“Just As I Am” Assessing the career of America's most successful preacher.

America's Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation

Grant Wacker (2014, Belnap Press) 448 pages with index, notes and photographs.

In November 2000, Billy Graham announced that he would be retiring from the Evangelical association he had founded and then captained for the previous 50 years. Suffering from a number of health problems, he decided to withdraw to his home in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and let his son carry on the work he had begun. While Graham’s retirement from public life has not been complete—he oversaw the construction of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte and has spoken publicly on several occasions, including a nationwide television broadcast in 2013 that he advertised on a towering billboard in Times Square—his profile has nonetheless dimmed. However, Graham’s diminishing place in the public imagination has ironically given him a new stage. Biographers and historians now have a chance to view his life’s work and legacy in a retrospective light never before possible, and the task is a tall one.

Graham’s wealth, political ties, and 60 years of tireless preaching made his influence unquestioned. Over his career, he fostered either friendships or close professional relationships with every American president after Truman. He counts more than 3 million recorded “commitments for Christ,” constituting conversions and rededications to the faith. While it is impossible to know the number of lives he touched, we can say with certainty that he is the most widely-known preacher in American history. But what, exactly, does “influence” mean in real terms? Did that influence shape the nation and world, and if so, how? How was this influence cultivated? And what can Graham’s unprecedented celebrity tell us about the culture that recognized and sustained his importance?

The twists and turns in Graham’s life makes such conclusions difficult to reach. His positions on civil rights for African-Americans and equal rights for women were often inconsistent and his public statements equivocal. Graham also shifted from Cold Warrior to careful critic of U.S. foreign policy, first loudly advocating total war in Korea, then questioning the logic behind the Vietnam War, then actively supporting nuclear disarmament in the 1980s. Further, many of these ideological shifts took place only when they were politically expedient, opening him up to charges of opportunism. Additionally, Graham pitched a huge tent, one that enabled his massive success, but that made declarative political statements risky and potentially alienating. Consequently, his legacy cannot be that of an ideologue repeating an unchanging message, constantly. Rather, any satisfactory interpretation of his career must account for and seek to explain these seeming inconsistencies.

Somehow, in spite of the massive changes in American society across racial and geographical divides, Graham managed to position his message to appeal to the mainstream—and thus reflect it by virtue of his popularity.

So how then to write about such a seemingly ambiguous figure? In the wake of mostly celebratory (and occasionally damning) treatments of Graham, Grant Wacker’s book, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation presents itself as an even-handed approach to the evangelist. It achieves this narrative distance by bucking many typical conventions of biography. In fact, it rarely invokes his personal life in adulthood, and usually does so only to show how it affected the development of his “voice.” (Wacker does, however, see his childhood as particularly formative, insofar as it oriented him both within and outside mainstream Protestantism.) On the contrary, America’s Pastor stakes its claim by meditating on the nature of Graham’s influence on American society at large, and the course of Evangelical religion in particular. He proposes that Graham’s legacy was to present millions of Americans with a “moral vocabulary,” that altered the way they conceived of themselves and their place in a divided and rapidly changing society. Further, Wacker stresses that the secret to the longevity of Graham’s relevance was in his adaptability. Somehow, in spite of the massive changes in American society across racial and geographical divides, Graham managed to position his message to appeal to the mainstream—and thus reflect it by virtue of his popularity.

Graham will always be associated with the Civil Rights era, if only because it was then that he attained the national recognition he would enjoy for the rest of his career. Wacker notes that Graham faced a situation that could have made him a tragic figure: the basis of his appeal was inclusivity in a divided time—yet he managed to overcome this. Early in his ministry, Graham rejected the segregated churches and pews common to the pre-Civil Rights Act South. A great number of the people who formed his constituency were white Southerners who remained unreconstructed on the issue, but by force of character Graham integrated his prayer meetings, and by inviting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at his crusades, he helped initiate a significant shift in the political-religious order of the ’50s and pointed towards a radical social integration that America has yet to witness. Graham’s immediate vocal support for Eisenhower when the National Guard oversaw the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, cemented his position as a benevolent force in the Civil Rights movement. On the other hand, Graham also made the puzzling decision to stand with the segregationist governor of Texas during an election campaign in the middle of 1958, over the admonishment of several prominent Civil Rights leaders. Wacker decides against castigating Graham for not having had good enough politics, and argues that we would do better to see him for what he was: a product of the South whose changing political views both mirrored and shaped the changes around him. Ultimately, Wacker tries to emphasize the positive changes in white Southern Evangelicals’ attitudes towards racial integration, and sees Graham as both representative of the South’s laggardly pace and instrumental in coaxing it forward. Graham’s shift, then—too slow for some of his detractors—was actually mirrored by the culture that birthed and sustained him. Readers may find his conclusion a bit exculpatory here. Graham’s attention moved from Civil Rights to Vietnam to nuclear disarmament, and neither he, nor many whites within his audience, really cared quite as much about the connections between racial equality and economic opportunity ever again.

