Billy Graham's America
Grant Wacker, professor of Christian History at Duke University and a member of the Christian History advisory board, is working on a cultural biography of Graham, titled Billy Graham's America, to be published by Harvard University Press in 2011. He is giving us an advance peek at his research in the following essay—which is a condensed version of an article by the same title published in Church History, September 2009.
In slightly more than two decades—roughly from 1949 to 1971—Billy Graham moved from leader to celebrity to icon, and he retained that iconic status into the new millennium. For millions of Heartland Americans, he functioned very much as a Protestant saint. By the time he retired in 2005, reportedly he had preached to nearly 215 million people in person in more than 185 countries and territories, and to additional hundreds of millions through electronic media. With the possible exception of Pope John Paul II, Graham likely addressed more people face-to-face than anyone in history. Except for elected officials, Graham may have been the only person in the United States who needed no mailing address beyond his name. Just "Billy Graham" scratched on an envelope would do. Of the thousands of letters sent to Graham from children, one, posted in 1971, probably from a first- or second-grader, seemed to speak for all. After requesting a free book, the young author signed off, "Tell Mr. Jesus hi."
The reasons for Graham's ascendency, longevity and, above all, singularity are not obvious. His early years offer few clues. The most remarkable feature of young Billy Frank's childhood and adolescence is how unremarkable they really were. Born in 1918, he grew up near Charlotte, North Carolina, in the bucolic obscurity of a dairy farm. Fundamentalist education at Bob Jones College, Florida Bible Institute, and Wheaton College in Illinois launched him into a modestly successful career as a local pastor, itinerant evangelist, and Youth for Christ speaker.
At first glance, Graham's middle career years—the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—are equally barren of clues. To many, he personified the proverbial stump orator, firing 240 words a minute. In an era when academic theologians and mainline ministers favored dialogue over proclamation, Graham unflinchingly presented his own version of the Good News as the only viable one. His hobnobbing with the rich, the famous, and the powerful troubled his friends and energized his foes. And then there were his odious remarks about Jews and the media, uttered in private in President Richard Nixon's office in 1972 but secretly recorded and then revealed in 2002. Though Graham apologized in print and in person to Jewish leaders, the episode tarnished his record. Yet most disturbing was Graham's political posture in the 1960s and early 1970s. His real or perceived support for the Vietnam War and his jut-jawed defense of Nixon during Watergate lingered long after most Americans had given up on both causes.
Outsiders, noting Graham's flaws and failures, subjected him to merciless criticism. Some of it was fair and thoughtful; much of it was unfair and thoughtless. Besides a steady flow of hate mail and occasional death threats, he received censure from all directions: the Left, the Right, the academy, the media, and the church.
Given such unpromising beginnings, so many missteps, such mordant criticism, how did Graham become the premier Protestant evangelist in the United States (and many other countries) and hold that perch, unrivaled, for nearly six decades? More important, what does his success say about 20th-century America? I propose one answer to the puzzle of Graham's singular eminence. A producer as well as a product of his age, Graham displayed a remarkable ability to adapt broad cultural trends for his evangelistic purposes. I will sketch four instances of the pattern, roughly in the order that they began to mark his public ministry conspicuously.
The middle third of the 20th century witnessed a vast process of social and cultural transformation that historians have called the "Southernization" of America. How did Graham represent the South, the region of his roots and, as he repeatedly said, his heart? Most noticeably, he spoke as a Southerner. Though he gradually modulated his distinctive accent—what one New York City journalist called "Carolina stage English"—he never lost it.
Graham was a Southerner in a second sense. He took care to present himself as a simple country boy, toughened when he was growing up by a daily pre-dawn milking regime. As Americans hurtled toward a metropolitan future, Graham seemed to remind them of a receding world of small towns, summer nights, and stable values.
Graham represented his region in one additional respect. He perennially assumed that the best way to get things done was to work with, not against, established authorities. To be sure, that notion reflected his genial temperament, but it also reflected the compatibility of his class location with that of the folk who ran things—two slices from the same pie. In the South, the most influential voices spoke from the pulpits and occupied the pews of the mainline churches. The Southern mainline was broadly evangelical, but it was still mainline. It is no surprise that Graham—the official unofficial chaplain to the nation's power brokers—carried himself so effortlessly in the corridors of power.
Graham masterfully adapted his old-fashioned message to new media. He knew that the journalism giants William Randolph Hearst and Henry L. Luce had helped launch his career, and he never forgot the lesson. In an age increasingly given to hurried interviews, sound bites, and visual images, Graham took care to deliver his ideas in crisp and compelling forms. That same savviness marked the crusade meeting. The services were orderly affairs, marked by few tears and considerable decorum. Yet not too orderly. Graham also knew how to put on a good show. Toe-tapping music and heart-warming testimonies made for a fine evening out—or, for that matter, home by the radio or television.
The extraordinary planning that went into the crusade meetings sometimes obscures the obvious. Graham's preaching remained the centerpiece. Whatever the stated text, the actual text of every sermon was John 3:16: "whoever believes on him shall not perish but have everlasting life." All messages demanded a verdict. There was nothing new here. For two centuries, the call for a clear choice, up or down, had served as the evangelist's stock-in-trade. In Graham's hands, the conversion experience, the centerpiece of the revival tradition, pivoted on classically American understandings of the importance of rational decisiveness. Graham told the story of his own adolescent conversion countless times. It involved no special feelings, just a clear choice to stand up, walk to the front, and make a decision for Christ. Graham sensed, better than most, the importance of pressing his hearers too to stand up and walk to the front for all to see.
