Symposium Introduction

The Project ColorThis 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.



A Different Kind of Public Theologian?

MY SENIOR YEAR OF college included the opportunity to attend a Billy Graham Crusade, held at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina, an easy drive from the Citadel in Charleston. I can still see Graham’s striking figure as he walked onto the stage. I also remember that Johnny Cash was among the special guests on the program (full disclosure: I failed to appreciate the legendary Cash on that day, perhaps due to my stronger affinity for hard rock and heavy metal at the time). Graham’s message that day was based on Daniel 5:27 (“You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting”), and while I remember little that was remarkable about the message itself, the response to the invitation at the end was stunning. It is one thing to see the masses make their way to the front of the stage on television, but altogether different to see people all around you and elsewhere in the stadium descending the stairs and walking the field toward Graham. It was truly amazing.

Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation was a pleasure to read and merits responses of many kinds; for me, I have found myself thinking of Graham in a way unanticipated. Should this evangelist also be regarded as a kind of public theologian? Labels like “public theology” and “theology of public life” are often connected to those of a scholarly bent who consider questions around the possibilities of theological discourse in a pluralistic public square or theological interpretations of concepts like the nation state or a just society. In Graham we are presented with a figure who was clearly not an academic in temperament or presentation but someone with a distinct and clear (some would say basic) theology who had tremendous influence on the United States and beyond. If he indeed was someone who not only reflected but helped shape the American ethos and did this as a religious figure, perhaps there is a sense in which he can be said to be a kind of living expression of a public theology.

Elsewhere I have stated that the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper was a living public theology, but he was someone who was both an academic as well as a politician; Graham was neither and did not see this as a problem. Nonetheless, as Wacker argues, Graham spoke both for and to the times, and while doing so he was more than a voice beckoning the masses to come to Jesus. He 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.

Was Graham’s theological expression the deepest, most penetrating or insightful? Few would make such a suggestion. But here is where it can be easy to miss the significant fact that a basic theological approach to world events and the big questions of life is sufficient for more people than I might care to admit. Whether the questions are about political ideologies or cultural currents, simple (though not necessarily simplistic) concepts are welcomed by Christians who may never read a word written by those of us who give considerable attention and energy to deeper understandings and refined articulations of the theological interface with public life. Graham was a figure with significant public trust; this includes the fact that many wanted to know from him how they should think about and engage the world. He may have never thought himself more than an evangelist at heart, but his words and his influence on a magazine like Christianity Today are truly dimensions of public theology.

Graham’s public influence and career also raise questions about the trajectory of evangelicalism on matters of public concern. In particular I ask, “How much of a shift can we detect over the years?” Wacker outlines Graham’s development on matters of race and civil rights, and we see him move from someone who failed to see problems with segregation to one who recognized the need for racial change in both hearts and the structures of society, though the latter was also dependent on personal transformation. As I reflected on the manner in which Graham was a symbol of, and barometer for, the evangelical movement, I wondered about the prospects for evangelicalism’s continual transformation on the complicated issues connected to race and the pursuit of a more just society. Without question, there have been advances in the evangelical world on matters of race, including a greater willingness to address race as more than a matter of personal prejudice and legal segregation. Still, there remains considerable work to be done. Not only is there need for more evangelicals to reckon with the stubborn, lingering structural effects on society because of the myriad forms of racism, but perhaps at the deepest level there is a need to identify and address the way that the modern concept of race (that renders a fictive notion of “whiteness” as normative) resembles a mutating virus that needs radical gene therapy. There are many well-intentioned evangelical Christians who would not agree with this latter statement, but this is not surprising because it is as hard to see as one’s own genetic code: without the right tools and training we can easily fail to notice what is present but beneath the surface. Can the majority of evangelicals learn to see and address this deep problem and move past individualistic understandings and strategies for the problem of race? Here I regard the change in Graham over the years as a harbinger of change for the larger movement. Call me an optimist, but this is not a mere pipe dream since my hope is in God ultimately and history reveals surprising changes.

My last reflection, on national loyalty, stems from an observation about Graham’s interaction with Catholicism, particularly regarding the concern about John F. Kennedy’s presidency in light of his religious identity. Wacker observes that Graham knew that “if the President were a true Catholic he would place his loyalty to the pope above his loyalty to the Constitution.” As I read this quote I found myself thinking about the proper loyalties of Bible-believing Protestants. The degree to which patriotism has been connected to Christian identity, or perhaps assumed as proper to evangelical Christian beliefs, has been the subject of much conversation. It is certainly more complicated than slogans chanted by advocates of a Christian America or the polar opposite. The question of ultimate loyalties is a bit more like a moving target because the life of nations is not static; we only need look at Europe to see countries that have had an official state church and become quite different after secularization. Similar to judicial interpretations of the Constitution, some Christians might choose to consider the question of loyalties through a historical view of the foundational ideas while others look at the idea of a nation as a living, developing sociopolitical reality. In either case, it seems to me that Christian priorities in a nation like the United States are a perpetual challenge because we are not in a country established on the basis of a divine visitation; God did not send an emissary to the framers of the Constitution with a declaration that this was an exceptional nation. A further complication is that Christian identity is not defined by national boundaries. God’s people are spread around the globe and significant consideration ought to be given to how we assess our loyalties to those brothers and sisters in other nations. Should Christians have care for and loyalty to their nations? In my view it is proper for Christians to seek the best for their homes and winsomely participate in the structures of society, all the while being wary of the temptation to make national fidelity a cloaked form of idolatry. Returning to Graham, I wonder how he thought of national loyalty in relationship to fidelity to Christ, perhaps especially given what he learned over the years in his (largely pastoral) relationship to US presidents. Perhaps a future domain of exploration would be the extent to which Graham’s opinions about national loyalty played a role in the larger evangelical consciousness. Meanwhile, the task remains for Christian leaders in the church and academy to continually refine the way we speak of loyalty to God, God’s people, and the lands they call home.

When I began reading America’s Pastor I had never thought of Billy Graham as a public theologian, but I now find myself with a broader perspective on / vista to meaningful expressions of Christian engagement with public life. I say this with gratitude to Dr. Wacker for his important and nicely written contribution.

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    Grant Wacker


    Response to Vincent Bacote

    I have never met Vincent Bacote but after reading his review it is clear that I need to! He offers more good ideas in fifteen hundred words than most people could do (or at least have done) in reviews twice that long. As it happens, I agree with every point he made. That does not bode well for an invigorating clash of ideas, but it does portend an outcome that might prove even more productive: nuanced collaborative thinking about key issues raised by Graham’s story.

    Bacote mounts three main points, as one might expect from a professor in a college with a Trinitarian Statement of Faith. I will address each shortly, but first I want to comment on three points he raises in his lovely autobiographical prologue. (Lest you wonder, I too teach in a historically Trinitarian institution.)

    A few words into the prologue and we are hooked. First up, Bacote references the “striking figure” Graham presented. Graham himself never talked about his looks, but he and his handlers were acutely aware of the market value of a trim physique, blue eyes, blond hair, and a voice that one journalist aptly called “an instrument of vast range and power.” Second, Bacote tosses out a line about Johnny Cash being on stage that night. Again, Graham never put it quite this way, but he knew the market value of celebrities’ support. Then too Cash’s scrapes with the law and addictions made clear that Graham’s circle of friends was not limited to saints. And finally, Bacote observes that the sermon that night was nothing to brag about, but the masses “descending the stairs and walking the field toward Graham” at the end of the sermon was “truly amazing.” Bacote is not the first to note the apparent paradox of a soporific sermon sparking an electrifying response.

    I move now to Bacote’s main points. The first is that Graham articulated a public theology whether he or his followers realized it or not. We normally think of public theology as an academic enterprise. But Bacote rightly discerns that Graham offered a “theological lens” for viewing daily as well as national life. Several issues merit special notice here. One is that part of Graham’s power arose from the simple fact that he had built an enormous reservoir of public trust. People took him seriously because he earned their respect, not least because of the unchallenged probity of his marital and financial affairs.

    Then too we often think of a public theologian as someone speaking directly to issues of political import and making public commentary and even specific proposals on those political issues. For example, a figure like Reinhold Niebuhr. Graham as public theologian is interesting because he, alternatively, made the personal public by connecting global events to personal piety. This seems to be a unique redefining of public theologian as well.

    Finally, Graham redefined the notion of a public intellectual. He never claimed to be one himself, and his sermons proved him right. Yet he articulated insights about the good life and the good society that evoked a sense that came across as simple, not simplistic. If “ideas are not the exclusive property of members of the intellectual community,” as historian Jon Roberts rightly puts it, Graham’s career makes clear that the academy’s usual assumptions about who qualifies as an intellectual are not necessarily the ones that the wider culture shared.

    Bacote’s second main point is to reflect on the relation between Graham’s view of race and the larger evangelical movement’s view. Bacote agrees that Graham developed. And that he did, from defense of segregation in 1949 to defense of complete integration including miscegenation by 1994. (I say more about this development in my response to Balmer.) He also grew to understand that racism was not limited to personal attitudes but resided in invisible social structures as well. To be sure, Graham never believed that reforming social structures was enough, for enduring change started on the inside. People would inevitably subvert any law that kept them from doing what they really wanted to do. Here we might note Graham’s favorite example: the fate of Prohibition. Yet by 1982 he would say that he had undergone three conversions in his life: to Christ, to racial justice, and to the necessity of disarmament. He was, he said, a man “still in process.”

