As Franklin Graham continues to build an audience for his narrow-minded,exclusive theology, history suggests that his famous father, found himself later in life in a more mellow place than his rigid son presently occupies.

While there are things in Billy Graham’s theology with which I might not entirely align myself, as long ago as 1997, Graham Sr. was obviously in a different place than his now notorious son.

Reporting on a 1997 interview between Billy Graham and Robert Schuller, the “Christian News Network” reported yesterday that

Graham stated that Muslims and those of other religions may be saved without hearing of Christ or reading the Scriptures in realizing that they “need something,” although not pinpointing what it is.

“I think that everybody that loves Christ or knows Christ—whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re members of the Body of Christ,” Billy Graham said. “And that’s what God is doing today. He’s calling people out of the world for His name.”

“Whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world, or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they’ve been called by God,” Graham continued. “They may not even know the name of Jesus, but they know in their heart that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have.”

“And I think that they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in Heaven,” he declared.

Billy Graham does not demand “theological clarity,” knowledge of the revealed text of Scripture, belief in the Trinity, or affirmation of the historic Creeds. He does not ask how many Scriptures verses you have memorized, or even if you have said “the sinner’s prayer” and trotted down the aisle to respond to an “altar call.”

The older Graham seems content to trust the human heart. He was willing to honour peoples’ awareness that they “need something,” and to trust that such people are called by God, even if they do not understand God in precisely Christian terms, or express their formulation of God in precisely the dogmatic formulations with which Mr. Graham’s evangelicalism might be comfortable.

Billy Graham’s problem is that he ventured out of his protected tight little evangelical world and met a few real people who did not fit entirely into the theology his evangelical community provided. So, Billy Graham had to admit,

“I’ve met people in various parts of the world in tribal situations, that they have never seen a Bible or heard about a Bible, and never heard of Jesus, but they’ve believed in their hearts that there was a God, and they’ve tried to live a life that was quite apart from the surrounding community in which they lived.”

In 2005,when he was asked by Larry King if non-Christians go to heaven Billy Graham answered,

“That’s in God’s hands. I can’t be the judge.”

King continued,

“How do you feel when you see a lot of these strong Christian leaders go on television and say, ‘You are condemned. You will live in Hell if you do not accept Jesus Christ,’ and they are forceful and judgmental?”

“Well, they have a right to say that, and they are true to a certain extent, but I don’t — that’s not my calling,” Graham replied. “My calling is to preach the love of God and the forgiveness of God and the fact that He does forgive us. … [Y]ou can get off on all kinds of different side trends, and in my earlier ministry, I did the same, but as I got older, I guess I became more mellow and more forgiving and more loving.”

Is the difference in attitude between father and son simply a reflection of the growing wisdom that inevitably accumulates with age and maturity? Or, is there more going on here?

Does the apparent difference between senior and junior Graham reflect a shift in US evangelicalism? As the world has become increasingly complex and diverse, have US evangelicals determined to hunker down, resist complexity, dismiss nuance, and seek safety in a hardened determination that their way is the only right way and those who disagree with them are lost?

Let’s hope that the gentler evangelicalism of Billy Graham ultimately shapes the tone of discourse in the religious conversation of the United States. In the midst of the complex and challenging realities the world community faces at this time, we will be much better served by the more “mellow” approach of the aging Graham than the harsh dismissive evangelicalism of his off-spring.