Billy Graham promised that he would avoid politics and stick to saving souls during his final New York crusade.
The New York Times offered a sigh of relief, noting that the closest he came to danger in the first sermon was when he said: "There's a lot of discussion about the Ten Commandments being in a courtroom or in our country. We need to look at the Ten Commandments because they convict us of our sin."
The key was that Graham remained silent on the "divisive issues of the day" such as -- the newspaper offered this handy list -- "stem cell research, or abortion, or gay marriage, or even homosexuality."
Nevertheless, the world's most famous evangelist did emphasize the Christian belief that Jesus is the only path to salvation. He also talked about "sin" and "repentance," judgmental words that often attract ironic quotation marks.
"What causes lying, cheating, racial prejudice?" asked Graham, as he began the crusade last weekend in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. "The Bible says, 'For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.'
"These are the things that defile a man and they defile a country. They defile our world today. ... The Bible says that our problem is sin."
To which legions of "values voters" would say, "Amen."
That's the problem these days. It's hard to talk about "sins" that "defile" a country without people connecting the dots to Hollywood, courts, laws, schools and a host of other hot-button subjects.
It's true that Graham did little during this historic crusade to embrace the Bush White House or its allies on the Religious Right, noted Rice University sociologist William Martin, author of "A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story." Graham deflected questions about abortion, talked about poverty and noted that he remains a registered Democrat.
Graham didn't need to dwell on social issues, said Martin, who attended the rallies in Queens. For example, the evangelist stressed that sex is a blessed gift, as long as people remember to follow "the Word of God." That was all he needed to say.
"I am sure that he was not as explicit as he has been, especially on all the moral issues that he used to preach about so much," said Martin. "But you don't have to repeat yourself all the time. By now, I think most people know what Billy Graham believes."
One of America's most outspoken religion-news critics agreed. The 86-year-old Graham has become such a revered figure, noted writer Jeff Sharlet, that most Americans -- journalists included -- no longer recognize how his beliefs about culture have soaked into the images and themes in his preaching.
"There's this idea that Billy Graham is no longer conservative or has somehow transcended politics," said Sharlet, editor of TheRevealer.org, in a WNYC interview. "That's a really shallow understanding of what conservative theology is about and what Billy Graham's conservatism has always been about. He no longer needs to talk about politics because the alignment of evangelicalism and the kind of politics he's always supported has become so neat at this moment that he no longer needs to exhort people in the direction he feels is the right way."
The public and the press are paying especially close attention as Graham struggles through the final events of his 58-year career, which has included 417 crusades in 185 countries. The white-haired patriarch's voice sounded stronger at the end of the New York crusade than at the beginning and he is considering an invitation to return to London in the fall.
This would complete what Martin called a 14-month "victory lap" of the locations of his most famous crusades -- Los Angeles, New York City and London. The question is whether Graham has the strength to cross the Atlantic, due to his fight with Parkinson's, fluid buildup on the brain and prostate cancer. The health of his wife, Ruth Bell Graham, is just as fragile.
But Graham sounded like he wants to go back to London.
"That sermon the other night just didn't sound like the end," said Martin. "It was classic Billy, with that emphasis on the Second Coming that we have heard him use for so long. There's just something about hearing Billy Graham say, 'Jesus is coming again. Are you ready?' "