been a zillionaire, could have done so many things that he chose not to do. He could have had a cathedral built for him and lived the high life. There could have been Billy Graham airports, statues, and monuments, and all that kind of thing. But he eschewed all that, remaining instead normal and humble. This is extraordinary to me. His life simply was not about accumulating all those things. It was about the message of healing and helping other people.

But for me the most important thing about Billy Graham is how he has changed over the decades. He has grown. He once said, “You can’t help but grow and become more tolerant.” And he has. Often people will become more hardline as they get older. It is easy to get locked into your own views and become rigid, in terms of who you are and what you believe in. But then there is no acceptance. For Billy Graham, I think it has been exactly the opposite. He has become much more accepting, more tolerant, more pluralistic, more open, and he has literally followed the Word of Christ. That’s what I admire about him the most. In the “fruits of the spirit,” Billy Graham has only grown.

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