Who Was Billy Graham? Placing America’s Evangelist in History

By Steven P. Miller | February 21, 2018

(Spencer Grant/Getty)

When word came that Billy Graham had died, my mind turned to June 2005, when Graham held what was billed as his final crusade. The Greater New York Crusade was a triumphant closing chapter for America’s evangelist. The overwhelmingly warm coverage it garnered came across like the first-run of his obituary. In the more than a decade since then, Graham’s familiarity was easy to take for granted. The increasingly house-bound evangelist stayed in the news, often because of his outspoken son and heir, Franklin. When I mentioned Billy Graham to my students, though, it was evident that he occupied an increasingly small slice of their cerebral cortex. They knew the name but struggled to distinguish him from Jerry Falwell or even Ayn Rand. This was true even though Graham’s astonishing run as a regular in the Gallup “most admired” poll was entering its seventh decade. Now that Graham has reached the close of his remarkable life, many Americans soon might be asking, Who was Billy Graham?

Students of American religion and politics are unlikely to forget about Graham, for several reasons. His life intersected with, and in turn shaped, many of the major trends that we write, teach, and talk about. In my own work, I have been particularly interested in the ways in which Graham often symbolized the very trends that he was personally influencing. Most Americans knew him through crusade sermons, The Hour of Decision addresses, and My Answer columns, but countless powerful political and business leaders received spiritual counsel, along with temporal advice, from him in the form of letters, phone calls, and golf outings. Graham was a public figure who wielded private sway. As a symbol-actor, Graham has profoundly informed my understanding of three of the grand narratives of recent American history: the postwar religious revival, the so-called “Southernization” of America, and the post-1968 conservative turn in American political culture. Understanding Graham’s place in all three stories can help us to thoughtfully memorialize his legacy.

The first example is perhaps deceptively obvious. The postwar salad days of civil religion can easily lend themselves to caricature. Graham’s status as a God-and-country icon was evident from the moment his landmark 1949 Los Angeles crusade received a puff of media hype. His postwar fame indicates that Bible Belt Protestantism was not as marginalized in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s as many evangelicals (including self-identified fundamentalists) claimed it was. Indeed, the sudden emergence of Graham, coupled with phenomena like the start of the annual Presidential (now National) Prayer Breakfast, makes the late 1940s and early 1950s look like an unlabeled evangelical moment. If there really was a postwar consensus about the American Way, then evangelicals probably were a part of it. In this respect, the subsequent evangelical renaissance—Jimmy Carter, the “Year of the Evangelical,” and so on—seems a bit less surprising than it struck commentators at the time. There is a reason why historians struggle to decide whether Graham was a forerunner of the Christian Right or what the Christian Right was implicitly rebuking. He was a bit of both.

Graham’s ascendance also suggested that his home region of the South was rising again, soon with a new name: the “Sunbelt.” The North Carolinian (whose evangelistic headquarters spent five decades in Minneapolis largely by accident of history) kept his Piedmont drawl as he gained a global footprint. The concept of “Southernization”—of white non-Southerners learning to like country music, the Dallas Cowboys, and stock car racing—hardly captures the full impact of Graham on American society, not to mention the rest of the world. However, it remains useful for explaining how the South became de-marginalized—and likewise for explaining how the evangelist became “America’s Southerner,” as Graham biographer Grant Wacker has put it. At the very least, the evangelist symbolized a type of Southern modernization, the transformation of Charlotte’s Park Road from Graham family homestead to prime suburban real estate. Graham spelled out the spiritual terms of that modernization. Only when Graham’s brand of “color-blind” racial moderation—first evident during his desegregated Southern crusades from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s—become more widely accepted among white leaders did the Sunbelt mystique gain traction. The post-Civil Rights Movement South came to be defined both by the Sunbelt boosterism of Atlanta real estate moguls and the pious politics emanating from Lynchburg and Virginia Beach. The evangelist straddled both spheres even as he resisted easy identification with either.

In both of the above narratives, the seemingly atavistic became the wave of the future. A similar dynamic was evident in the conservative political turn that announced itself with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. Graham’s contribution to this story is unquestionably more contested compared to the previous two examples. The stock narrative of Graham highlights his partisan dalliance with President Richard Nixon and subsequent turn away from political involvement (other than to provide pastoral support). It leaves out quite a bit. From Gerald Ford to George W. Bush, there was a pretty clear distinction between Graham’s political friends (all presidents and most major candidates who reached out to him) and his political allies (Ford, Reagan, and both Bushes). Graham’s effective endorsement of Mitt Romney in 2012, paired with election-eve newspaper advertisements in which the evangelist (or words attributed to him) urged voters to support “biblical principles” like the “the biblical definition of marriage,” was an unfortunately crude coda to his lifetime interest in electing godly leaders. This was not Nixon redux. Graham in his nineties was not the independent agent who celebrated his fiftieth birthday two days after Nixon first won the White House. During that earlier stage in Graham’s career, though, he helped to create the still-regnant context in which conservative theology is almost irresistibly linked with conservative politics. Ex-Fox News President Roger Ailes admired Graham in the same way that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once did.

If one defines modern conservatism primarily as a movement, however, then Graham appears to be an outlier and not much of an influence at all. Paul Weyrich and other New Right activists during the 1970s knew that they could not turn to him to build a Christian Right network. Clearly, Graham paved ground that the Moral Majority and similar groups would later occupy. At the same time, he generally sidestepped the culture wars; this is one of the most significant reasons why he stayed near the top of the Gallup poll for so long. Graham never became a crank. His influence on the broader conservative turn is more manifest, though, if one takes a broader view, weighing some of the factors that enabled right-leaning politicians to build broad coalitions over the last several decades. One such factor, as noted above, was color-blindness, which promised to depoliticize racial issues by way of individualizing them. Still another was what eventually became known as “compassionate conservatism.” Those words became a vapid slogan by the time George W. Bush and Karl Rove got through with them, but they tapped into a maturing world of evangelical social concern not directly linked with the usual suspects on the Christian Right. This was the kind of “social concern” that Graham and his generation of postwar evangelicals long had implicitly viewed as an antidote to liberal statism. Within the Bush-era Republican Party, this worldview quickly yielded the floor, first to the supply-siders, then to the hawks, and finally to what became the Tea Party. Now, in the age of America First, its electoral moment seems quite distant. Still, the spirit of compassionate conservatism endures among those—like Rick Warren—who operate in the shadow of evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry’s “uneasy conscience” more than Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.”

While I hope that the question, Who was Billy Graham?, serves more than a rhetorical purpose, I also hope that there will never be a consensus response to that question. Many Billy Grahams exist. Indeed, none of my examples prioritizes Graham’s avowed identity: evangelist to the world. It is compliment, not a category error, to claim that Graham was more than what he—with a trademark humility that was both genuine and strategic—claimed to be. His core message of salvation begat all of his other roles. For this reason, as I have argued elsewhere, Graham might well be America’s most complicated innocent. Talking about Lyndon Johnson, Bill Moyers (who served as a Graham liaison in the Johnson White House) once said that the president “was thirteen of the most interesting men I ever met.” I have only addressed three Billy Grahams here: Graham the mainstream postwar evangelical, Graham the Sunbelt modernizer, and Graham the proto-compassionate conservative. The fact that there are many more Grahams assures that memories of the evangelist will survive his life and ours.

Steven P. Miller is the author of Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South and The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years

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