Writing about Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation as a managing editor of Christianity Today is at once a daunting and complicated task. Graham founded this magazine. His portrait greets me every time I come in the building. I have on my wall a 1956 copy of his “Christianity Today Statement of Policy and Purpose.” On my desktop is a special 128-page issue on Graham’s life and legacy I put together years ago, ready to publish “at some point in the future,” as we euphemistically told our writers (several of whom Graham has now outlived).
So if Wacker calls himself “a partisan of the same evangelical tradition Graham represented,” I don’t quite know what that makes me—a fanatic of that tradition?
Wacker, who is about to retire from his position at Duke Divinity School as one of the preeminent historians of American religion, begins his book by warning that it’s “not a conventional biography. Numerous studies of Graham’s life or aspects of it already grace the shelves of public libraries, and many of them are excellent. My aim is different. I try to step back and ask another question: Why does Graham matter?”
Likewise, I won’t offer a conventional review, except to say that it is required reading for anyone seriously interested in evangelicalism, 20th-century American history, or the sociology of religion. If you want Graham’s life story, you may be better off with William Martin’s 1991 authorized (but honest) biography, Prophet with Honor. That volume is twice as long, and an updated version is due out “at some point in the future.” But for a thematic view of how Graham affected (and was affected by) American culture, Wacker’s book is unparalleled. And if you’re one of the many evangelicals under 40 who are only vaguely aware of how Graham shaped your world, you need this book.
What Did You Go Out to the Stadium to See?
Interviewing Wacker for Publishers Weekly, Henry L. Carrigan Jr. wrote, “Graham has affected so many people, Wacker believes, because he is a complex, multi-faceted figure who appeals to many segments of society; people see in Graham whatever part of him touches them most.”
That theme of Graham as a Rorschach inkblot recurs throughout Wacker’s book as he more directly examines Graham as preacher, icon, Southerner, entrepreneur, architect, pilgrim, pastor, and patriarch.
But it emerges even more so in the reviews of America’s Pastor.The reviews say far more about the reviewer than they do about Wacker’s history or Graham’s life.
To The Christian Century’s reviewer, for example, “Billy Graham was an enabler” of evangelicals’ worst instincts. “Graham perpetuated more than challenged the obscurantist and reactionary postures that were common within his core constituency,” David Hollinger writes. Rather than bravely fight against “ignorant and antiscientific ideas about evolution” or recant “his early-career assertion that the Bible declared same-sex relationships to be so sinful that those guilty of this sin must ‘repent,’” Graham “led a life of missed opportunities.” When the evangelist took steps to fight racism, poverty, and other injustices, Hollinger writes that “Graham and his cohort of evangelicals were merely falling into line at long last with an outlook the hated ecumenical Protestants had advanced for several generations.” Hollinger admits that this is “a different interpretation” than the one presented in Wacker’s book.
Where the Century sees Graham and evangelicals as backwards cowards, The Chronicle of Higher Education paints them as scoundrels. Why, wonders Stephen J. Whitfield, isn’t Wacker more skeptical about “the central dogmas upon which Graham built so spectacular a career, such as the possible imminence of the Second Coming and the inevitability of divine judgment that will separate the saved from the lost”? Whitfield, professor of American studies at Brandeis, complains that the book never tells the reader whether the tenets of Christianity that so motivated Graham are false. “The religious ideas that [Graham] has spent a lifetime promoting are nevertheless still ideas and therefore deserve to be examined with the same critical detachment as notions about the validity of race or the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. Ideas do not become true—or even sensible—merely because millions of people subscribe to them.”
For what it’s worth, Whitfield’s review also complains that Graham’s book on what the Bible teaches about angels “was listed in the category of nonfiction” and claims that the United States does not permit agnosticism.
The Wall Street Journal’s Barton Swaim, meanwhile, sees Graham and evangelicals as a bunch of loudmouths:
[Graham] simply could not keep silent when he could speak or write, whether he had thought through his opinion or not—and in that sense, too, he is the quintessence of the sociological stratum with which he is most closely associated. American evangelicals have cultivated a culture of instantaneous and constant self-expression: They do not think without writing those thoughts in controversial articles or Facebook posts. Evangelical athletes must overtly give God credit for touchdowns and home runs (though, curiously, not fumbles and strikeouts), and evangelical authors must write books on successful child-rearing principles while their children are still in diapers.
There’s actually an important point here I will come back to in a moment. But it’s hard not to be a bit insulted, especially as an evangelical writer. Then again, Swaim ends his review by saying, “In the end, America’s Pastor doesn’t tell us very much about how Billy Graham ‘shaped’ the nation. But it tells us a lot about why, during the second half of the 20th century, evangelicals didn’t.” One wonders if Swaim and Whitfield, discussing the book over drinks, would disagree about whether evangelical piety controls America or if they’d just be content to share a lament over evangelical boorishness.
