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Billy Graham

By April 10, 2015 4 Comments

I’m down at Notre Dame this weekend for a discussion of Duke Divinity School Professor Grant Wacker’s recent book on Billy Graham, America’s Pastor (Harvard University Press, 2014). The actual confab happens this morning, so I can’t write up the proceedings; I’ll have to make do with some impressions from my own reading. Since he’s a long-time and treasured friend, I’m going to use Grant’s first name and not his possibly menacing surname. If you know Grant, you’ll know he’s of absolutely the opposite character than said surname; and if you’ve read any of his previous stuff, you know that his prose is as laden with grace and humor as is the man. Just by the way, Grant is one of best comedians in the American religious history trade. Of his native Pentecostalism: “It’s just Amway with a foreign-language requirement.” Of his native soil: “Where I come from is so far back in the woods that even the Episcopalians handle snakes.”

It’s fair to say that America’s Pastor airs every significant encomium, criticism, and summary judgment made of Billy Graham over his 60-year career, and that it comes down on the positive side of the balance sheet at every legitimate opportunity. The book measures Graham by his intentions, context, and public record, and finds him on balance to have been a good and decent man, preaching the Gospel with clarity and integrity to the vast mass of ordinary American people—and to millions more around the world. Grant gives close analysis of Graham’s more controversial aspects, especially his record on race, his political associations, and one notorious episode of anti-Semitic speech. He summarizes Graham’s fairly rudimentary theology and hermeneutics, which frustrated the academics above him, and underscores his undying irenics, which offended Fundamentalists to his right. He ascribes Graham’s long-sustained and numerically unparalleled success to his, Graham’s, “uncanny ability to adopt trends in the wider culture and then use them for his evangelistic and moral reform purposes.” [28] The first question arises at just this point: when does ‘adaptability’ come at the cost of the integrity, the sharp edge, of the evangelistic and reform calling? One virtue of Grant’s book is to lay out more than enough detail of the record to allow the reader to draw her own conclusions.

Then there’s ‘evangelism’ itself. Graham insisted again and again that he was first and last an evangelist, someone bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to those who did not yet know him. But by the most obvious measure that was not true. The vast majority of people who ‘made a decision for Christ’ at one of Graham’s rallies were not strangers to the gospel—not even to the church. Their ‘decision’ was usually a reaffirmation, a public stepping forward to show whose side they were on in the ultimate contest of life. Or a coming back to a once-known but dropped commitment, a re-dedication to moral seriousness after a time of drift or folly. Most of all, it was a decision, Grant discovers, a deliberate choice for a disciplined, dedicated pattern of life. Rick Warren is truly one of Graham’s prime heirs.

The book’s title gives Graham a somewhat different role than evangelist, however. ‘Pastors’ comfort and guide, work the hard spots of a life run into trouble or sorrow. To say that Graham did that for ‘America’ is surely not incorrect, but does open up the next range of questions. In the first place, significant stretches of Americans do not share his faith or prescriptions, so it was to and for a particular but also a presumably normative or ideal America that Graham spoke comfort and courage. Which America? Very simply, Grant states, it was “Heartland America,” the good middle-class folk from the upper-South countryside whence Graham hailed and the solid Midwestern citizens like those around Wheaton, Illinois, where he went to college and began his career. Graham in his many crusades and connections had little contact with laboring people or the working poor. The destitute he called to mind for charitable contributions. People of color were always, often dramatically, underrepresented at his rallies, not to mention in the leadership ranks of his organization. Good solid white middle-class Americans were Graham’s America, and he called them to realize their better natures. One gets the impression this might just as well be said: to the better parts of their already pretty good natures that would be secured and stabilized by a decision for Jesus.

That decision was deeply personal, Graham always insisted, as did every evangelical voice that came before him. Nothing in the self or society will get any better without a new heart. Well, sure enough for the self. But for society? A new heart might be a necessary precondition, but is it sufficient? Not in itself, Graham would reply; one must concern oneself with racism and oppression and injustice. But those big abstractions lie several steps away from the new heart, and what those steps were and how they should be taken Graham signed off to others. Remember, he was just an evangelist. The very concentration on and perennial return to the renewed heart, however, bore its own implication: social problems would go away were everyone to have a new heart. So let’s evangelize more to make it so.

In this connection, Grant explains, Graham was showing not just his evangelical but his Southern roots. It was the custom of that country to resolutely maintain a firm boundary between the ‘personal’ and the ‘political.’ That’s how Graham could speak kindly to JFK and push in private for Nixon in 1960. For Nixon in 1968. For Mr. Watergate Nixon in 1972, when (this theme sounded frequently in Graham’s rhetoric) the future of the nation, the very course of world history, stood in the balance. When the full measure of Watergate was exposed, Graham felt himself exposed, and deservedly so. But more, Grant shows, over the hypocrisy of a man he trusted than over the constitutional crisis that Nixon spelled. More for his own innocence in being lured toward power than for the import of the policies he had been supporting.

The Billy Graham that Grant really likes is the one who emerged next, from the mid-70s to the end of his active career thirty years later. Here is the world traveler par excellence, the encourager of the new global Christianity, the man who pondered moral issues before pronouncing on them, the pastor who envisioned gracious possibilities for people far from his own convictions. In the long run, this might indeed be Graham’s lasting legacy: as an international connecter who enabled people of every tongue and tribe and nation to more fully realize the promise of the good news of the gospel in their own terms and for their own purposes. It would be a fittingly divine irony if, in part by Graham’s efforts, evangelicals around the world finally come to save America evangelicalism from having been too neatly domesticated in his own time, and turned to a bitter culture war by his more obnoxious successors.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Amen to your comments. I finished reading the book a few weeks ago.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thanks, Jim. I realize the conference and book were more retrospectives on Billy Graham, but I’m wondering if son, Franklin, ever came up in the conversation? Franklin seems so intent on differentiating himself from his father’s conciliatory and gentle spirit. Any thoughts or insights?

    • Jim says:

      Grant conveyed the opinion held by many in a position to know that Franklin takes after his mother, Ruth Bell Graham, quite more than Billy– more conservative in substance and argumentative in disposition. At the same time he noted a significant difference b/t the actual work of Samaritan’s Purse and the political statements of FG. This reminds me of a similar assessment given long ago by a hard-core secularist analyst of Focus on the Family and James Dobson: actual counseling work vended being far more supple and empathetic than political profile of the leader.

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