It has taken me several days of processing the passing and legacy of American evangelist Billy Graham to wrap my head around what’s different about the way I view who he was compared with the way others seem to see him. Over the last week I’ve seen every extreme emotion represented from pride and admiration to seething anger and disgust. People feel really strongly about the man, whether good or bad, and quite honestly both groups have valid points.
I suspect the way a person feels about Graham largely follows the way they feel about evangelical Christianity in general. “An evangelical,” historian George Marsden once quipped, is “anyone who likes Billy Graham.” The inverse is also true: If you’ve come to disapprove of evangelicalism, you’ve probably found you no longer like the man who came to be the embodiment of that cultural movement.
Not a Great Man
I think most people are what an old professor of mine would call “Great Man theorists” although personally I’ve never subscribed to that way of viewing historical events or people. Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle famously said “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” and I’m inclined to believe this is a very natural way for people to think. It makes history so much simpler to see it as the product of the actions of only a handful of exceptional people.
But there is another, much more complicated way to see things. British biologist and sociologist Herbert Spencer vehemently disagreed with Carlyle:
You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown…. Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.
That, to me, makes a lot more sense because history is an exceptionally complex thing. Most important cultural and historical developments, it seems to me, come about through the intermingling of dozens or even hundreds of diverse forces and events not necessarily connected to each other nor perpetrated by any secretive cabal of uber-powerful people. The Illuminati persists in popular mythology because we’d much prefer to simplify all of history into the mysterious workings of an elite few when in reality history is far less sexy than that.
I believe we should view the phenomenon that was Billy Graham through this lens as well, reminding ourselves that people are products of their times. Which is not to say the people themselves don’t bear responsibility for the things they believe or accomplish—they most certainly do. But I don’t think Graham was a “great man” who changed history so much as he was the one history chose to become the emblem of something much bigger than the man himself.
He was the personification of American evangelical Christianity, and I don’t believe the things that happened to him owed as much to the man himself and his own greatness as they did to everything happening around him, to a number of political forces much larger than the lanky preacher from rural North Carolina with the booming voice and the piercing blue eyes.
The Making of Billy Graham
A strong case can be made that the fiery fundamentalist preacher who grew up on a dairy farm would never have made national headlines if it hadn’t have been for media mogul William Randolph Hearst deciding to shine a national spotlight on him in October of 1949. The reclusive west coast multi-millionaire (today he would have been a billionaire) took an interest in the young ministerial upstart because he so perfectly encapsulated the anti-communistic ethos that Hearst wanted to harness and channel into his own increasingly conservative political interests.
Have you ever seen the movie Citizen Kane? Film critics rank it among the most important films of all time, and it was based on the persona and story of Hearst, who inherited a fortune and used it to build the world’s first media conglomerate out of sensationalist tabloids and radio stations. A champion of organized labor in his younger years, the older Hearst became a vehement opponent of leftist politics and at one point even praised Adolf Hitler for keeping Germany out of “the beckoning arms of Bolshevism.”
In 1934 Hearst went so far as to publish unopposed opinion pieces written by Hitler, Göring, and Mussolini, perhaps as his own retaliation for failing to personally select the Democratic candidate for president two years earlier. Hearst despised FDR’s New Deal and saw it as a communistic perversion of the American way. He soon appropriated Hitler’s own “Germany First” motto and began printing “AMERICA FIRST” in all caps in the masthead of his own national chain of newspapers.
When the young Billy Graham first showed up in Los Angeles in late September of 1949 to conduct a three-week series of tent revivals, they ordered far too many chairs for the event, at least at first. Hoping for crowds of up to 6,000 people, his first couple of weeks only drew in a thousand or two per night despite several months of aggressive promotion among local churches and nearly $25,000 spent on local advertising.
But then something happened. Devout evangelicals look back on this historic moment as a fresh movement of the Spirit of God, a revival wrought by the hand of the Almighty. But there were other forces at work which more readily lend themselves to documentation such as President Truman‘s announcement two days prior to the start of the crusade that the Soviet Union had successfully detonated their first atomic weapon, posing the first great threat to the global military dominance of the United States, and the announcement of the beginning of the communistic People’s Republic of China less than a week into Graham’s modest evangelistic crusade. Fear of creeping globalized communism was escalating quickly.