    Graham’s views about racial justice had limitations. He never understood that colorblindness left the un-level playing field un-level. He never grasped the role of whiteness in American society, which left the normative power of whiteness intact. And he only dimly saw that people with power rarely willingly shared it with people denied power. Even so, Bacote poignantly suggests, despite these limitations Graham might—just might—have been a “harbinger of change” in the wider evangelical movement. Graham’s version of Christianity called for transformation, not improvement. The message was radical, even if Christians’ execution of it had proved tragically inadequate.

    Bacote’s third main point is to ask how Graham conceived the relation of Christian identity to the nation state. He focuses on an incident I never noticed in this context: Graham’s initial deep fear about whether John Kennedy would be able to subordinate his allegiance to the Vatican to his allegiance to the Constitution. (Aside: in 1960 nearly all evangelicals shared Graham’s fear, including a fifteen-year-old Grant Wacker.) To the best of my knowledge, all Graham historians have seen his dread of Kennedy in the White House as dread of the political power of the Catholic Church in general and of the Vatican in particular.

    But Bacote spins it differently. Did it ever occur to Graham that loyalty to the church should trump loyalty to the state? I know no evidence that Graham accorded Catholics that right, and little evidence that he accorded Protestants that right either. This absence is strange. Graham was not a biblical scholar, but he possessed a prodigious knowledge of the biblical text. He clearly knew by heart countless passages that lifted piety over patriotism. And even in the 1950s and 1960s, when Graham’s civil religion reached its apogee, he flayed Americans for their greed, materialism, racism, moral flabbiness, and blindness to poverty in their midst.  And he supported movements to place “In God We Trust” on coins, “One Nation Under God” in the Pledge, and the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. All of these moves suggested that the nation belonged to God, not the other way around.

    In short, it seems that Graham’s knowledge of the prophetic parts of the Bible, his awareness of America’s sins, and even his assumption that government should be clothed in the garments of Christian symbolism, did not translate into a prophetic sense that the church should stand above the state. Be separated from the state, for sure, but above the state, hardly.

    Graham’s dimness about the church’s obligation to judge the state in general, and the American state in particular, is baffling. In many ways, we could say (a bit tongue in cheek) that Graham was the least parochial evangelist that ever lived. At Wheaton College, he majored in anthropology, not theology. There, he learned the absurdity of racial hierarchies and the commonality of human nature. He said that he chose anthropology because it would better equip him for missionary service, presumably overseas. After graduating, he quickly turned his eyes to the international horizon, eventually preaching in nearly one hundred countries on six continents. Eight of his ten largest crusades took place outside the United States. He organized and funded multiple landmark international conferences, most notably, Lausanne in 1973.

    The mystery deepens when we think about Graham’s commitment to a truly global gospel. He did not just preach overseas but also took other nations’ interests to heart. In the 1980s and 1990s he smacked the United States for trying to police the rest of the world, urged America’s leaders to sit down and confer with the Soviet Union’s leaders, defended his trips to China and North Korea on the ground that it never hurts to talk, repeatedly called for mutual nuclear disarmament, and even said that he could consider a socialist/Marxist economy if it included God. But why this global consciousness, so powerfully formed not only by Christian ethics but also by a sense that the gospel was universal, did not translate into a willingness to place the church above the America state eludes me. Bacote wisely does not try to come up with a nifty solution. That would rob Graham’s story of its paradoxical and very human texture.

    Let me conclude by thanking Bacote for the elegance of his prose and the judiciousness of his analysis. He is not only a master stylist but also a provocative teacher who knows how to make his readers think about the subtler questions embedded in the story.

Randall Balmer


Billy Graham and the Judgment of History

IN OCTOBER 1992, I interviewed Billy Graham, the final piece for a PBS documentary that would eventually be called Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham. Securing the interview had been, to say the least, laborious. Graham himself was willing and eager, but his handlers—those I came to call “the suits in Minneapolis” (at that time the headquarters for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association)—deployed an impressive arsenal of delays, dodges, and diversions in an attempt to derail the meeting. But I persisted and finally received a call instructing me to meet the evangelist in Vienna on October 28, between 10:00 and noon.

Graham himself, however, couldn’t have been more gracious, and in fact he and his aide had stopped by our hotel the night before to see if we wanted to have dinner together. Although he made sure to visit the hotel’s beauty shop for makeup before heading to the hotel room where we had set up for filming, once he settled in he was relaxed and expansive.

I asked him about civil rights and various public figures he had known throughout his career. Everyone, of course, was “his friend” or his “good friend”—John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Charles Templeton, Lyndon Johnson—and, predictably, he reserved special praise for Richard Nixon, “one of the great men” he had known.

My final question had to do with his legacy. How, I asked, did he want to be remembered by history?

Graham’s response was vintage Graham, a three-part (trinitarian, I suppose) reply. His initial instinct was to adopt the Carolina “aw-shucks” persona: “I’ve never thought about that,” and, “I’m not sure anyone will remember me.” Second, he nodded toward the camera and allowed as how, well, perhaps people might remember him if they saw television productions like the one we were filming. Then what struck me was the rapidity with which he pivoted to his answer. The response itself was fairly predictable and, I have little doubt, sincere: He wanted to be remembered as someone who had been faithful in preaching the gospel. But what was utterly clear to me was that, despite his initial protestations, he had thought about it and had done so at some length.

This is not a criticism. Not at all. Musing about one’s mortality, or immortality, is a very human trait, and Graham’s patent honesty, albeit an honesty reckoned in his demeanor more than his words, made me like him more. But the question that prompted Graham’s response is worth raising again—in light of Graham’s age and in the wake of Grant Wacker’s wonderful book, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. How will Graham be remembered by history?

The evangelical world of my childhood could be divided into two camps: those who liked Billy Graham and those who didn’t. (This formulation borrows shamelessly from George Marsden’s handy, if offhanded, observation that an evangelical, as opposed to a fundamentalist, is anyone who likes Billy Graham.) My family was firmly in the Graham camp, and we regarded his detractors—Carl McIntire, the Bob Joneses, Bob Shuler, Jack Wyrtzen—as marginal cranks. (Some recent historians, by the way, have accorded these “fighting fundies” an importance far, far greater than their actual influence.)

With Graham, what was not to like? My family didn’t have television until 1963, but once we switched it on, there he was in black and white—preaching the gospel to the masses and then, during the altar call, turning insouciantly toward the camera (below him, stage left) to address the audience at home, informing us that we, too, could “make a decision for Christ.” We’d already done so, of course, all of us. But how could we not be impressed with how smooth this man was? Add to that, as my preacher father assured us, his theology was sound and he was uncompromising in his faith. Like the young Bill Clinton, I too sent some of my allowance money to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

A second importance of Billy Graham was his very public friendships with world leaders and especially with a succession of American presidents. For evangelicals hunkered into our subculture in the middle decades of the twentieth century, Graham provided us with vicarious satisfaction. Maybe we were not quite so marginal as we knew we really were if the president of the United States spent time with Billy Graham, one of our own!

And, finally, when the televangelists scandals hit in the late 1980s—Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Oral Roberts, Robert Tilton, Marvin Gorman, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell—Graham was not implicated. In fact, any talk of legacy must include the fact that over the course of at least six decades in the public eye, no one has ever raised a credible charge of impropriety against Billy Graham.

The burden of this very long prologue is to say that I approach the question of Graham’s place in history with an enormous reservoir of good will toward him. I think he is a remarkable man, a person of integrity and rare talent. To take one tiny example, anyone who has looked into a television camera knows how difficult it is to deliver one’s lines, even if they are prepared and memorized; to do so extemporaneously—and flawlessly—is no mean achievement. When I’m asked by reporters who will be the next Billy Graham (a favorite question), my answer is unequivocal: no one. Graham came to prominence at a unique moment in history, I explain, when new media were emerging. He and his “team” exploited those media brilliantly to create the twentieth century’s first, and arguably most influential, religious celebrity. No, I conclude, there will never be another Billy Graham.

Wacker’s book on Graham (the author shies from the term biography) clearly falls into the appreciative category. The book is thoroughly researched and gracefully written, and to read it is to stand at times alongside Wacker in astonishment and admiration. One of my favorite chapters is the one on letters sent to the evangelist; Wacker weaves these missives into a collage that provides eloquent tribute to the preacher who has no peer. Wacker’s genius is that he functions as a kind of maestro, cueing the materials at just the right moment, allowing the story to tell itself. That’s not to say that the book is uncritical; Wacker is not afraid to render judgments when appropriate, though he does so gently. For the most part, however, he stays out of the way, and I suspect, both from reading the book and on the basis of my long friendship with the author, that Wacker and I share similar predilections toward Graham.

If I were to offer a “Yes, but” on Graham’s legacy, it would center around his political machinations. And here, in the interests of transparency, I should probably confess that I have never quite forgiven Graham for endorsing Nixon over George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election, even though Graham himself apologized to McGovern for some of his comments during the heat of that campaign.

My qualms, however, reach deeper than that. While conducting research for God in the White House at the Kennedy presidential library, I came across a letter from Graham to Kennedy, the Democratic nominee for president, dated August 10, 1960. The letter, as you would expect, was cordial. Graham noted that rumors were flying that he, Graham, intended to raise the so-called religious issue (Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism) during the general election campaign. Graham acknowledged that he would probably vote for Nixon, his friend, but he assured Kennedy that he would not in any way raise the religious issue.

