Protestant Reformation

Who First Led the American Evangelical Romance With Rome?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Until the late 1940s, the Protestant return to Rome made greatest progress among open liberals. Then came Billy Graham.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Part four of a series. Read part three.

Until the late 1940s, the Protestant return to Rome made its greatest progress among open liberals. But in the mid-20th century an even more dangerous shift began. Men who had been considered conservative Evangelicals - even fundamentalists - began to abandon the Reformation and openly embrace Rome. The most prominent of these was Billy Graham.

In previous articles in this series, we have briefly examined the anti-Reformation legacy of men and churches who would be universally viewed as liberal. The influences of the Oxford Movement in England gave rise to the Catholicization of the Anglican church around the world during the past 150 years. This, along with other ecumenical developments in Europe and America during the subsequent 100 years, led to the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948. The WCC was the major vehicle for the development of what are today cordial relations between the Vatican and mainline churches worldwide.

The WCC, through its Faith and Order Commission which includes representatives of the Vatican, has been hugely successful in deconstructing the Reformation in nominally Protestant churches. It has facilitated growing (and un-Biblical) ecumenical agreement on such matters as the meaning of baptism and the eucharist, the purpose of the visible church, and inclusivistic methods of translating and interpreting the Bible. The annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a worldwide effort begun by the Vatican in 1908, became a joint Vatican/mainline-church effort with the founding of the WCC forty years later.

A Far More Dangerous Development

But from the late 1940s onward, the movement toward the un-doing of the Reformation took a far more disturbing and dangerous turn. Men and churches who had been considered conservative and Evangelical - in some cases even fundamentalist - began to abandon the Reformation and compromise with Rome.

Easily the most visible of these men was Billy Graham. When Graham first came to prominence through his 1949 Los Angeles crusade, he named Roman Catholicism (along with Islam) as one of the greatest threats to Biblical Christianity and the preaching of the Gospel. But by the late 1950s Graham had become the friend of leading Roman Catholic clerics. He was including Roman Catholics as counselors of the people who came forward in his crusades who identified themselves as Catholics. He was referring the thousands of Catholics who came forward in his meetings back to the Roman Catholic church for followup.

From the 1970s onward Billy Graham become increasingly open in his embrace of Roman Catholicism as a supposedly legitimate branch of Christianity, and of cardinals and popes as legitimate voices and exemplars of Christian faith. He visited popes at the Vatican, and invited Catholic officials (including cardinals and bishops) to appear on the platform during his crusades. Graham's romance with Rome reached what was perhaps its high point when he accepted an invitation to preach alongside Pope John Paul II in South Carolina during his 1987 visit to the United States. However, Graham later had to back out because of an unexpected invitation to go to Communist China.

Some Evangelicals who have been disturbed by Billy Graham's position on Catholicism have held the hope that his son and successor Franklin is of a different mind. But recent events have shown that he is not. Like his father during the early years of his ministry, Franklin Graham has spoken out strongly against Islam. But he has maintained a cooperative, non-proselytizing posture toward the Roman Catholic church. Franklin Graham continues to cultivate Catholic participation in what are no longer called evangelistic crusades - in deference to mainline churchmen, liberal media types, and even Catholics who are offended by the term - but are now called "festivals".

In our next article in this series, we'll examine Billy and Franklin Graham's warm relations with Rome in more detail. Some Evangelicals have held out the hope that Franklin Graham holds a different attitude toward Rome and the Reformation. But as we shall see in a subsequent article, "the apple has not fallen far from the tree."

Next: The man most responsible for Evangelicalism's movement toward Rome

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