Among the most positive reviews so far—of both Graham and Wacker’s book—is that in The New York Times (surprise!), in a piece by Robert P. George (surprise again!), politically conservative evangelicals’ favorite Catholic since Richard John Neuhaus died. He offers a strong summary of the book and personal anecdotes on why even Catholics like him were drawn to Graham. But here again we see the Rorschach test emerge, as the much of the review discusses Graham’s relationship with Roman Catholics—a topic that Wacker only spends a few pages on.
Sharing the Stage with Moral Theism
So in the spirit of those other reviews, let me offer a reflection on a question that is, quite honestly, not directly asked by Wacker’s book but that kept occurring to me as I read it:
Is Billy Graham an evangelical?
Yes, the question is absurd. Of course Billy Graham is an evangelical. In many ways, people defined the word by pointing to Graham himself. Historian George Marsden’s oft-repeated bon mot that an evangelical is “anyone who likes Billy Graham” rings true because Graham’s actions themselves largely defined the boundaries. You could be from a fundamentalist or mainline church and still be an evangelical. But if you didn’t like Graham partnering with theologically sketchy groups or found his altar calls theologically simplistic, you probably weren’t one.
In fact, Wacker spends a huge part of the book describing Graham as a premier “architect” (but not creator) of “normative expansionist centrist evangelicalism,” or what he normally calls ”mainstream evangelicalism.” (He also distinguishes between that and evangelical Protestantism as a whole, which includes Lutherans, Mennonites, Adventists, the Churches of Christ, and others representing massive numbers of evangelicals; but these evangelicals “focused more on their own affairs” and didn’t share the normative and expansionist desires of Graham and his movement, Wacker observes.)
The picture that emerges from America’s Pastor is that Graham was not only an icon of mainstream evangelicalism (see our excerpt from the book on Graham as evangelical patriarch). But the book repeatedly demonstrates that he was also an icon of civil religion and of a variety of moralistic therapeutic deism that many mainstream evangelicals in America now see as one of the greatest threats to true Christian faith. And he held views that a lot of conservative evangelicals—both at the time and now—find worrying.
I want to be careful here. Wacker is clear about the record:
Graham’s core theological message remained consistent from beginning to end. His diagnosis of the human condition did not change. And neither did the prescription. The core gospel message—the authority of the Bible, the stranglehold of sin, the power of redemption through Christ, the necessity of a disciplined personal and social ethic, the command to share the gospel, and the promise of the life to come—all stayed the same.
Still, he writes, “It is clear that many did find cheap grace in his ministry. … Short of conspicuous misbehavior it was altogether possible to go through the motions [at a crusade] and live as before.
“But not if they internalized Graham’s words as he meant them,” he qualifies. “Careful listeners heard a call for radical change, from the roots up, from the inside out. … Re-creation had nothing to do with civilization, culture, refinement, or education: ‘God makes no attempt to repair the old man.’ Rather the ‘supreme objective’—in a very real sense the sole objective—was the creation of a new person.”
Millions of people were among those careful listeners. Close friends of mine, including my pastor, are among them. But others heard something else.
“Some converts spoke of how Graham’s message challenged them to be nicer, or enhanced their self-esteem by giving them a new status in which they could take real pride,” Wacker writes. “At a deeper level some spoke of the need to chisel out an identity for themselves. Becoming a newborn Christian helped.”
If people heard this at the altar call of Graham’s crusades, they likely heard it even more in his press conferences, his public talks, as he talked about the Ten Commandments belonging to “a unitarian kind of religion” that Protestants, Catholics, and Jews share.
“For Graham himself morality rested on Christian assumptions, but people did not have to be Christian to appreciate its relevance to their daily lives,” Wacker writes. “Moral theism resulted in common-sense guidance for normal living. Its vagueness lent itself to capacious and flexible application. It allowed Graham to address dilemmas of daily life in a way that crossed theological and sectarian boundaries. And it won wide audiences while alienating few.”
Wacker notes that his book draws from public documents and published sources; it includes few new interviews or private correspondence. But one of its most significant additions to Graham research is its account of the thousands of letters addressed to Graham, offering a mosaic of the role (especially pastoral) he played in American life and imagination. And all letters got a personal response from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, showing how Graham and his staff viewed that role as well.
“The first thing one notices is the absence of answers that might be construed as prosperity-gospel, let alone self-actualization or self-realization rhetoric,” Wacker writes. “Faith in Christ solved the problem of sin, but it did not ‘pay the bills or cure every sickness. You will still have those problems.’”
At the same time, many responses
moved outside Christian revelation and projected principles of moral theism. They called for virtues that all men and women of good faith should seek. … Moral theism blended evangelical theology with old-fashioned common sense. Many [responses] sounded like a page torn from Benjamin Franklin. Work hard, save for a rainy day, overlook slights, avoid tempting situations to begin with, and learn to deal with situations as they really are.