Eight days later, on August 18, 1960, Graham convened a gathering of American Protestant ministers, including Norman Vincent Peale, in Montreux, Switzerland, to discuss how they could thwart Kennedy’s election in November. The upshot of that meeting was a behind-closed-doors gathering of Protestant ministers at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington just after Labor Day, the traditional start of the general election campaign. Once again, the agenda was how to sound the alarm about the prospect of sending a Roman Catholic to the White House; the obvious beneficiary of such calculations, of course, was Nixon. Later in the same campaign, Graham visited Henry Luce at the Time & Life Building and, according to Graham’s autobiography, said, “I want to help Nixon without blatantly endorsing him.” Graham drafted an article praising Nixon that stopped just short of a full endorsement. Luce was prepared to run it in Life magazine but pulled it at the last minute.

I suppose you can contend (and Wacker presents the case) that Graham never technically broke his promise to Kennedy. But that argument is Jesuitical, not evangelical. Everyone has lapses, of course, and Graham was likely blinded by his loyalty to Nixon—an astigmatism amply demonstrated in the ensuing years, especially as the Watergate scandal unfolded.

If that were the only instance of Graham’s political duplicity, I’d be willing to drop the matter. Unfortunately, similar skullduggery attended other politicians and other political campaigns. In the 1976 campaign, shortly after Nixon’s resignation and not long after the first of Graham’s serial renunciations of politics, the evangelist wrote to Gerald Ford, the Republican nominee, and offered him a spot on the platform at one of Graham’s crusades. Graham noted that such an appearance had worked well for Nixon and that it would similarly provide a political boost for Ford in his campaign against the Democratic nominee (and avowed evangelical), Jimmy Carter.

Long before the 1980 campaign, Graham convened a dozen fellow preachers in Dallas for “a special time of prayer” and talk about the upcoming presidential campaign. Carter’s liaison for religious affairs had only recently returned from a visit to the evangelist’s home in Montreat, North Carolina, with a report that Graham “supports the President wholeheartedly.” But that support was apparently less than robust. The Dallas guest list, formulated by Graham himself, included his brother-in-law, Clayton Bell; Rex Humbard and James Robison, both of them televangelists; and a roster of well-known Southern Baptists: Charles Stanley, Jimmy Draper, and Adrian Rogers, the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who had recently visited Carter at the White House and declared it “one of the highlights of my life.” The ministers, gathered at Graham’s behest, occupied nearly an entire floor of the hotel. “It really was Billy’s meeting,” Robison recalled. “What he wanted us to do was pray together for a couple of days and to understand something very significant had to happen.” The unmistakable subtext of the gathering was the need to rally behind someone who could mount a challenge to Carter. The upshot of the meeting was an overture to Reagan encouraging him to challenge Carter for the presidency.

Later in that campaign, on September 12, 1980 (coincidentally, twenty years to the day after Kennedy’s famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association addressing the “religious issue”), Graham called Paul Laxalt, US senator from Nevada and chair of Ronald Reagan’s election campaign. Laxalt’s memorandum following the call indicated that Graham offered to help “short of public endorsement.” Eleven days following that phone call, Graham sent a letter to Robert L. Maddox, Carter’s religious liaison. “I wanted to discuss the religious situation and the political campaign,” Graham wrote. “As you know, with the Lord’s help I am staying out of it.”

In 1960, eight days had elapsed between Graham’s letter of assurance to Kennedy and the Montreux gathering. During the 1980 campaign, eleven days separated Graham’s phone call offering help to the Republican nominee and his pledge of neutrality to a staff member of the Democratic nominee.

Wacker and I have corresponded previously about these matters, so I have some idea how he will respond. Some of his responses are already embedded in the footnotes of America’s Pastor.

I guess I’m less interested in arguing the specific points of each betrayal—yes, I’ll call it that—than in the overall shape and direction of Graham’s political activism. And here again I readily acknowledge that my own political proclivities inform my critique. At the risk of overstatement, the real tragedy of Graham’s machinations is that they played a role in changing the course of history—not in a narrow sense, but in a larger sense. I have little doubt that Nixon would have been reelected in 1972 without Graham’s help; to suggest otherwise is ludicrous. But if you step back to take in the larger picture, you watch the most influential evangelist of the twentieth century lending his endorsement to the man who has little competition for the dubious distinction as the most mendacious politician in American history. Let me say that again: the most mendacious politician in American history. I suppose it’s possible to admire Graham’s loyalty while simultaneously questioning his judgment, but a man who so assiduously stoked his own celebrity bears greater responsibility. And Graham supported Nixon not only in 1972 but throughout Nixon’s entire career, despite the unspeakable things Nixon did throughout that career. Similarly in 1976 and 1980. In both cases, Graham, though less overt, supported politicians and, therefore, policies that I would argue represent a betrayal (that word again) of the best of the evangelical tradition, a tradition that historically sought to avoid the scourge of war and to address the concerns of the poor, women and minorities, those on the margins, those Jesus called “the least of these.”

The collateral damage of Graham’s political intrigues was that evangelicalism came to be identified with a political movement largely at odds with the New Testament teachings of Jesus and with the noble tradition of nineteenth-century evangelicalism, a movement that I believe will be viewed someday as a tragic aberration in the history of evangelicalism. Graham was not solely responsible, of course, but he played a role—a not insignificant role.

And that certainly will weigh in the ledger in any accounting of Billy Graham’s standing in history.

  • Avatar

    Grant Wacker


    Response to Randall Balmer

    Full disclosure: Randall Balmer and I have been academic as well as personal friends for as long as I can remember. This point is more than a mere factoid about veterans in the American religious history profession. It carries the larger significance that we inhabit guilds as well as classrooms. In those guilds coworkers become colleagues. They help make the entire enterprise not only more enjoyable but also more productive by establishing a base of trust. Sometimes we agree and sometimes we disagree but either way the goal is collaborative: to win a deeper and broader understanding of the past. So my first comment is to thank Randall for reading my book so carefully and, even more, for being my friend for so many decades.

    Balmer begins with a lilting prologue about his own relationship with Graham. Many of his observations help us understand how Graham’s personal gifts alone helped him vault to regional and then national and then international prominence by the end of the 1950s. I would love to amplify aspects of his prologue, but in order to keep my response to a reasonable length, I will limit myself to Balmer’s central question. How will Graham be remembered by history?

    Balmer answers his question in four ways. I heartily agree with the first two, partly agree with the third, and heartily disagree with the fourth. So hang on for the ride!

    Balmer’s first answer is that Graham will be remembered for bringing evangelical faith into countless homes in an appealing way. Here I might insert the story of Henry Pitney Van Dusen, president of Union Theological Seminary in the 1950s, who chastised his faculty colleague Reinhold Niebuhr for Niebuhr’s relentless criticism of Graham. Van Dusen noted that many scholars in mainline schools, such as himself, would not be in theological studies at all if another Billy—Billy Sunday—had not long ago called them to faith in Christ. Graham furthered Sunday’s work.

    Balmer’s second answer is that Graham made evangelical faith credible in the larger culture. Graham’s schmoozing with kings and presidents helped bring evangelicals out of the shadows and into the bright sun of public respect. In the half-joking words of Southern historian Samuel S. Hill, he taught them “when to wear a necktie.” And he did it without once compromising his personal morals. For all of these reasons, as well as Graham’s rare talent behind a camera, Balmer is certain that there will never be another Billy Graham.

    That being said, Balmer’s “enormous reservoir of good will” toward Graham has its limits, which leads us to Balmer’s third answer. On multiple occasions Graham fell into “political duplicity” and “betrayal” and even “skullduggery,” Balmer charges. Balmer makes his case with three incidents in which Graham said one thing but did another. In all of them Balmer claims that he broke a promise. The incidents involved Graham’s broken promise to John F. Kennedy that he would not drag the “Catholic issue” into the 1960 presidential election, his broken promise to the press that he would avoid partisan politics in the 1976 Gerald Ford election, and his broken promise to Jimmy Carter that he would stay out of the 1980 Ronald Reagan election.

    By my reading of the evidence, Balmer is right about the 1960 election, wrong about the 1976 election,1

    and right about the 1980 election. But the larger point is that in two presidential elections, 1960 and 1980, Graham promised that he would not do something that he clearly ended up doing regardless. Here Balmer is right on track. I could offer additional instances of broken promises that Balmer does not mention.

    Added up, do these incidents make Graham duplicitous? Maybe. But I think we must proceed cautiously. As historians, our first obligation is to see the world as our subjects saw it. Our second obligation is to see the world as we see it. Which is to say, historians should follow the golden rule: treat people of the past as we hope they would treat us. This does not mean that we should refrain from judgment, but it does mean that we should refrain from judgment until the subjects have had their say.

    So what did Graham himself think he was doing? He did not address this question directly, but here is my best guess. He drew an exceedingly fine distinction between what he said in public with his clerical collar on, so to speak, and what he said in private with his golfing shirt on. Take the 1960 election. I do not know that Graham ever spoke publically and officially, as the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, about the danger of a Catholic in the White House. But he most definitely worked behind the scenes to derail Kennedy’s election, and some of it involved raising the specter of a president who might find himself under the thumb of the pope. In 1980 the same pattern prevailed. Publically he stayed out of the election as he promised, but privately he threw himself into it.

    Balmer calls Graham’s distinction between public official statements and private unofficial statements “Jesuitical,” and I agree, it was. And I sort of suspect that if we could present these issues to the mature Graham today, in this stark form, he too would agree, or at least he would squirm with embarrassment. But in 1960 he was caught up with fears about Catholic political power and admiration for Nixon’s knowledge of world affairs, and blinded by regional and class differences that made Nixon feel familiar and Kennedy alien. Beyond all that, Graham was preternaturally sensitive to the direction the political winds were blowing. He did not seek political power himself but liked to be near those that did.

