Have you ever noticed how anyone who dies is always a saint, especially when they are one of the idols of our society? They may have lived an immoral, selfish life but when they die they are everyone's friend and hero, The angels in heaven are rejoicing at the sheer privilege of having such a wonderful person to make paradise even better.
Unless, that is, you are the most successful Christian evangelist in the history of the world.
Although there were many fine tributes to the life and testimony of Billy Graham, what struck me were the number of people and organisations who couldn't even wait until his body was cold before they stuck the boot in. These reactions tell us a great deal about our culture and churches.
The Guardian pronounced that Billy Graham was 'on the wrong side of history' – a statement which is breathtaking in its arrogance. The liberal metro-elites, the culture vultures of the zeitgeist, just 'know' what the right side of history is. They believe society is progressing and they are the greatest evidence of that progression. Anyone who disagrees with them on any of their shibboleth issues has to be on 'the wrong side of history'. They alone know 'the right side' and they will disparage, despise and denigrate anyone who disagrees. Even when they have just died.
Not to be outdone, Douglas Robertson in The Independent weighed in. 'Surely Graham, far from being "an exemplar to generation upon generation", is an example of how religion is so often successfully leveraged as a means of making bigotry appear somehow acceptable, even something to aspire to,' he said. Others wrote about how Graham spouted 'incredible levels of hate in his time', without offering any evidence for that. Despite being the most famous Christian in the world, whose every word was scrutinised, the only evidence they could come up with for this hyperbole is a conversation that he had with Nixon about the liberal Jews running New York – a comment of which he was ashamed and for which he apologised to Jewish leaders – and the fact that he was opposed to same-sex marriage. If after 99 years that was all that could be said about my stupid remarks, I would be very happy.
But it wasn't just the bitter and militant atheists who took the opportunity to vent their prejudice and frustration. And it should be noted that many secular organisations and commentators made much more balanced, respectful and fair comments. Some Christians couldn't resist the temptation to let us know what was wrong with Billy Graham, forgetting the maxim that there is a time to be silent.
On the 'conservative' side there were those who wanted to tell us how Billy Graham 'denied Jesus' and they had the edited YouTube clips to prove it. None of the ones I saw provided proof of that at all. Indeed watching Billy's last message was a profoundly moving testimony to his faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus.
On the liberal side there were those who wanted to demonstrate their agreement with their fellow secular ideologues, that Graham was dangerous and a failure. None more so than Rev Johnstone Mackay, a Church of Scotland minister and former BBC Scotland religious affairs editor, who the day after Grahams death, appeared on radio to tell us that Graham was basically a failed American evangelist whose fundamentalist gospel was wrong and had 'little impact'. It was even suggested that Graham's gospel was to be blamed for the decline of the Church of Scotland. The irony is that it was when Graham was in Scotland in the 1950s as part of the Tell Scotland campaign that the membership of the Church of Scotland reached its all time peak – 1.2 million. It's now below 300,000 and declining at a rate of 20,000 per year. This is not because the Church has preached the gospel that Graham preached but rather because, as Johnstone Mackay stated, most rejected it.
As for the accusation of him having 'little impact' – I had to smile at the lack of awareness involved in that comment. Since Graham's death I have heard many stories of people who came to faith through Graham's preaching and for whom it was not a short term emotional fix. From my own father to many people in my church including a woman who told me that her father worked with Graham in the slums of Peru, Graham was the catalyst.
The following is an example of the hundreds of thousands who can testify to his impact: 'My dad became a Christian at a Billy Graham crusade in the '50s which meant I was brought up in a Christian home. I'm also a follower of Jesus as are my two sons, and now the first of my young grandchildren has become a Christian. Our history is of "a goodly heritage".'
Billy Graham preached to 215 million people – directly. He preached to billions through media. As a result there are millions today who are Christians because of him. If that's 'little impact' I would love to see what a great impact would look like.
It strikes me that the negative comments about Graham have little to do with a sober and unbiased analysis of his impact (which only eternity will tell) but rather stem from a petty, mean and vindictive spirit.
As for being on the wrong side of history, I suspect that the same people would have said that Jesus was on the wrong side of history – after all he was killed on a cross. But it turns out that the cross is the pivot of history, not the end of it.
Billy Graham preached Christ, and he preached the cross of Christ. He may have been on 'the wrong side of history' from the perspective of those who think they know what that is, but he is now on the right side of eternity where I'm sure he has already heard the words that all believers long to hear: 'well done, good and faithful servant...enter into the joy of your Lord. (Matthew 25:21).