There was a whole theology behind the altar call. It found its origins in Charles Finney's (1792-1875) "anxious bench," where those who felt convicted to change the way they lived their lives would come forward and sit to make their intent known. Finney epitomizes the revivalist, emotionalist leaven that is sickening our nation. Indeed, many of his followers in the 19th century fell into full-blown apostasy, and Finney was quite heretical himself, denying original sin. He fed the masses the lie that they had enough goodness in themselves to desire God, His righteousness, and produce saving faith without the need for the Holy Spirit. The man practically reduced the cross of Christ to nothing but a wonderful moral example to follow, an encouragement rather than atonement. Finney himself admits to producing false converts by the droves:
I was often instrumental in bringing Christians under great conviction, and into a state of temporary repentance and faith . . . . [But] falling short of urging them up to a point, where they would become so acquainted with Christ as to abide in Him, they would of course soon relapse into their former state.
Finney believed one could lose their salvation, as the quote above indicates. He did not believe anything supernatural had to happen in order for a person to be converted. In other words, Finney just had to make an appeal to a sinner's will and encourage him enough to change and follow Christ, and given the right amount of applied pressure, people would.
This simple appeal to the will and playing on the emotions can never replace real conviction, and real salvific conviction only comes when the Holy Spirit moves through the proclamation of the gospel. Finney abandoned the true gospel, blunting the sharp point of the Sword with sentimentality and do it yourself theology, spreading this teaching and evangelistic methodology to men like Billy Graham.
In New England, there is the burnt over district, again thanks largely to Finney. His mass hysteria and whipping people into a frenzy has produced little to no lasting results, evoking a highly skeptical, calloused response within the hearts of the people, and I do not half blame them. Finney himself saw problems with his evangelism, which is in part why he gave it up to try his hand at pastoring, then developing his doctrine of sinless perfectionism, which says that one can permanently stop sinning even before you die and go to heaven. Yet, others follow in his footsteps and continue to try and propagate his insidious evangelistic methods. Billy Graham really is a prime example, and Graham himself, not unlike Finney, said that he would be happy if 10 percent or so of those who actually walked forward to "get saved" at his crusades actually did convert, actually were born again.
Graham's evangelistic style, which drew from Finney's, is what many conservative, fundamentalist, baptist churches since the 1960's used, and continue to use. The result has been catastrophic. The result has been, I believe, one of the main reasons why Barack Obama was re-elected Tuesday.
Consider this: In the last 10-15 years we have seen a groundswell of churches that have abandoned their fundamentalist baptistic upbringings for their own seeker-sensitive evangelistic methodology. In fact, churches like Perry Noble's in North Carolina essentially cater their church worship services to the unbeliever and seek to entertain them with stunts and secular pop music. Others have joined the emergent/ emerging church, which has really embraced liberal theology and championed the causes of things like social justice, gay rights, feminism, and with feminism even abortion. Their ideology of social justice often looks like having the government take care of the poor by taking from those who by their own hard work and investing have made what they would consider more money than they need. In other words, many younger people, coming out of the altar call, say a prayer for salvation type background, have gone on to embrace Socialism.
The root problem is that the altar call and the whole theology behind it is based on a false gospel, at least when you trace it back to Charles Finney. This isn't a Calvinism vs. Arminianism thing. All true Christians believe that God must work in the heart in order for one to be saved. All true Christians believe in the need to be born again, the need to be regenerated. But the meaning of being born again has been reduced, thanks to Finney, to walking an aisle, to coming to the altar clinging to your boldness to come forward, to your willpower, to your decision, and not pleading the blood of Jesus and clinging to the cross of Christ alone.
This is what the Protestant Reformation was fought over- the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone. What is so dangerous today is that most churches that practice altar calls would immediately agree that salvation is through Christ alone, by grace through faith in His sinless life and atoning death on their behalf alone. But this is not what they are preaching. Going to a Christian school my whole life, what we were told was to commit our lives to Christ, by our own willpower, denouncing our sins, and in exchange God would forgive us. Yes, we were told Christ died for us, but the exact meaning and nature of the death that he died was left unclear. It was explained in such a way that Christ's death didn't actually purchase the salvation of His people, but was only a hypothetical atonement, that it was powerless to save unless man by his free will ability chose to turn from his or her sins and start living for Him. Only then (and after saying a magic prayer that Jesus would come into your heart) could someone be saved. Which begs this question- how can one know when they have committed their lives to Christ? Do you, like Finney believed, have to become sinless? Or can you only sin once a week? Maybe once a day? Where is the line of genuine commitment?
I believe this ambiguity in the teaching of churches today is why many who attended these churches left those churches in order to attend seeker sensitive and/or liberal churches, or to simply run away from the faith altogether. Altar calls play on the emotions, they tell you you have goodness within you to give up sin and choose Christ when Scripture clearly says you do not (Romans 3), and thus they miss the heart of the gospel altogether- That Jesus Christ saves sinners from their love of sin.
This altar call business has been going on for over fifty years, and now the second generation is producing the ugly fruit of their parents and grandparents churches and faulty gospel. That fruit is moral decay in this nation, that fruit is supporting abortion, gay marriage, pacifism, and socialism in the name of Christ. Only a true recovery and proclamation of the supernatural nature of salvation, of the need to be inwardly transformed by the power of God in order to be saved, can turn this nation around.
P.S., I know Billy Graham supported Mitt Romney. He did so by removing Mormonism as a cult from his website (maybe he did not personally do this, but his organization did). Billy Graham in recent years on Larry King has said that one does not necessarily have to know Jesus Christ in order to be saved. In other words, Graham has drifted toward liberalism not unlike Charles Finney. That has multiplied exponentially in today's young people.