    Without question, then, Graham failed himself and his own highest standards of ethical behavior. But that is my judgment, looking back from 2016, and not his self-assessment in 1960. Was it a chink in the marble statue? A disfiguring fracture running up the side? Or a disabling fissure running down the middle? Remembering all the other things Graham did to bring millions to faith around the world, but also remembering the value he himself placed on integrity, I guess I would have to go for fracture, something between a chink and a fissure.

    Balmer’s fourth answer to how history will remember Graham seems to be the most important one to Balmer and, by implication, it should be the most important one to the rest of us too. Balmer laid out the contours of his argument succinctly. The short of it is that Graham betrayed evangelicalism’s great heritage of progressive social reform by supporting the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and the conservative social policies they heralded.

    To my mind, this question boils down to two sub-questions. First, is Graham responsible for the rise of the Christian Right? The answer is partly yes, but mostly no. Clearly he helped create the public space that it came to inhabit. Yet Graham himself stayed out of it, refusing to endorse its aggressive partisanship and narrowness of vision. Beyond that, he emboldened the “Moral Minority” of evangelical progressives that fought the Christian Right’s efforts to speak for the whole. Should he be charged with the sins of his successors? I think not. Almost anyone could fall into the maw of condemnation if the threads of their own lives were ripped out and rewoven by their successors in a different time and place.

    The second sub-question asks if Graham legitimated regressive or progressive strains in the evangelical heritage. My judgment is that on the whole he displayed a steady though sometimes uneven march from a regressive to a progressive position on most of the key social issues of the day (excluding feminism). A Southerner, he moved from support for segregation in 1949 to qualms about racism by 1950 to resistance to racism by 1953 to sharp rebuke of racism as sin by 1956. To be sure, he backed off in the middle 1960s, in the face of black power and disorder in the streets. But the 1970s saw the older more progressive Graham reemerge. Writing for the Baptist World Alliance in 1999, near the end of his career, Graham would say: “Racism may be the most serious and devastating social problem facing our world today. . . . [It] is a deadly poison . . . resulting always in a bitter harvest of hatred, strife and injustice.”2

    Graham’s views of partisanship and of war and peace changed, too. A lifelong registered Democrat with moderately Republican instincts, he claimed to model nonpartisanship both in the pulpit and in public life. Until Nixon’s downfall in 1974, he rarely succeeded. But Nixon’s debacle changed Graham. Though he fell off the wagon from time to time, his track record on partisanship steadily improved. Graham’s evolution on war and peace was more striking. Originally the fiercest of hawks about communism, and generally supportive of the Vietnam War, he grew to champion mutual disarmament with the Soviet Union. Graham’s visit to a disarmament conference in Moscow in 1982, in the face of stiff opposition from his friends and the US government, may have marked the moral high ground of his career.

    By the 1980s, in short, Graham’s repeated denunciations of racism, poverty, hunger, militarism, and American exceptionalism placed him not far behind the most progressive evangelicals of his generation. I would admit that the first two-thirds of Graham’s ministry offered a mixed picture. But the final third should win our admiration.

    1. Balmer says: “In the 1976 campaign, shortly after Nixon’s resignation and not long after the first of Graham’s serial renunciations of politics, the evangelist wrote to Gerald Ford, the Republican nominee, and offered him a spot on the platform at one of Graham’s crusades. Graham noted that such an appearance had worked well for Nixon and that it would similarly provide a political boost for Ford in his campaign against the Democratic nominee (and avowed evangelical), Jimmy Carter.” By my reading, Graham’s letter to Ford on September 10, 1976, states exactly the opposite. I quote it in full.

      Billy Graham
      Montreat N.C. 28757

      September 10, 1976

      Dear Mr. President,

       I appreciated your call last Saturday and visiting with you briefly over the phone.

       The dates of our Michigan meetings at the Pontiac Stadium are Friday, October 15 through Sunday, October 24.

       The Committee that invited me to Michigan has already had a discussion about what would happen if either you or Governor Carter came to the Crusade. They have left it up to me to make the decision. Of course you and Betty are cordially invited. Because it would be so close to the election, it would be impossible to ask you to speak. I think the backlash would not only hurt our ministry but would hurt you as people would think you were “using” me. However, if you came and sat in whatever area the Secret Service would decide is best, and were recognized from the platform, I am sure you would get a rousing reception. Because the stadium is so huge I seriously doubt if we will ever more than half fill it.

       Of course, since I am maintaining a public neutral position–as I always try to do in politics–I will also extend a similar invitation to Governor Carter. When Mr. Nixon was campaigning in ’68 he sat out in the audience in our Pittsburg Crusade. I extended the same invitation to the then Vice President Humphrey, who was unable to attend the Crusade.

      In the meantime, I am praying that God’s will shall be done on November 2, and that the man of God’s choice will be elected.

      Balmer’s interpretation may be drawn from documents I have not seen. Either way, in this letter, at least, Graham does show an awareness of the danger of overt partisanship. Yet that awareness was not consistent, as his behavior in the 1980 election proved. In the 2000 election he once again flew exceedingly close to the flame. The original letter is housed in the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College, Collection 74, Gerald Ford Presidential Correspondence file. Thanks to the BGCA for its help in providing this document.

    2. Billy Graham, “Statement against Racism,” in Baptists against Racism: United in Christ for Racial Reconciliation, in Denton Lotz, ed. (Atlanta: Baptist World Alliance, 1999), 181, quoted in Brian M. Howell, “Anthropology and the Making of Billy Graham: Evangelicalism and Anthropology in the 20th-Century United States,” American Anthropologist 117 (March 2015) 66. I ran into this “Statement” after America’s Pastor was published, so obviously Balmer did not see it in the book. But America’s Pastor contains other data that support my argument, such as Graham’s call for total integration of all parts of American life, including marriage, in 1994. Although the racial realities of American society made miscegenation difficult, Graham allowed, there was no biblical basis for opposing it.



The Sign of the Armageddon

I WANT TO BEGIN with a relatively neutral description of a person: twentieth-century American evangelist Billy Graham was not a listener. The less neutral description would be to say that Billy was not a good listener, but let’s take a minute before we hustle to such condemnatory judgment. Using only the data in Grant Wacker’s biography of Billy Graham, however, we can simply observe that Billy was not someone who listened: who needed to listen, or wanted to listen, as a practice of his professional life. Never once in a four hundred page biography do we hear of a moment when Billy listened to someone. We hear instead about how well, and how much, he spoke at them.

For those who loved Billy, this might seem an undue criticism. For his acolytes Billy Graham was meaningful because they felt he connected to them. In Wacker’s words, this meant that Graham “knew how to speak both for and to ordinary Americans with consummate skill” (15). Wacker doesn’t pretend that Graham spoke with ordinary Americans. Wacker assumes only that Graham must have spoken to them and for them because the audiences kept filling. By the time he retired from the road in 2005, Graham had preached to nearly 215 million people in person in ninety-nine countries and perhaps to another two billion through live closed-circuit telecasts (21). Such a tally suggests that he spoke to a lot of people. Did he speak for them? In 1973 on an airport tarmac in Seoul, South Korea, Graham preached to more than 1,100,000 people, delivering the Good News “to what may have been at that time the largest gathering of humans for a religious purpose in history” (21). In a 1978 Ladies Home Journal survey, under the category “achievement in religion,” the preacher outstripped everyone except God (22). Do figures of such appeal necessarily speak for those who come to hear them? And can we ever know, one way or another, if they do?

There have been already several excellent reviews of Wacker’s biography (the most historically acute is this assessment by Molly Worthen in the Nation). Not one review of American’s Pastor has failed to describe how disciplined and fair-minded the biographer was in his craft, nor has anyone questioned the epochal omnipresence of Billy himself. I want to endorse unequivocally these reviews. They praise well Wacker’s accomplishment, especially his effort to determine Graham’s multivalent leadership during the many decades he dominated the American pulpit, writ large. Because I respect Wacker enormously as a historian, and because I know him well as a teacher, I don’t want to use this opportunity to comment on his biography of Graham as a particular work of scholarship. Instead, I want to consider the man he profiles, Billy Graham, and think about how it is that Graham became such an epic figure in the landscape. Given the facts so scrupulously supplied by Wacker, the answer is hardly apparent.

“A great pastor he was not,” Wacker observes, reflecting on Graham’s early years at a Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) tabernacle (8). Later, in a chapter where Wacker devotes more attention to what individuals wrote in letters to Graham, he reiterates this appraisal: “The pastoral office played the least important part of his story” (249). Why, then, does Wacker, echoing the perspective of so many adherents and political leaders, see Billy as American’s Pastor? Wacker never quite makes this clear, though I do think there are several reasons for this title subsumed in his biographical emphases. In what follows, I hope to expose these more subliminal reasons for a title that is so at odds with its subject. In the many manuscript pages between these two grim assessments of Graham’s nonexistent commitment to the intimate labor of ministerial life, Wacker works to organize the nature of Graham’s life into thematic chapters that expose how a relatively uninteresting middle-class boy with limited theological range became the “pope of lower Protestantism.” For any student of evangelicalism, there are many familiar tropes to Billy’s biography: the early discovery of his talents, the rapid ascendancy following signal crusades in major urban areas, the strategic use of his thin Protestant message as counter-programming to the various cultural threats of his times, and the savvy supervision by his business arm, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, to manage the transmedia permeation of his person into the world. The sawdust trail is strewn with the specters of young men seeking renown through the spectacular circulation of their physicality as a message for your redemption. These men did not focus on communities, but on the circulation of their message. No one would call Charles Finney or Billy Sunday a pastor. Like Graham, these men were more mediums for a message than mentors for the struggling people who listened.