Hearst’s children later told Graham that the Los Angeles based media mogul disguised himself and showed up to hear one of Graham’s fiery sermons accompanied by his longtime mistress, silent film actress Marion Davies. Then three weeks into the crusade, right about the time Graham and company seemed ready to throw in the towel, a local celebrity named Stuart Hamblen was moved by the young evangelist’s persuasive preaching to give up gambling and drinking and went on a local radio spot to tell everyone about his conversion.
Hearst saw in Graham a golden opportunity. Within hours of that radio broadcast, he had instructed all of his editors (he owned papers and radio stations all over the country) to “puff Graham” and by the time Graham showed up to preach the next day he was greeted by swarms of journalists and broadcasters looking to interview him and promote his crusades free of charge. What started as a modestly attended three-week revival turned into an extended eight-week engagement that saw more than a quarter million people in attendance, and the next several crusades would continue that pattern, thanks to the ongoing and aggressive promotion by the Hearst media empire. Curiously, the two men never met, and never even shared a single direct conversation.
Graham became an overnight sensation. Over the next few years, Time and Life magazine magnate Henry Luce similarly “puffed Graham” and helped to make him a household name across America. Both Luce and Hearst found in Graham a charismatic personality capable of channeling middle America into their own political directions through a potent combination of “old time religion” and anti-communistic zeal that would guarantee conservatives a consistently reliable voting bloc long after FDR’s New Deal had taken root in the everyday functioning of American life.
A couple of years later Graham started a film production company (today known as World Wide Pictures) with a $75,000 gift from Russell Maguire, who owned the company that produced the infamous “Tommy Gun” and often used his great fortune to support various pro-fascist and anti-communist political endeavors. He, too, saw something in Graham that could serve his own ends.
But the machine gun manufacturer wasn’t the last of the deep pockets to take an interest in the young evangelist.
A White House Fixture
A Texas-based oil tycoon named Sid Richardson soon talked young Graham into flying to to Paris in 1952 to track down General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was too busy managing Allied military forces in Europe to think much about running for president later that year despite having already won the New Hampshire primary without even campaigning. Graham met with Ike and showered him with exorbitant praise and grandiose predictions (“No one ever accused me of understatement,” Graham often joked), encouraging him to trust that in the event he runs for office, the young preacher would see to it that Southern Baptists check the box next to his name come November.
Thus began a long and storied series of relationships between Billy Graham and every president since. Nancy Gibbs once wrote in Time Magazine that in time Graham eventually “came with the office like the draperies.” He became especially close to Lyndon Johnson, to whom Richardson had introduced Graham long before Johnson became president, and then later joined forces with Richard Nixon, remaining fiercely loyal to him right up until the moment it became inescapably obvious that he was guilty of obstructing justice and a host of other very “unpresidented” misuses of his powerful office.
So much has already been said about Graham’s ubiquitous presence in Washington that I’m only going to say here that Graham was routinely used by powerful political people and groups in order to curry favor with a demographic which every political party seeking power needed to win over. That went double for the Republican Party after Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which incidentally only made it out of committee by sidestepping Senator James O. Eastland, for whom my grandmother served as secretary), thus alienating Southern whites almost overnight.
In the wake of the “blue tsunami” that swept the nation in the presidential election of 1964, the GOP realized they would soon die away if they didn’t find a steady voting base to enable them to survive another generation. The Republican Party had little choice but to either change what they were about entirely, or else somehow rebrand themselves as the champions of rural America, especially of Southern whites, who were still feeling the sting of Brown vs. Board of Education, having still not integrated schools in the Deep South a full decade later.
Graham’s Real Legacy
A few days ago on Facebook I expressed amazement that Billy Graham managed to stay in ministry for 60 years without any significant personal scandals, financial or otherwise. I was then quickly reminded how repulsive his beliefs were to people whom he charged with displeasing God (e.g. atheists, the LGBT community, people who drink liquor, etc), but even on those points I feel like the man has to be seen in light of the culture that produced him. As far as his personal character goes, he appears to have kept his nose clean, so to speak, for a very, very long time. In his line of work, that is incredibly rare.