Critics charged that the seemingly endless lines of inquirers, streaming forward from all parts of the crusade stadiums, betokened superficiality at best and mass suggestibility at worst. The preacher thought otherwise. Publicly declaring a new direction for one's life implicitly acknowledged that things had gone wrong and that it was time to make them right.
No one person created the modern evangelical insurgence, but Graham, more than anyone, should be credited—or blamed, according to one's mood—for channeling its explosive force and vitality. By the late 1930s, the trans-denominational coalition that historians later called parachurch evangelicalism was well established. Graham fell in step. At Florida Bible Institute, he rubbed shoulders with freelance paladins from a variety of traditions. At Wheaton College, he met future champions of the independent foreign missions network. Over the years, he invested his considerable organizational skills and financial resources in the founding or support of a host of parachurch institutions, including Christianity Today.
If for Graham parachurch identification meant much, denominational identification meant little. The Southern Baptists ordained him when he was 21, but he always worshiped indiscriminately. As early as 1963, Graham told Newsweek's Ken Woodward that he found himself most comfortable in the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church. Graham's parachurch instincts led to a growing openness toward other traditions—an openness that the historian Michael Hamilton aptly called "cooperative evangelicalism."
Virtually from the day Graham graduated from Wheaton, he began to pull away from the hard hitters on his right. He led the soft hitters like himself to a more open-minded attitude toward other traditions and toward the surrounding culture. Indeed, he soon grew uneasy with the combative connotations of the label "fundamentalist" and opted instead for the accommodative connotations of the label "evangelical" or, simply, "Christian." The move was heartfelt, but it was also shrewd. Graham knew that millions of evangelically inclined believers warmed the pews of non-evangelical churches.
Though Graham was not a theologian and never pretended to be, he thought seriously about things that mattered. In the process, he changed. Official Graham sources rarely admitted any revising, let alone compromising, of evangelical cornerstones, yet it is easy to see the preacher softening some of the hard edges—most notably, his refusal to speculate on the final fate of the earnest non-Christian. In his maturity, Graham came to feel that his job was simply to preach the Good News and leave the rest to the wideness of God's mercy.
Finally, as Graham grew older, the nation's expanding social vision powerfully influenced him, but that development was a long time coming and followed a zigzag path.
Though Graham's view of the Vietnam War was tangled, several overall comments seem warranted. First, he moved from clear support for the administration's policies in the middle 1960s to professed uncertainty by the time it ended in 1973. Yet many Americans doubted that his uncertainty ran very deep. Into the 1970s, he made statements that appeared to minimize if not trivialize the human cost of the fighting, and he refused publicly to challenge the controversial invasion of Cambodia in 1970 or the even more controversial Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972. Second, with rare exceptions, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Presidents Johnson and Nixon. Finally, by the late 1970s, Graham acknowledged that in times past he had fallen into political partisanship, especially during the Nixon years. Repeatedly he said he regretted it.
Graham's civil rights record won both censure and praise. Unsympathetic observers charged that he dithered on the integration of his Southern crusades; that in the middle 1960s, he urged firebrands on both sides to quiet down as if their causes were morally equivalent; that he never marched in the streets, went to jail, or threw his power and prestige behind fundamental structural reforms. Sympathetic observers, on the other hand, noted that he moved to integrate his crusades before Brown v. Board of Education; that he experienced threats on his life, the loss of friends, and the wrath of White Citizens' Councils; that he forthrightly endorsed Martin Luther King, Jr. (until King attacked the Vietnam War); and that he won the support of prominent African American associates, numerous black pastors, and multitudes of minority lay followers. How Americans evaluated Graham's relation to the civil rights movement depended on the criteria they deemed most important. If they placed priority on prophetic words and bold actions, he fell short. If they placed priority on the steady witness of a half-century of integrated crusades, he walked tall.
Graham's work for global justice represents a third posture, winning the praise of all but the most obdurate critics. His increasingly progressive record on health care, the environment, world hunger and poverty and, especially, the arms race, which he called "insanity, madness," placed him near the front of evangelical Christians' social conscience. As the evangelist's vision widened to see the world and its suffering as one, the line between insiders and outsiders blurred. He sidestepped the Christian Right and largely avoided public association with discordant figures like Jerry Falwell. In 2005, the New York Times's Laurie Goodstein asked Graham whether he anticipated a "clash of civilizations" between Christianity and Islam. His response was telling: "I think the big conflict is with hunger and starvation and poverty."
The mature Graham's expanding social vision grew from an underlying conviction that people deserved a second chance. That ideal—not to be confused with conservative notions of can-do entrepreneurialism or with liberal notions of social reconstruction—simply said that all people should receive an opportunity to be more than their genes and circumstances might portend. With few exceptions, the thousands of letters that made their way each week to "Billy Graham, Minneapolis, Minnesota" spoke of suffering—husbands calling it quits, kids gone astray, jobs lost, and loneliness. Above all, loneliness. In historian Heather Vacek's words, "Graham was a public figure holding private pain." That role may have been his most enduring legacy. Nothing was more American than believing that things old and broken really could become new and whole.
Grant Wacker is Professor of Christian History and Director of Graduate Studies in Religion at Duke University.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History.
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