The physicality of the medium cannot be underestimated. Wacker doesn’t shy away from admitting how much loving Billy Graham was, for his fans, about watching him, seeing him, and wanting to see more of him. Rarely have I read a biography as transfixed by the appearance of its subject as America’s Pastor, a compulsion perhaps justifiable as a reflection of a broader documentary interest in Billy’s attractiveness. As Wacker says, “for a better part of sixty years, virtually every newspaper article about Graham commented on his appearance” (81). Wacker never explores what makes Billy attractive, he just takes his handsomeness as axiomatic; after all, Billy is white, tall, with no blemishes and no disabilities. And this is just the premise:

If good looks and smart attire provided the base, Graham’s manifest easiness in his own skin materialized on televisions and even behind stadium pulpits as old-fashioned Southern charm. On talk shows in particular he came across as dashingly photogenic. He proved a lively guest, blessed with a quick smile, ready quip, and easy-going banter. . . . He often said that in all settings he sought in one way or another to present the gospel. It was a remarkable (and instinctive) balancing act: a serious message lightly delivered. (301)

Graham complemented this stunningly beige public personality with a character that similarly lacked chicanery. “Graham represented a man of uncompromised sincerity and integrity,” Wacker argues, pointing to the fact that Graham had apparently committed no adultery, mismanaged no monies, and had no major beef with contemporaneous preachers (27). For being a baseline inoffensive guy who achieved significant acclaim, one biographer called Graham “America’s most complicated innocent,” and another historian observed he was “the least colorful and most powerful preacher in American” (28).

The color in Billy’s story is that he seems to indicate an apogee for middlebrow evangelical celebrity. Wacker is especially interested in the incredible fame Graham achieved, a fame based largely on a relentless circulation of his particular embodiment of the preacher. Graham didn’t forge new idiom or distil new ideas. He embodied and expressed a relentlessly familiar story, one that in many ways became secondary to his sheer presence. In his attempt to explain who Graham was, Wacker reaches at one point for Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paul II, analogies which are incommensurate (as Worthern explains) to who Graham was and how he would endure. More appropriate are figures like Colonel Sanders and Andy Griffith, both of whom Wacker also invokes. What Billy, Col. Sanders, and Andy have in common, Wacker explains, is that they represented an acceptable form of Southerner, the one who doesn’t remind you of segregation as much as they invoke seemingly innocuous white pleasures: of fried chicken buckets and aw-shucks morality, of unlocked jail cells and cooking as the transom of affection. Taking Wacker’s observation to a slightly darker place, Marshall Frady suggested in his 2006 biography that Graham sought “to transform and pasteurize the whole world . . . into a Sunday afternoon in Charlotte” (112). What strikes any non-evangelical reader is the way these analogies pull us pretty quickly from the obvious achievements in religion to other franchised locations in the pop scene. Wacker never considers Graham alongside other middlebrow religious sensations of his time. We never hear about Graham as he might compare to Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, Jack Kornfield, or Louis Farrakhan. Instead we hear of Graham relative to a pope, a civil rights martyr, an American businessman, and a sitcom star. This is because Graham is bigger than these laboring low-level stars of strictly religious acclaim. He is someone who isn’t just a preacher. He is a celebrity.

Wacker knows that Graham emerges in a moment of nascent celebrity culture. Yet he doesn’t mention that this word, celebrity, appeared initially as an epithet that encapsulated annoyance toward mass culture. In the mid-twentieth century, Daniel Boostin wryly described the celebrity as a “manufactured” person. The rapidity with which a person can become “a household word overnight” was what defined celebrity, and distinguished a celebrity from other figures on the landscape.1 Boorstin’s greatest frustration is that believers mistake this rush of interest—this clamoring for the name, the face, the voice, the personage—with meaningful connection. It is one thing to be vaguely interested in a celebrity; it is another thing altogether to attach to them any kind of value. And, for Boorstin, celebrities have no value other than their circulation, i.e., “the test of celebrity is nothing more than well-knownness.”2

For Boorstin, we make a fatal category error when we attribute substance to someone who is known for being known. We think that this renown is enough to become itself a talent worthy celebrating with further attention. But this is a mere projection of their celebrity presence. For Boorstin, there would have been no question about it: Graham doesn’t speak for you. You’ve just made him be the one that you want; you’ve made him the one that you want to see because you see him everywhere.

Some may be wondering: what was it that this person, this medium, said? In general Billy’s sermons were about forty minutes apiece. We hear from Wacker that those sermons were given in a strong voice, with fast delivery, using simple words and abundant physical bombast. We also hear that they were filled with bad jokes, inaccurate facts, and “preposterous” versions of scriptural texts supplied without much theological rumination (26). With these limits to Billy’s sermonic content, why did we listen to him? Why do we choose to listen to men who listen so poorly to us?

Wacker suggests that Billy’s persuasive power is his confidence, and that maybe what everyone can’t stop enjoying is the pleasure of borrowing from his seemingly unceasing well of certitude. Wacker calls Graham “humble” several times, but this wouldn’t be a word anyone would use who watched Billy preach. I think humble is a word that describes well Wacker’s relationship to his subject and to religious actors generally, but humble Graham is not. Billy is ferociously certain about a view of the world that is encompassing of everyone in it. During his heyday as a circulating preacher, Graham articulated confidently a series of simple theological ideas: that you only need one text to understand all things; that this text is very clear; that Jesus was sinless and he paid for our sins; that if you repented you’d have a better life; and that life everlasting would be better than this life. And, most of all, Graham repeatedly expressed the idea that “Christians could be confident that Christ would return at the end of human history.” It is a bundle of news offered as the Good News.

Many people—professional nerds and everyday readers—could reasonably contest the clarity of these points. Those outside the language games of Christianity could get caught up in what the death of one person has to do with the redemption of others. Those who first encounter the Bible (even if it is just Billy’s preferred Living Bible) could disagree strongly with characterizing it as a simple document. Whatever our disagreements might be about the content of Graham’s message, what we historians must see is that it is not a humble message. It was a message that was certain about what matters, what does not, and how you can be good with God. Love for Graham was, in part, love of, and desire for, his confidence that the good could be so simple. Billy may have performed a spiritual humility, but he swaggered in this message. He acted as if what he knew was what it is to know anything. This was what he sold: confidence that whatever the Cold War hijinks triggered our anxieties, and whatever the individual sin tugged at our heart it would all work out, eventually.

Throughout his life, Graham would read the newspaper “for particulars about developments that might serve as indicators of where humans stood in the unfolding of history” (46). This is a person who thought the world did not have much to teach him; the world simply revealed what the Bible predicted. At times Wacker refers to Graham as curious, but this word is never quite discernable in Billy’s life story. Billy seems to have been singularly focused on repeating the same message, over and over, without wondering what makes people believe otherwise, or live otherwise, than he does. Before interviews with journalists, “he did not assume a false familiarity or seek to break the ice with chitchat” (108). Interaction suggests interest in something outside yourself, outside your purpose, when Graham’s monomaniacal purpose was to spread only the Good News.

This was a resolutely redacted idea of human survival, one resistant to any notion of human diversity. For much of his career, Billy had a daily syndicated newspaper column, titled “My Answer,” in which he addressed a wide array of human problems. These questions and answers bore no dates. The reason? “Graham based his answers on the Bible, and the Bible was timeless and universal.” In a later compendium of these columns, Billy wrote, “The Word of our God stands forever as an unchanging source of answers to all of life’s problems” (40). Human life, however distinct from Graham’s life or experience, was not to be treated as if difference existed. The answers to all questions were the same answers: the answers taken from a text that he said gave all answers. Perhaps this is why it doesn’t matter to Graham, or to his readers, that he didn’t exactly write these columns. (In the early 1970s, he told a reporter that a man “helped” him with it.) The truth is the truth no matter the vessel. Of course, this isn’t quite true: his vessel was particular: white, without blemish, and without disability.

This doesn’t mean that Graham wasn’t interested to represent diversity—he’d share a dais with a Catholic or a Muslim if the moment called for it. But he didn’t pretend to be interested in people. And for this less than engaged relationship to others, many people said “he was the most charismatic man they ever met” (98). Wacker’s explanation for the relationship Billy had with his public was that they simply desired to be near his simple authoritative simplicity. “Proximity to him became proximity to normative authority,” Wacker concludes. “He represented the right way to do things” (99). Perhaps another way to put this is that they sought to connect to his significant distance from blemishes, dynamism, or general human weirdness. Unlike the sawdust trail characters that preceded him, Graham offered an evangelicalism that had no excesses and no miracles, no personal sin or disobedience. He was the Chevy Malibu of public figures: ubiquitous, yet nondescript.

Reading about Graham is, more than anything, a profile in white power and its easy maneuvering through regular difficulties (or, as Wacker says, Graham seemed to represent not only Establishment Evangelicalism but also Establishment America) (17). At 29, Graham became the youngest college president in the nation. At the time, he held only bachelor’s degrees from Florida Bible Institute and from Wheaton College. Contemporary social psychologists would observe that this kind of endorsement of a young man with few relevant credentials is unsurprising. There is a special kind of relationship—called sponsorship—in which communities advocate for the mentee.3 Credentials and skills, as well as experience, are manipulated or circumvented to favor workers with certain social characteristics. The primary example of this is when men with less experience in a particular job are hired as supervisors for it.4 Or when a young man without any advanced degrees becomes a college president.

