This symposium is a collaborative production by Syndicate and The Project on Lived Theology.
Grant Wacker begins America’s Pastor with a personal experience of Billy Graham. So I will begin this introduction the same way. On a crisp September night in 1996 I traveled with my Southern Baptist youth group to Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, to hear a local hero named Billy preach the gospel. I had heard that he was a “big deal,” but in my youthful evang-enthusiasm, I was more excited about the Christian music opener—was it DC Talk or Jars of Clay?—than the white-haired preacher that somehow drew a football stadium full of eager listeners. The evangelist had returned to his hometown at age seventy-seven for one final Crusade (not the kind that smashes the infidels with sword and mallet but the kind that woos them with charisma and irresistible grace). He preached to over three hundred thousand in just four days. I don’t remember much about that night except for the rain—and being pissed that I had to sit in the rain just to hear a long sermon from some old guy. But I also remember that as the Newsboys or Casting Crowns was closing up and this slim septuagenarian climbed the stage at the center of the football field, the rain—it seemed to my impressionable senses—suddenly ceased. The skies opened up, stars began to twinkle, and moonlight flooded the stadium. Graham’s legacy—the details completely unknown to me at the time—was cemented in my mind. God had stopped the storm and shone down the light on this preacher.
Grant Wacker’s book on (not exactly a biography of) Billy Graham begins our symposia series in lived theology. The task of lived theology is to give a disciplined attention to the depth and detail of lived experience, expanding theology to engage lived experience with the same care and precision granted to scholarly books and articles. The particular method and style of lived theology is based on the rationale that the varieties, forms, and spaces of God’s presence in the world promise rich and generative material for Christian thought. (Christ was born in Bethlehem and not Rome, “at the right time” [Rom 5:6] and not in the middle of the Renaissance.) Therefore, it is not doctrine, catechism, and confession alone that form Christian speech and practice but doctrine, catechism, and confession under the impressions of a particular place and time.
With this in mind, each symposium in the lived theology series will engage a book that interprets the lived experience of a person, institution, or movement through the lens of its theological convictions and commitments. I find it entirely appropriate, therefore, that our author begins and ends his book with personal accounts of Billy Graham, and some of our reviewers do as well. Lived theology assumes that not only is it important to understand the context of our theological subjects, but that we theologians are also embodied and contextually embedded figures. This necessitates a degree of theological reflexivity and attention to the forces that have shaped our own approaches to an issue, theme, or person—be they interviews with the aging evangelist in his mountain home, persistent feelings of betrayal from past political maneuvers, or the wide-eyed admiration of a teenager who thinks he’s seeing God’s anointed. This approach suits well Syndicate’s vision of transforming traditional book reviews into a generative, discursive space that fosters engagements between authors, commenters, and readers in contemporary theology and ethics.
And while Syndicate does not offer traditional book reviews, Grant Wacker does not offer a typical biography. The author is less concerned with chronicling the events of Graham’s life than plumbing the significance of that life, and, especially, “Figuring out how Graham’s story illumines America’s story” (31). In figuring this out, Wacker highlights the rise of a mainstream, and political, evangelicalism in the second half of the twentieth century and the relation of evangelicalism and American culture through the influence of arguably America’s most important religious figure.
According to Wacker, Graham both produced and was produced by the religious and cultural conditions of twentieth-century America. This “high priest of American civil religion” shaped the public consciousness—the way Americans viewed the world around them, interpreted those perceptions, and acted on them. Wacker’s argument throughout is that Graham attained the spiritual, cultural, social, and political influence he did because he possessed an uncanny ability to adopt wider cultural trends for his own purposes of evangelistic and moral reform. He spoke both “for and to the time,” simultaneously representing American’s points of view in public and directing them (316).
One might accuse Wacker of advancing a rosy picture of a man who avoided direct entanglements with the civil rights movement but was all-too-comfortable with partisan entanglements and friendly dips in the White House swimming pool with powerful presidents—and in fact several of our reviewers levy such critiques. Wacker is more interested in crafting a narrative of progress, attending to Graham’s development through the years toward a more chastened and mature public posture: building bridges, attending more intentionally to race, and championing social justice causes as conservatives became increasingly hardened cultural warriors.
Graham’s ability to move seamlessly between private and public, the great public crises of the mid-to-late century mirroring the personal turmoil of the heart, enabled him to preach a message with maximum appeal to a maximum audience. The sacrifice of theological depth for the sake of finding the basic common denominator allowed him to bring “mainstream evangelicalism” into public prominence in the latter half of the century, taking over the vacancy left by mainline Protestantism as religious custodian of American culture.
This story touches on themes of the rise of the evangelical mainstream—in contrast to its mainline Protestant and fundamentalist cousins—but more broadly, American politics, the popular media, commodity and celebrity culture, the civil rights movement, and the Cold War. Graham’s story engages all of these, and Wacker weaves these themes into a narrative interpretation of American religion viewed through the lens of this one encompassing life.
Each of our reviewers in this symposium offers a unique take on the influence of Graham, the intersection of Graham’s life and American culture, and Wacker’s interpretation of Graham’s impact. Vincent Bacote turns the conversation in a theological direction and asks the question: Should America’s most famous evangelist also be regarded as a public theologian? Bacote argues that Graham’s shaping of an American ethos in the way portrayed by Wacker suggests Graham as a “living expression of a public theology.” Graham was “an evangelist whose words not only interpreted the concerns and fears of many but also gave the public a theological lens for interpreting their context and personal lives.” Bacote pushes Wacker’s account even further into the future, speculating that Graham’s shifting thought toward progressive matters might signal a continuing change for the larger evangelical movement.
Randall Balmer, a scholar of Graham himself, offers a favorable reading of Wacker’s “appreciative” biography, focusing on the political relationships and activism of the evangelist. Rehearsing debates he has shared in person with Wacker, and employing archival research of his own, Balmer detects notes of duplicity and even betrayal in Graham’s partisan political entanglements that undermine “the best of the evangelical tradition,” but are gently smoothed over in Wacker’s account. He insinuates that while Wacker focuses on Graham’s effect in shaping the moderate evangelical mainstream that attended to progressive social issues, Graham’s political activity may bear some responsibility for the rise of the Religious Right.
Kathryn Lofton directs her aim at the figure of Graham himself. As “America’s Pastor,” she notes that Graham lacked the classic pastoral skill of listening; instead, he preached to, and (Wacker argues) for, the multitudes, though Lofton contends that he did this preaching standing on the podium of manufactured celebrity that had carefully positioned him as just the preacher that America thought it wanted. The confidence that ensued, and that Billy exuded, did in fact shape a distinctly American Century. It was a century imbued with power, exemplified best by the rise of political evangelicalism and Graham’s empire that ignited it—“a metonym for his country’s unceasing imperial confidence.”
Finally, Nathan Walton identifies the advantages to Wacker’s unique approach to biography, and contends that his overall sympathetic treatment of Graham “reminds us that even imperfections can become sites for fruitful discussion.” Walton then extends the text to touch on several issues of contemporary relevance, particularly the rising momentum of the Prosperity Gospel. Noting that the Prosperity Gospel and Graham’s evangelicalism drew from the same wellspring of American culture, he questions the ways in which appeals to individualism and consumerism might link both movements in critical and instructive ways.