As they lurched through a blinding snowstorm over Tokyo, the Rev. Billy Graham watched as the nervous pilot focused single-mindedly on his cockpit instruments.
When it came time to land that plane, the pilot and the air-traffic controllers followed a dogmatic set of rules. They were intolerant of errors, and Graham was thankful for that.
"I did not want these men to be broad-minded," he said, in a sermon that is currently circulating on the Internet. "I knew that our lives depended on it."
There are times, said the evangelist, when tolerance is bad. For centuries, Christians have proclaimed that the journey from earth to heaven is like any other difficult journey. It is crucial to have accurate directions and a trustworthy pilot, when souls are at stake. Thus, Jesus said: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
Jesus is intolerant, said Graham, when it comes to matters of salvation.
Try defending that stance on CNN. By the end of 1999, pundits and politicos were starting to suggest that evangelism equals hate speech.
The anonymous person who launched this text into cyberspace, with the title "Jesus was not tolerant," has a good memory and a nose for news. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's records indicate that this sermon was delivered in 1956, before being published as an evangelistic tract in 1957, 1984 and 1996.
The bottom line: If the world's most famous evangelist preached the same sermon today, it would make headlines and draw flack on the evening news. It would be hard to imagine anyone making a more inflammatory statement than the one attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John: "He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him."
Questions about heaven, hell and salvation have been lurking between the lines of many news stories. Politicians want to bless new ties binding the government and "faith-based charities," so long as workers don't proselytize. GOP frontrunner George W. Bush said Jesus saved his soul and that other people may not understand what that means. Evangelical military chaplains have said they are being told to preach safe, non-judgmental sermons - or else.
While visiting India, Pope John Paul II said "there can be no true evangelization without the explicit proclamation of Jesus as Lord." The heir to Graham's pulpit - his son Franklin - angered many non-evangelicals when he urged non-Christians at the Columbine High School memorial service to turn to Jesus, before it was too late. The list goes on and on.
Leaders of the 15.8 million-member Southern Baptist Convention have repeatedly refused to cease their efforts to evangelize all non-Christians - including Jews, Muslims and Hindus. The interfaith Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago cried "foul" and said an upcoming Southern Baptist evangelistic push "could contribute to a climate conducive to hate crimes" in the city.
Asked about President Clinton's view of this controversy, press secretary Joe Lockhart said the Southern Baptist in the White House is convinced that one of the new century's major challenges will be "dealing with intolerance and coming to grips with the long-held resentments between religions. So I think he's been very clear in his opposition to whatever organizations, including the Southern Baptists, that perpetuate ancient religious hatred."
Southern Baptist leaders immediately cried "foul," accused Lockhart of being hateful and called for his resignation. The Rev. Morris Chapman, president of the SBC's executive committee, said: "It is the right of every person to agree or disagree with the internal doctrines of Christianity, but we believe for any governmental office to endeavor to pressure Christians to change their doctrines or practices is improper and reprehensible."
This conflict will not fade away.
There is no question that the First Amendment protects the free speech of non-Christians and others who are offended by intolerant, narrow-minded Christians who proclaim that Jesus is the only savior for all of humankind. Right now, the question appears to be whether Christian evangelists will retain their right to preach that message in the public square.