Wacker is clear that Graham is hungry for such power, and isn’t bothered by the shortcuts he took or advantages he had on the way to getting it. He didn’t want to be enviously looking at power; he wanted to be power. After it became widely known that he engaged in a grotesquely anti-Semitic dialogue with Richard Nixon, Graham’s explanation exposed the social hunger that drove so much of his power-interested hustle. “If it wasn’t on tape, I would not have believed it. . . . I guess I was trying to please. I felt so badly about myself” (195). This quotation is the only one in Wacker’s biography that suggests fissures in Billy’s confidence. The man who seemed so easy in interviews, so quick to a silly quip, and so redundantly verbose to every question, suggests here that a lot of it—maybe all of it—was a performance obsessed with pleasing those for whom he performed. “Hundreds if not thousands of publically disseminated photographs showed presidents standing, sitting, talking, dining, or golfing with the preacher,” Wacker writes. “He praised [the presidents] frequently and lavishly” (219). Fraternalism is rarely the result of some transparent recognition of mutuality. It is usually a desperate hold onto threatened social superiority.

At the end of his life, Billy confesses no darkness or doubt. He seems to have zero recollection of any bad days. He continues a lifelong resistance to contemplativeness. At the end of his life, Billy continues to enjoy the restful refusal of reflexivity that defined his celebrity. In his biography of Billy Graham, Marshall Frady remarked that when Graham spoke, America heard itself speaking to itself (220). As the American Century has now, definitively, drawn to a close, we may look back and see Billy as representing something less joyous than the apex of evangelical expressiveness. We might instead see his career, his cheery circulation, as a mark of the beast. As Billy searches the newspaper looking for indicators, the loudest one of all may not be the bird flu or unrest in Jerusalem. It may in fact be his unconscious empire, the one that was a metonym for his country’s unceasing imperial confidence. I do not know my Bible like Billy knew his, but I think I remember that the man of sin may not appear to us as an obviously slimy Devil. He will, we know, arrive instead with a careening smile, an easy way with people, and a message to lull us from the true collective labors of the good. “The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words . . . it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation” (Rev 13:5–8). What if Billy was precisely not America’s pastor, but instead the sign of the Armageddon we deserve for believing in him, for listening to him when he never valued what it might be to listen to us, to listen to those who had so much to share with him about our persistent, intractable, and unresolved sorrows? Since I am not a theologian, I cannot wager well into this discernment. As a historian, I can only observe responsibly that it is not clear that Billy Graham propelled the world toward something better. He lived, he was known, and he moved many people. This we know for sure, and we will remember, always.

  1. Daniel J. Boortsin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Vintage, 1992), 63.

  2. Ibid., 59.

  3. Herminia Ibarra, Nancy M. Carter, and Christine Silva, “Why Men Still Get More Promotions than Women,” Harvard Business Review (September 2010).

  4. Christine L. Williams, “The Glass Escalator: Hidden Advantages for Men in the ‘Female’ Professions,” Social Problems 39:3 (August 1992) 253–67.

  • Avatar

    Grant Wacker


    Response to Kathryn Lofton

    Lofton’s response reminds me of the summer storms that marked my youth in the Ozarks: skies blazed with lightning, hills rumbled with thunder, and crops bent under the rain. If we imagine lightning as brilliance, thunder as profundity, and rain as erudition, then we have a fine metonym for this incisively written essay.

    But there is more. Many times, when the storm was all over, I was not sure what had happened. So here too I am not sure that I grasp all the nuances of Lofton’s arguments. I know that she is mercifully generous with me but sharply critical of Graham. Her arguments seem to boil down to three main ones. First, that Graham was not a good listener; second, that he proved a celebrity rather than America’s pastor; and third, that he spun the kind of banalities mass culture craved. If I got them right, I find these arguments arresting and winsomely presented but ultimately unpersuasive.

    First let it be said that Graham ranked as a great man—I stand by my comparison with MLK and JP2—but like all great people, including MLK and JP2, he revealed great mistakes and great character flaws. So he is not a good subject for hagiography. Still, the mistakes and flaws I see and tried to acknowledge in the book are not the ones Lofton details.

    Let’s begin with the listening issue. Actually, he was a very good listener. At the simplest level, a mass of anecdotal evidence consistently renders a picture of a man who was a master of small talk, chatting up (as we say in the South) pretty much anyone that crossed his path. Graham’s legendary ability to remember people’s names and the names of their children and grandchildren suggests that the chatter readily blended into genuine conversation. None of this would be historically significant, except that journalists registered those interactions and word got out that Graham was an ordinary guy. He vacationed with presidents, hobnobbed with billionaires, and schmoozed with movie stars, but at the end of the day he ate Cheerios pretty much like everyone else. Americans have never figured out if they want their country to be a democracy or an aristocracy. With Graham, they got it both ways at once.

    Graham listened in other ways too. There is little evidence of him reading serious theology and none of him reading imaginative literature, but by all accounts he was a voracious reader of newspapers and news magazines. Though he was mainly looking for sermon gems, he absorbed a great many details about national and global affairs. Inaccuracies abounded, but the storehouse bulged. He started reading local papers six months before opening a meeting in a city, with the same purpose. Hundreds of pages of transcripts of press conferences, consisting of reporters asking questions and Graham responding more or less aptly, leave little doubt that he was listening to them too. Each of the (likely) millions of letters that poured into Graham’s office received a response, boilerplate but tailored to the issues they posed.

    Lofton is right in a larger sense, however. I find no evidence of Graham sitting down with someone of a measurably different political or cultural or religious outlook and asking them serious questions in order to understand—truly understand—why they saw the world as they did. Yet not engaging others in deep conversation had the side benefit of shielding Graham from an inclination to wade into the ring of apologetics as many evangelicals loved to do. That habit partly reflected his disposition but also his sense that arguments would not serve his purposes. He was an evangelist called to invite people to the church, not a polemicist called to demolish other options.

    But Lofton is wrong in the largest sense. He did listen to the trends of the age with preternatural acuteness. Sometimes he put his ear to the ground in a quite deliberate way. Decisions about the proper time to mount nationally syndicated radio and television programs serve as a case in point. Yet more often than not he simply intuited what was going on. “Billy did his best work on the back stroke,” one of his advisors quipped. This is the core argument of the book. Self-consciously or unselfconsciously, Graham spent sixty years watching for the timely moments when the curtain would open. Like a skilled actor, he knew exactly when to stride onto the stage. (He was less skilled knowing when to make an exit, as practices and institutions do not die easily.) I do not mean to suggest that appropriating the trends of the age is the only way to explain the success of a country boy with a modest education and few social connections, but it does make sense of many data.

    These considerations bring us to Lofton’ second argument: that Graham was a celebrity, a person famous for being famous. Lofton rightly notes that Graham was not a pastor if we define that term as a person committed to the “intimate labor of ministerial life.” His one short term as the pastor of a tiny church in Illinois proved a dismal failure. By his own admission, too. Clearly the mundane demands of baptizing, marrying, and burying (hatching, matching, and dispatching, as the saying goes) bored him. And he was not very good at them either. But did his ineptness as a local pastor mean that he was inept as the nation’s pastor too?

    My argument that Graham served as the nation’s pastor—none too subtly projected in the title—merits defense. That claim has attracted the most consistent criticism in the reviews of the book, including criticism from people personally committed to Graham as a messenger of hope in a darkened world.

    Two questions arise here. The first pertains to scope: can we reasonably call Graham the nation’s pastor? Can I name any recurving of the nation’s history attributable to Graham, asked Joel Carpenter, a Graham expert and friend? I confess that the first time around I too considered the title too grandiose and suggested to my editor that we ought to scale it down to something like Evangelicalism’s Pastor. But on further reflection I pumped it back up. The reasons are multiple, but for economy I will rest content with one: the testimony of the Gallup polls. Between 1955 and 2015, Graham appeared on the register of “Most Admired Man in the World” 59 times, nearly twice as often as any other person. Polls can deceive for all sorts of reasons, but when such data are shuffled into pages and pages of awards and commendations and statistical records it seemed clear to me that the label worked. And not least because Graham made it all look so natural.

    The second question pertains to duty: can we reasonably call Graham the nation’s pastor? Again, the reasons are multiple. The most obvious is the continual rehearsal of the title from the lips of public figures such as former president George H. W. Bush. The judgment of one president, even a revered one, does not a book make. But other presidents’ decisions to single out Graham in moments of national mourning—the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 Remembrance, for example—added to this sense.

    Then the letters. We do not know how many, but numerous signs intimate that over the decades they arrived by the millions. The numbers are less important than the texture. People poured out their sorrows and desires. In one way or another most said that they had messed up their lives but Graham offered hope for a second chance. Drawing on Daniel Boorstin, with apparent approval, Lofton remarks that folks mistook “a rush of interest” for “meaningful connection.” True enough, writers knew that Graham could not read let alone respond to each one individually. In that sense Boorstin/Lofton are right. There was no direct connection. But I would argue that the connection was all the more meaningful precisely because it grew from their relationship with a pastor they never could personally know. Faith sees through windows darkly. Americans projected their ideals and aspirations—their “‘best selves,’” as William Martin put it—on a man they imagined to be without flaws. Or for those who hated him, a man they imagined to be without virtues. Either way, being the object of fervent projections did not make him less real or less substantive in their lives.

    And finally, did Graham hawk banalities? Did he disregard the wondrous diversity of American experience and offer instead a pasteurized version of Charlotte on a Sunday afternoon? That he imaged whiteness is indisputable. And not just whiteness. He also imaged perfect teeth, azure eyes, an athletic physique, a wavy blond mane, and uptown suits tailored to knock your eye out. Think Downton Abbey. Lofton seems uncomfortable with such details (whether with me for dwelling on them or with Graham for sporting them or with both of us for owning up to them, I am not sure). Yet the larger point is that Graham knew perfectly well that attractiveness, to Heartland Americans even if not to all Americans, “reduced resistance,” as one of his aides put it. Were those conventions of attractiveness written in the stars? Of course not. Did they betoken a particular demographic profile? Of course they did. To be sure, this homogeneity was offset—not eradicated but offset—by the ever-growing racial, ethnic, and musical diversity of the choirs, guest artists, and counseling staff—a fact more noticed by journalists than by historians.1 But the basic point holds: Graham fit a normative ideal, buttressed by the social power of the white Establishment, that contributed to the durability of his appeal.

