One Nation Under Graham

America, not unlike many countries shaped by biblical religion – from Israel to Ireland, has a history of politicians and preachers making abundant use of apocalyptic rhetoric. More than a decade ago Charles Mathewes and Christopher McKnight (no relation) put together a string of exceptional essays on various periods in American history illustrating this abundance. Their book, with the oddly misspelled title, is called Prophesies of Godlessness (which is a noun in their writing – it’s a verb with that “s” – never mind). It should be read by anyone who studies political rhetoric making use of apocalyptic, which unfortunately a recent book didn’t.

The book that didn’t is by Jonathan D. Redding, called One Nation Under Graham: Apocalyptic Rhetoric and American Exceptionalism. Redding’s book is a slice of American history. The slice is Billy Graham in several respects: his apocalyptic rhetoric, which is as American and Graham as it gets; his American exceptionalism if not patriotic nationalism; his anti-communism; his relation to presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump); and especially Graham’s advocacy for “under God” being added in 1954 (under Eisenhower) to the Pledge of Allegiance. The decisive sermon was by George Docherty, but he was rooting his sermon and style at the time in Billy Graham’s anti-communism American exceptionalism that could only stave off communism if Americans would be born again, get right with God, and commit to being a God-honoring Christian nation.

Scot McKnight is the author of a recent book called “To You All Hearts Are Open,” a book about learning to pray with the church.

What to say?

First, many have said an “evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham.” There’s something to that, or at least there was. Billy Graham’s later modification of his previous political advocacy does not mollify the potency of his earlier visions or his over politicking. To be one who likes Billy Graham must still mean his conservative politics. It does not help Billy Graham that his son, Franklin, lacks Billy’s nuance, grace, and social adeptness. Which is not to say Billy was not harsh. And I’m not so sure just how much Billy modified his approach to meeting up with presidents but I am sure he remained a staunch conservative (capitalism, military defense, moral debates, etc..). Franklin’s politics, it seems to me, are not that far from his father’s. I could be wrong.

I want this to be emphasized because it is not said often enough. Billy Graham’s luster and attractiveness from his Los Angeles days onward were created in a pot of national concern, political activism, and political hope. The bigger he got the more he wanted to influence the White House.

Second, Graham was very apocalyptic and never gave it up. He adjusted his apocalypticism over the decades to the current fears and anxieties of Americans, but his earliest evangelism was deeply shaped by anti-communism, anti-socialism, anti-Stalin. Redding’s book probes how Daniel’s apocalyptic material, especially chapter seven, and Revelation’s visions were read in the church, how they were fertile for ongoing adjustments, and how Graham received the dispensational schemes that were constantly alarmist. Billy many times in his career stated Armageddon was near, and he therefore fed the similar apocalypticisms of Eisenhower and Reagan, to name but two.

Third, Redding’s slice is all about the “under God” addition to the Pledge. Billy’s apocalyptic theology was so much behind it Redding thinks in many cases after its insertion that one can’t say it without hearing some apocalypticism. Here is where Redding’s book needed more nuance, though the slice he writes about has more than a few wonderful moments. What I found lacking in this “under God” slice of American religious, theopolitical history is how prominent church-state themes have been in American history. Philip Gorski’s book, American Covenant, is but one exceptional study that would have given Redding more perspective on “under God.” That is, he gives it too much apocalyptic fervor. One doesn’t have to doubt that apocalypticism to admit a much wider angle.

Fourth, American apocalyptic rhetoric has been, is, and will continue to be rooted in American exceptionalism with more than a deep root or two in the waters of Christian nationalism. Redding draws this theme out in his capacity to find so many (varied) uses of “under God.” The role America plays in the divine plans for this apocalyptic writers is shaped by predictive readings of both Daniel but especially Revelation. It is not just their theopolitical readings that give the approach potency; the claims that prophecies are fulfilled or are about to be fulfilled takes it to the next level of intensity. Graham read the Bible this way his entire career. Dispensationalism, then, gets lots of attention in Redding’s book and I think he has a good mastery of the history of dispensationalism.

Redding: “American-centric apocalypticism based on interpretations of Daniel and Revelation was a major piece of Graham’s rhetorical toolkit” (83).

If you want your reading of Daniel or Revelation to draw attention and create intense anxieties, make sure it is predictive and connected to the fate of America (and Israel). His sketch of Graham’s sermons and speeches on this theme over and over reveals a Graham taken in by prediction, imminence, and nationalism. I read this chapter with more than one memory of the very sermons and speeches.

Billy Graham’s vision then worked like this: the problem was communism (or some social, international ill), his rhetoric of choice was apocalyptic, solution was almost solely being born again, and the benefits of this theopolitical message was not only salvation and heaven but also capitalism and American leadership in the world.