Wacker acknowledges that his analysis of Graham’s moral theism is adapted from sociologist Christian Smith’s moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD). It’s not that Wacker sees Graham as lacking the therapeutic aspect—letter writers and stadium inquirers were overwhelmingly driven by “felt needs” and personal pain, and Graham’s recurring leadership at moments of national mourning are testament to his therapeutic role. But Smith’s description of MTD (drawn from the National Study of Youth and Religion) includes beliefs like “Good people go to heaven when they die” and “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.” These are views that Graham spent his life explicitly and repeatedly teaching against. Graham did not teach MTD as Smith describes it. Still, for someone who has repeatedly insisted that God called him to be an evangelist and only an evangelist, he put a lot of effort into attempting to reform the country’s morals (from sexual behavior to racism) and into promoting vaguer notions of a monotheistic God in the public (and especially governmental) square.
Is this so bad? After all, to quote Graham “the Bible says” all kinds of things that are basically good moral advice. Proverbs sounds like Benjamin Franklin, too.
And it’s not like there’s complete aversion today to Christian leaders doing therapeutic advice or moralizing. Rare is the evangelical who thinks that preachers shouldn’t talk about pornography or racism. Meanwhile, Rick Warren has a diet plan. And Swaim had a point about the thousands of Christian books on parenting.
But when Wacker talks about Graham giving Americans “tools to help them see themselves as good Christians, good Americans, and good citizens of the modern world at the same time”—well, there’s a historical reason for that.
Wacker notes that Graham “rose in tandem with civil religion, the adoption of ‘In God We Trust’ as the official motto of the United States in 1956, and the development of American studies departments in colleges and universities, among many indicators of the desire for national consensus. When those conditions changed, so did the role.”
So to emphasize that large parts of Graham’s ministry are saturated with MTD inadvertently makes Graham come off badly. In his time, what he was doing was not only common but lauded—thus his popularity even among mainstream evangelicals.
But today, there are increasingly large segments of evangelicals who are troubled by leaders who dabble in theology or morality that smacks of MTD. In the 1950s, it was almost universally seen as a way to speak to the larger culture. Today, more and more evangelicals say it only compromises true faith and inoculates people against the gospel of repentance Graham preached.
Imagine this scenario happening in 2015: A young and handsome youth conference speaker—one who’s had a falling out with his “fundamentalist” past—starts to become really popular among even younger evangelicals. He talks about the Bible as authoritative, but has explicitly said he doesn’t use the word inerrant. He says the Bible “isn’t a scientific book” and doesn’t know whether God made humans by evolution or by blowing on “some dust.” He says people can be Christians without reading the Bible. When asked if he believes in miracles, he says there are many around us today, “including television and airplanes. But the greatest miracle of all is to take a person and give them a new nature.” Asked about hell, he said he could only affirm it as “separation from God.” It might not be a literal place or have literal fire. He repeatedly seems to indicate that he thinks people can come to a saving faith without Scripture or knowing the name Jesus. “One badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy but love,” he becomes famous for saying. “There is far more emphasis on love and unity among God’s people in the New Testament than there is on orthodoxy, as important as it is.” He starts to become really popular. He’s always on TV. He’s cozy with politicians, even some morally shady ones—and never criticizes them.
How likely is it that he’ll be universally admired, beloved even, in the mainstream evangelical movement—let alone its undisputed leader? Admired and respected by Americans at large, yes. But by mainstream evangelicals, especially the more conservative ones?
That’s a ridiculous caricature, of course. But it’s a caricature of Graham you’re likely to find on a number of fundamentalist websites—for the fundamentalists have been the main conservative opponents of Graham. At the same time, it’s also not far off from many evangelicals’ caricatured descriptions of many contemporary famous preachers I’m not interested in defending.
To be sure, there are key points at where Billy Graham is different from them. But the point is this: Using the same strategy today, Graham would not likely gain the evangelical following that he did in the 1950s and 1960s. That he was in many respects a man of his age, and that he used the presuppositions of his age to gain a hearing for Jesus Christ—and even more important, was God’s instrument to bring many into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ—well, that can only be applauded and admired. That, in retrospect, we see some weaknesses and inadvertent consequences of his theology and practice—that is only to be expected of any great historical figure who was effective in his own time.
Wacker rightly argues, then, that Graham spoke “both for and to modern America”: “From first to last, Graham displayed an uncanny ability to adopt trends in the wider culture and then use them for his evangelistic and moral reform purposes.” And back then evangelicals were thrilled. One of their own was advising presidents and had the ear of the world—and he seemed to always take that opportunity to call people to repent and believe the gospel. And if he made a few questionable theological moves now and then, he could be forgiven. As Wacker notes in his book’s final words, “Perfection was never the point.”
Ted Olsen is online managing editor for Christianity Today.