    What I would challenge is not the power of whiteness but the assumption that Graham’s message foundered by its simplicity and uniformity. We make a category mistake if we pay too much attention to the surface meaning of the words he uttered. On first hearing they were superficial at best and banal at worst. And soporific. But that was first hearing. On second and third and fourth hearing it becomes evident that the key was not what homileticians and theologians thought but what people in the seats experienced. Without question they experienced multiple Grahams, making him, as Steven Miller astutely put it, possibly America’s “most complicated innocent.” For some, simple words betrayed a simple mind, while for others they revealed a mind uncluttered by complicating distractions. For some, repeated words intimated pointless duplication, while for others they displayed sensitivity to the re-enforcing power of religious ritual. For some, the quips were embarrassingly corny, while for others they showed a man they could sit down and laugh with. The list goes on. Graham was no intellectual, as academics would define it, and his sermons proved them right. But intellectual prowess took other forms. His ability to manage a complex world organization, orchestrate a media empire, and oversee a host of outreach ministries for six decades signaled exceptional savviness. My grandma would have called it street smarts.

    In the book I said that the sermon ranked as the centerpiece of his ministry. Lofton rightly took me at my word. In the clear light of new day, however, I think it was not the sermon itself but the call at the end that formed the centerpiece. Hardly anyone—including Graham’s sharpest critics—doubted the singular charismatic power of one man, standing ramrod straight, uttering a few words of invitation, and then quietly watching as people walked forward by the hundreds and often by the thousands. “I don’t get it,” the journalists Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy quoted a reporter at Graham’s final crusade in 2005. “You’re not the first,” they responded.

    I wish finally to close on a personal note. I well remember the first time I met Katie Lofton. Something like fifteen years ago, when I was teaching American religious history at Duke Divinity School, and Katie was a beginning doctoral student at UNC, eight miles away, she crossed over to the Dark (Blue) Side of the pike to talk with me about our mutual work in early Pentecostalism. I immediately realized that soon she would shimmer as one of the brightest stars in the firmament of our guild. Time has proved me right. Seeing that she has read my book with exquisite care, I count myself privileged to join her in this invigorating conversation.

    1. Edith Blumhofer, “Singing to Save,” in Andrew Finstuen et al., American Pilgrim: Billy Graham, Religion, Politics, and Culture (forthcoming).



Billy Graham, American Culture, and the Genre of Biography

IN AMERICA’S PASTOR: BILLY Graham and the Shaping of a Nation, Grant Wacker offers a compelling and nuanced biography of one of America’s most influential religious figures. Yet what sets Wacker apart is his ability to seamlessly weave the dynamics of Graham’s career into broader reflections on the American cultural milieu. Graham’s fame was not only a product of the man but the moment. By focusing on both Graham and his context, Wacker simultaneously illumines Graham’s ministry and broader trends in American culture. The chapters in America’s Pastor collectively carry the reader on an illuminating journey of how Graham shaped and was shaped by modern America.

Wacker does not intend for America’s Pastor to be a conventional biography (5). Instead he organizes his chapters thematically rather than chronologically. This approach affords each chapter an internal coherence that Wacker accomplishes without precluding a consistent argumentative thread spanning the entire work. Throughout America’s Pastor, he probes Graham’s significance for the relationship between religion and American culture, and Wacker effectively demonstrates that Graham shapes and is shaped by both realities. Indeed, he claims, “Graham’s rise was fueled by his ability to adopt and adapt the trends of the age” (98). With this in mind, Wacker’s goal is interpretive as much as it is descriptive because one of his guiding inquiries is the question of precisely how this adoption and adaptation occurs.

In terms of method, Wacker’s approach provides an effective way to account for the sheer longevity of Graham’s ministerial career. A thematic structure enables Wacker to engage crucial aspects of Graham’s sixty-year ministry with sustained focus that renders his accounts of various aspects of Graham’s career rich, but digestible. In this regard, it is equally significant that Wacker provides an accessible text for those without specialized knowledge.

This approach is instructive for broader scholarship because he models how to offer a sympathetic reading that resists hagiography. Perhaps the most illustrative example of this approach is Wacker’s account of how Graham shifts his perspective on racial injustice in America. While Wacker does not sugarcoat the limitations of Graham’s perspectives, he refuses to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Instead, he affirms the occasions that Graham stood against segregation, acknowledges the moments Graham wavered, and demonstrates how Graham’s views were in dialogue with his own time (123). Wacker recognizes that Graham was not exactly a trailblazer in the area of racial justice in America. Graham never marched for Civil Rights or endured imprisonment, and he preferred to engage issues of personal piety and conversion. Yet Wacker affirms the moments in which Graham stood against segregation during his ministry career as well. Wacker’s sympathetic evaluation of Graham’s career provides a model for scholars insofar as it does not judge Graham by the standard of perfection. The question is not “Did Graham make mistakes?” but “What can we learn from Graham’s successes and shortcomings?” Wacker reminds us that even imperfections can become sites for fruitful discussion.

In terms of tone, it is clear that Wacker has a deep respect for Graham, and he is honest about his own investment in the evangelical tradition that Graham inhabited and helped to create (3). Most of the criticisms of Graham in the book come from either Graham’s contemporaries or critical biographers of Graham, rather than from Wacker himself. Nonetheless, America’s Pastor does not present itself as an apologetic work. Rather, Wacker simply prefers to give the benefit of the doubt to Graham when possible while still affirming problems or inconsistencies in Graham’s views or practices when appropriate (3). Wacker’s decision to include critical reflections from other scholars as well as a few of his own reservations is ultimately an act of trust. It involves an authorial decision to trust that the reader can analyze the relevant data and draw her own conclusions regarding Graham. While there is certainly room in scholarship for more opinionated reflections about Graham or other topics, there is something to be said for this style of argumentation. Wacker’s approach also reiterates how he prioritizes objectivity over both bias and biographical tidiness. Wacker models an approach to biography that is broad yet selective, descriptive yet analytical, and sympathetic yet critical. The result is an account of Graham’s life and ministry that tells us as much about the man as the world he inhabited and helped to shape.

America’s Pastor is an important work, not only for the answers it provides but the conversations and questions it has the capacity to provoke. For example, what does Graham’s career teach us about the relationship between the American preacher and American politics? Wacker reveals how Graham’s concern for soul-saving did not preclude him from engaging issues such as communism and nuclear disarmament. On the other hand, Wacker notes Graham’s distinction between partisan politics and moral politics and Graham’s hope to engage only the latter (221). This distinction suggests that Graham viewed certain political issues as beyond the scope of his primary ministry. America’s Pastor can help raise important questions about the nature of politics, the political responsibility of Christian preachers, and how preachers might negotiate this responsibility alongside other ministerial concerns.

A second question that America’s Pastor might gesture toward concerns the relationship between Christian ministry and secular power. Wacker identifies Graham’s knack for building friendships with those in power, including several US presidents. Should proximity to secular power shape a preacher’s priorities and methods, and if so, how? What does it mean for a preacher to be a prophetic voice in the American context? While Wacker does not intend to provide definitive answers to how Christian preachers should engage prophecy or power, America’s Pastor has the imaginative capacity to push readers toward considering such important issues.

America’s Pastor could also inform contemporary conversations about the relationship between ministry and money. Wacker notes that though Graham enjoyed a great deal of success, he resisted a lavish lifestyle (153). This approach contrasts many contemporary preachers within the Prosperity Gospel movement, for example, who model and promote an aesthetic of wealth as a sign of spiritual validation. Graham provides a counterexample to such trends. For Graham, success was marked by his faithfulness to a simple message of God’s invitation for all people to repent of their sins and enter into a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. With all the success that came with Graham’s massive ministry and the possibilities for distractions, the degree to which he maintained this singular focus is admirable and instructive.

Since Wacker acknowledges the significance of numbers in terms of audience sizes, conversions, and how numbers impacted Graham’s publicity, it would be interesting to see Wacker reflect more on how Graham’s legacy relates to the Prosperity Gospel, which also boasts impressive numbers. The Prosperity Gospel is arguably the fastest growing segment of Christianity in the world and began its ascendency during the postwar years alongside Graham’s own rise to fame. In chapter 7, Wacker spends a paragraph briefly distinguishing Graham’s message from his Prosperity Gospel contemporaries, but it would be illuminating to probe how both the Prosperity Gospel and Graham’s evangelicalism each found massive success drinking from the same wellspring of American culture (274). Several scholars, including one of Wacker’s former students, Kate Bowler, have noted how the Prosperity Gospel draws from dominant American cultural motifs, such as individualism and consumerism. Both individualism and consumerism contributed to Graham’s success, with the former buttressing Graham’s emphasis on personal conversions and Wacker noting how the latter contributed to the commodification of religious icons during the postwar years (68). Since Wacker is interested not only in Graham’s relationship to American religion but how religion relates to culture, deeper engagement with the ways American culture was appropriated by the Prosperity Gospel might have further magnified the uniqueness of Graham’s own appropriations.