Still, America’s Pastor excels when it describes the historical processes in post-war America that allowed Graham to vault to stardom (and which he in turn helped steer). Wacker recognizes that there is no way to discuss Graham without putting him in the context of a Southern population that was rapidly spreading into the West and reproducing its unique cultural forms, including Evangelical worship, as it went. His discussion of the basic shifts and cleavages in Protestantism after WWII is particularly compelling. In considering the aggregate effect Graham had on the American religious landscape, he suggests that Graham, “more than any other person, triangulated…American Protestantism into three distinct groups: mainline Protestants on the left, unreconstructed fundamentalists on the right, and Evangelicals in the middle.” First, he recognized the separation of 19th-century Evangelicalism into two distinct divisions: new Evangelical and fundamentalist. Second, he helped transform the new Evangelical “substream” (in both its denominational and its cooperative forms) into a coherent and powerful channel in itself, running alongside the third segment of mainline Protestantism. Wacker is careful not to ascribe too much causality to Graham’s ministry, but he concludes persuasively that it is difficult to imagine these changes occurring with as much speed or force without his guidance.

Wacker recognizes that there is no way to discuss Graham without putting him in the context of a Southern population that was rapidly spreading into the West and reproducing its unique cultural forms, including Evangelical worship, as it went.

The close relationships Graham enjoyed with American presidents is perhaps the most fascinating aspects of his career, and raises a number of questions. What are we to make of this closeness? What did he gain from these connections? And how did these powerful figures profit from the association? Wacker contends that Graham’s relationships with presidents were mainly pastoral and friendly, rather than overtly political, writing that “Presidents’ support of his work in general and him in particular gave him credibility.” It was a reciprocal relationship, though—presidents and other wealthy oligarchs received legitimation publicly, and the indisputably effective direct ministry of an incredibly charismatic pastor.   Additionally, Graham represented a “barometer of Heartland opinion,” providing useful information for any figure making decisions on a national scale. Here, too, Wacker’s approach is convincing. Graham was a life-long Democrat, whose moral views disposed him towards Republican candidates and office-holders; his primary calculation, however, seems to have been the enduring relevance of his ministry, rather than the political maneuverings pursued by Evangelicals on his right.

The chapter titled Entrepreneur recognizes that, over time, the name Billy Graham became a brand—that his “voice” could be replicated and even franchised, with all the attendant problems one might expect to result, particularly the loss of direct oversight and warping of his message away from his tenets. While Graham retained authority over the use of his voice, it is unclear how much control he exercised. Wacker introduces Graham’s oversight of Christianity Today, the anti-civil rights movement position of which seemed in direct contradiction to his public message. Another significant issue is that the “voice” was not uniquely created by him. Wacker does the math, and accepts the impossibility of one man traveling as much as he did, and still writing 1600 sermons and 32 books. So even in his sermons, what often resulted was the “Billy Graham Voice” – something abstracted from himself, yet distinct and immediately recognizable as Graham’s by his legions of fans. Still, while the entrepreneurial aspect is inarguable, Graham’s appeal seems closer to that of a capable politician than a shrewd marketer in that his greatest coup was getting people from strikingly different walks of life to believe that he both represented their views and could serve as their moral guide.

One surprising absence in Wacker’s narrative is the massive change occurring in voting blocs from the ’60s onward, initiated by the widespread white Southern resistance to civil rights, and helped along by the Republican Party’s Southern strategy. Nor is there any mention of the conservative coalition which would have set the political tradition from which the self-avowed life-long Democrat emerged. Additionally, the political influence of the Moral Majority receives but a single mention, a curious decision considering the major wedge issues they introduced, chiefly homosexuality and abortion, which still retain enough cultural capital to radically redraw the political map in the years to come.

These omissions may be by design. Wacker declares that his focus is not a direct engagement with the divisive debates among professional historians, and in avoiding this particular contemporary thicket, he may preserve the relevance of his book for years to come. The 74 pages of endnotes in America’s Pastor attest to his careful scholarship, yet the book is an engaging read, intended for popular readership and academics alike. It is a rare work of history, both authoritative and accessible, but in Wacker’s measured, learned, approach to his subject, he has thrown open the tent to a large and diverse audience, and set a praiseworthy standard for future scholars to follow.