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A Pope for Protestants?

How Billy Graham compares to the Pope.

by Dear Jon
April 12, 2005

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A Pope for Protestants?


Dear Jon,

Now that Dr. Spin refuses to answer car commercial questions, can you answer them? What's that song they use in the Buick commercials? You know, it goes "Dream on, dream on." It sounds old, like something my parents listen to.

Car commercial watcher

Dear Car,
I know the answer without even looking it up, but I don't want to set the precedent. This, and the following letter about television coverage concerning the death of a religious figure, indicates to me a great demand to see the return of Mark Johnson's "Program Notes" to the Partial Observer on a regular basis. This is a column about television and all the issues related to it. Spread the word! Circulate petitions! Lobby Congress! Rally outside the Partial Observer's World Headquarters! It would be of great relief both to Dr. Spin and myself to see a television expert answer questions about television.


Dear Jon,

Will there be 9 days of television coverage when Billy Graham dies? I liked the Pope and I thought he was a remarkable man, but I'm wondering if any one man deserves 9 days of television coverage on the event of his demise?
Sincerely, Pope Admirer.
Dear Pope,
The nine days of coverage is not 24/7. The story in the death of the pope yields up "news." Millions of people descending on Rome is "news," the funeral and who is present is "news," the steps that the College of Cardinals takes to secure the transition of power is "news."
Some of these components will be present at the time that Billy Graham has his home-going. There might be millions of people descending on Asheville, North Carolina, and that would definitely be news.
Beyond the theological, there are other key distinctions between the Pope and Billy Graham. The Pope is a head-of-state, so that a Pope's death or resignation has immediate consequences internationally. The Pope is both an official and unofficial head of a discrete administrative institution, the Roman Catholic Church.
By contrast, Billy Graham is neither a head-of-state nor a holder of political office. Without looking it up, I believe Graham has been the White House guest of every President since Eisenhower. He has been significantly silent on a number of social and geo-political issues which have been the subject of papal addresses. The President who involves Billy Graham in a prayer breakfast is taking no risks, nor is Graham implicitly or explicitly allying himself with one political faction or another. Graham has been obliquely critical of the tone of anger in many outspoken proponents of socially conservative partisan preachers.
In terms of the Christian faith, Billy Graham is a catalytic figure in the global Christian movement called Revival Evangelicalism. For nearly sixty years Graham has galvanized evangelicals from the broadest possible ecumenical tents to enlist in support of his evangelistic crusades. (This is what "crusade" really means in the best and original sense of the term.) Thus, mainline churches decried as "liberal" have aligned with Graham's crusades for decades. Those discrete institutions to which he has given leadership do not constitute themselves as a single Christian denomination; they are "para-Church" organizations to help congregations and evangelical believers from all denominations.
Although fundamentalists have criticized Graham's ecumenical approach, Graham shares with Pope John Paul II a legacy as a unifying, rather than polarizing, force within the Christian faith. His death will be big news. However, the successions to power will not be news because he will not leave that kind of vacuum. Graham could never issue a canon or a bull pronouncing a particular moral judgment as binding law on all adherents, nor will his successors. Graham was one galvanizing voice in a field thick with outspoken evangelical Protestant leaders, some of whom try to issue canons within their discrete denominational units, and others who try to carry on his legacy as a unifier.
Those who stand in the center of revival evangelicalism have an admiration for Billy Graham that might be the functional equivalent of an observant Catholic's admiration of Pope John Paul II. The grounds for sentiment, however, really make the comparison more of a loose analogy. Rather than bringing Catholics into the equation, think this way: Pope John Paul II and Billy Graham share a similar place in the hearts of protestant evangelicals; they are admired as worthy of their public profile because of their convictions combined with their integrity of lifestyle.
However, the Pope is to the Catholic Church what Graham never was to any particular evangelical denomination. That is the key distinction. It is the Pope's role in the discrete administrative hierarchy of the Catholic Church, where his word can become the law of faith binding to over a billion adherents world-wide, that makes him such a powerful, newsworthy symbol.

Dear Jon,

Recently I was looking in your Encyclopedia where you stated "Prince Albert is the name of a town on the border between the prairie and the woods in Saskatchewan, Canada." Isn't that pretty much the definition of every town is Saskatchewan?

Proud American
Dear Proud,
Nope. Most of Saskatchewan's population lives on a black-soil prairie that stretches for hundreds of miles in all directions: to the foothills of the Candian Rockies in Alberta, to the edge of the Canadian shield in Ontario, and south into Montana and North Dakota. In fact, trees had to be planted, not cut down, in order to farm the land, in an effort to preserve farms from soil erosion. Prince Albert is on the edge of a forest that stretches hundreds of miles north to the tundra of the Northwest Territories.

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