Another point of connection between Graham and Prosperity Gospel preachers concerns the impact that individualistic sensibilities inform their respective political postures. In the case of each, the priority of the individual lessens the theological impetus for broader sociopolitical engagement, particularly at the sermonic level. Graham’s preaching was primarily about addressing the individual’s relationship with God, rather than her potential socioeconomic plight or the causes of such plight, for example. Prosperity Gospel preachers rarely push for political action because an individualistic focus renders their social responsibility pedagogical rather than political. More specifically, the Prosperity Gospel generally assumes that the individual believer has spiritual authority over unjust societal systems that would otherwise prevent socioeconomic mobility. The social responsibility of the Prosperity Gospel preacher then becomes pedagogical because they primarily intend to inform the believer of their spiritual authority over secular systems and the capacity that they have to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps through faith, verbal affirmations of God’s favor, and overall piety. Such convictions are deeply wedded to individualistic sensibilities, not unrelated to the individualistic sensibilities of Graham. The points of connection between Graham and Prosperity Gospel preachers are that their respective individualistic convictions each undermine the impetus for more politically conscious preaching (albeit for different reasons) and both are deeply American. Both Graham and the Prosperity Gospel also evidence Wacker’s assumption that American religion and American culture are deeply connected.

In America’s Pastor, Grant Wacker offers us a rich and compelling portrait of one of America’s most beloved and revered figures. He presents Billy Graham as an everyday Southerner with an unusual gift for relating to people across various demographic and social lines and an unwavering commitment to preach the Christian Gospel. Wacker sufficiently nuances why Graham’s message was so compelling, whether that be sermon content, the style and cadence of his preaching, the aesthetics of mass meetings, the rise of mass media, or the increase in postwar celebrity culture. Yet Wacker also demonstrates how Graham’s life and ministry were in constant dialogue with American culture. From the American individualism that shaped Graham to the form of evangelicalism that he helped to foster, Graham is a product of a cultural context that he helped to produce. By aiming for an interpretive rather than merely descriptive account of Graham, Wacker illumines what Graham has meant for America’s past and gestures toward how Graham’s life might be a lens for understanding the present.

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    Grant Wacker


    Response to Nathan Walton

    I appreciate this opportunity to respond to Nathan Walton’s comments on America’s Pastor. Beautifully and concisely written, his essay raises numerous thought-provoking questions.

    At the outset Walton rightly notes that my overall aim is to explore how Graham shaped and was shaped by modern America. That Graham was shaped by modern America seems clear enough, but that he shaped modern America seems less clear. Not a few reviewers, including otherwise sympathetic ones, have challenged this claim.

    My answer begins with numbers: mainstream evangelicals (recognizing that the definition is slippery) represented something like eighty million people. With numbers like that, how could Graham, evangelicals’ main spokesman, not influence the nation’s direction? Moreover, many folks outside evangelical boundaries made clear that they too appreciated him. They included many mainline Protestants, as well as many Catholics. A few Jews esteemed his theism and traditional values, too. It is easy to find anecdotal evidence that Graham modeled how people should vote, or prompted people simply to pause and reconsider the direction of their lives. Ironically, many of Graham’s critics attacked him for exercising too much influence, while others attacked him for exercising too little. The one thing that his contemporaries rarely did was to say that his reach was negligible.

    Walton asks: “‘What can we learn from Graham’s successes and shortcomings?’ Wacker reminds us that even imperfections can become sites for fruitful discussion.” I have been struck by how many of the reviews of America’s Pastor, especially pastors on their blogs, refer to Graham’s life of personal propriety and how it should serve as a model for others, especially clergy. Graham was attentive to his mistakes and the lessons he and others should learn from them. For example, after Nixon’s debacle in 1974, Graham recognized how he had gotten himself entangled in partisan politics, and determined not to repeat those mistakes. The goal outstripped the behavior, for more than once he fell back into the same old trap of partisan politics. Still, he at least saw and admitted the problem. More to the point, he said he hoped that his mistakes would serve as a lesson to younger evangelists. It is worth noting that Graham’s son Franklin Graham has not followed his father’s attempts to remove himself from the cauldron of partisan politics.

    “Should proximity to secular power shape a preacher’s priorities and methods, and if so, how?” Important question this is. As noted, mainline clergy sharply criticized Graham for not using his access to the president’s ear to speak a prophetic word. To that he repeatedly said that his relationship with the presidents was mainly pastoral and collegial. Granted, presidential correspondence and other evidence show that claim was not entirely true. Sometimes he privately advised presidents on military strategy, or on how to win elections, or even on how to relate to foreign heads of state. But his relationship with presidents does seem to have been mainly pastoral and collegial. That pattern likely grew from his gregarious personality, from his vocational training as an evangelist, and from his working (albeit inconsistently honored) assumption that partisan politics, such as one’s view of the Panama Canal Treaty, differed from moral politics, such as one’s view of racial justice. The former remained out of bounds for a man of the cloth, while the latter were within bounds. It also undoubtedly grew from the presidents themselves, who displayed little inclination to consult preachers on political matters—partisan, moral, or otherwise.

    Another searching question: How should preachers negotiate this responsibility to speak up about public political issues alongside other ministerial concerns? Wow. In all of my research about Graham, no one has raised this question. I am not sure that Graham ever thought about this one either, which is not surprising, since he was exempt from the usual round of marrying and burying that occupied most clergy most of the time. But he was surprisingly attentive to the local church, going to great lengths to enlist the support of local clergy (indeed, refusing to go into a town unless a majority of local pastors endorsed the invitation). He also went to great lengths to make sure that inquirers joined or re-joined a church of their choice during or after the crusade left town.

    So even if Graham himself did not raise the question of whether engagement in politics might simply cannibalize too much of pastors’ time, and take them away from the things that they alone could do, his respect for the clergy and for the health of the local church should have given others reason to raise this starkly simple non-theoretical question. Simply put, what actions should be avoided simply because they siphoned off too much time and spiritual energy from more important sacral duties? The fact that Graham himself did not address this question makes it all the more important for others, especially pastors, to address it for themselves.

    “America’s Pastor could also inform contemporary conversations about the relationship between ministry and money,” Walton notes, with wry understatement. And so it does. Of the dozens of reviews of America’s Pastor that I have read, Walton’s is the only one to raise the most obvious of questions: What was Graham’s relation to money, consumer culture, individualism, and the prosperity movement that those three forces fueled? Let me take them in order.

    I could write pages about Graham and money. Most important, from at least 1950 on he put a great deal of thought into how to raise it and even more thought into how to account for the spending of it. He and his immediate associates (except George Beverly Shea) lived on stated salaries,1 and all Billy Graham Evangelistic Association revenue was publically audited. People gave generously because they trusted him generously. Almost all BGEA support came from mom and pop contributions in the mail. Graham reveled in the friendship of the ultra-rich, and there were many of them, but they did not provide the financial backbone of his ministry.

    Walton asks astutely about the relation between Graham and American consumer culture and the individualist ethos that undergirded it. He is onto something important here. Graham presented the gospel as if it were a product to be appropriated by reaching out and just taking it. He often said that he had the best product in the world, so why not market it with the most effective means possible? Moreover, like any other product in box store economies, Graham’s gospel was the same everywhere, offered without attention to the particular profile of the “buyer.” Uta Balbier’s work on Graham’s crusades in Europe shows how Europeans were more aware of this mass market approach than Americans—for whom, one suspects, Graham’s approach was so unexceptional they never saw it for what it was.

    Walton notes too the American, boot-strap individualism that undergirded Graham’s ministry in general and his approach to political and social reform in particular. That outlook was most true of the middle third of his ministry, less of the first third, and least of the final third. Graham cared a great deal about local churches, but he had next to no interest in ecclesiology, and little sense of how the church, as the body of Christ on earth, might bear responsibility for the corporate welfare of society. As I argue in my response to Balmer, with the passing of the years he became increasingly attuned to Christians’ responsibility to alleviate injustice and suffering, and to support legislation that would assist those endeavors, but he rarely if ever linked that mission to an organic sense of the church’s place in society. In this respect Graham reflected the larger evangelical movement’s impoverished understanding of the deeper meanings of the church.

    The deeper question Walton raises is the relation between Graham’s preaching and the prosperity gospel that rose in the last decades of his ministry. Graham never thought of himself as a prosperity preacher, and prosperity scholars such as Kate Bowler do not trace the movement to him. Yet in some ways Graham established the public space prosperity preachers later occupied. As Bowler shows, Graham established multiple platforms for his ministry (radio, television, magazines, films, crusades), set up a well-oiled organization to manage his funds, and relentlessly sought to expand his ministry into every cultural, demographic, and territorial venue he could reach. Beyond that, especially in his daily “My Answer” newspaper column, Graham offered a great deal of down-home advice about how to deal with daily problems of fear, meaninglessness, and personal relationships. In that sense he preached a therapeutic gospel.

    But deep differences divided Graham from most prosperity preachers. He went out of his way to insist that faith would help people deal with their problems, including financial and health ones, but it would not make them go away. He never reduced faith to bullet points or workbook lists to be checked off. Above all, he never hinted that faith possessed an instrumental value that could change social and physical reality simply by uttering faith-based formulas.

    In sum, in America’s Pastor I forthrightly argued that Graham was a great man, deeply flawed as all great people are, but also one of the most influential Christians of the twentieth century precisely because of his greatness. Studying his life was both a pleasure and a moment of self-assessment and correction. Not the least of the benefits of that endeavor has been the opportunity to interact with Walton’s profoundly thoughtful and elegantly crafted response.

    1. Shea’s income mainly came from the sale of his records and music. I owe this information to Edith Blumhofer, author of a forthcoming biography of Shea.