It’s not hard to see why Americans found in Graham such an admirable hero. Conservative commentator George Will put his finger on what it was that probably impressed us most about Graham’s legacy (incidentally hurting the feelings of both FOX News’s Todd Starnes and The Gospel Coalition’s Owen Strachan, who wondered aloud if Will is also prone to kicking dogs) when he said:
Americans respect quantification, and Graham was a marvel of quantities. He spoke…to more people directly — about 215 million — than any person in history.
That’s an astounding figure, to be sure. Except follow-up studies revealed that the percentages of people who would make actual “professions of faith” as a result of his crusades were always in the single digits, and further interviews with Graham intimated that their own research showed that an overwhelming majority of those people had turned away from their newfound faith within a matter of a few years. So upon further analysis, mass evangelism may not have ultimately been the most effective or consequential thing that Billy Graham did in his lifetime.
Graham’s most enduring legacy may very well have been the thing about which he later expressed some regret.* He inadvertently helped to validate a shotgun wedding of sorts joining two very strange bedfellows indeed: The Republican Party and the evangelical Christian church, which today manages to move as a single unit without the aid of any monolithic ecclesiastical governing apparatus. I’ve explained before how the brokers of this unholy matrimony pulled this off, but it still bears repeating because it goes so far to explain the alternate reality we see unfolding around us today.
Graham likely had no idea at the time how much he was being played by others, trusting as he was toward the character and intentions of those elevating him to such a place of honor. Which makes him a microcosm of what happened to evangelicalism as a whole.
That They May All Be One
Once upon a time, American Christians didn’t consider everyone who embraced that label to be on the same team.
I recall a conversation I had with my grandmother, who was born about the same time as Graham, in which she described ongoing tension between two relatives who “belonged to different religions.” When I asked what religions those were, she explained that one was a Methodist and the other was a Presbyterian. Evidently there once was a time when belonging to different denominations meant you weren’t seen as belonging to the same religion. And don’t even get me started on what Baptists said about Catholics.
That changed over the course of her lifetime (and mine), and today we find significantly differing traditions all flying under the consolidated “Christian” banner thanks to the efforts of people like Graham who spent a considerable amount of time in Washington courting (or rather being courted by) the Republican Party. But therein lies one of the main points of today’s glance through Graham’s story.
Billy Graham and evangelicalism were so perfectly interchangeable that his life was indeed a perfect microcosm of the movement itself: What happened to him happened to the evangelical tribe as a whole. From the church’s point of view, this was God’s doing, and it was glorious. But the unvarnished truth is that both Graham and the subculture he represented were pawns in a larger political game, a game benefitting pockets much deeper than his adoring fans ever understood.
But back to how they all got united under a single banner.
Conservative political operatives tried for many years to find a way to commandeer the electoral support of fundamentalist churches but couldn’t find a hook to get them mobilized. Ever since the spectacle of the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 exposed just how incongruous with basic science and history their beliefs had become, fundamentalists had retreated from politics and circled the wagons to protect and preserve their outdated tradition. Their cultural enemies had developed metaphorical chariots of iron, and once again God’s faithful people just didn’t have the firepower to match their opponents.
That changed with the rise of the Religious Right and Jerry Falwell‘s Moral Majority in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But what people don’t understand enough is that this movement didn’t just rise up out of nowhere, like some revivalistic groundswell of religious devotion driven by common folks from places that don’t even show up on maps. Nor did Falwell or anyone else who stood up in front of the cameras really understand how many people were pulling the strings attached to him.
This movement was the result of a concerted and well-funded campaign organized by wealthy men looking to save a political party that faced extinction after their best efforts to stymie the Civil Rights Movement failed, and those men didn’t care what it took to earn their buy-in. They were determined to make it happen.
Whitewashing Their Roots
Evangelicals today view their opposition to abortion as the single greatest unifier for their tribe. But as religious historian Randall Balmer has explained many times, Falwell’s Moral Majority first unified Catholics and Baptists under their common fear of the enforcement of Green v. Connally, which stipulated that private schools whose admissions policies discriminate on the basis of race automatically forfeit their tax-exempt status with the IRS.
That’s an awful lot of green to give up. Balmer gets right to the point:
Several evangelical leaders and evangelical organizations applauded the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision. The late Paul Weyrich, architect of the religious right, was emphatic that abortion had nothing whatsoever to do with the genesis of evangelical political activism in the 1970s…
What galvanized Jerry Falwell and other leaders in the 1970s was not abortion, which they considered a “Catholic issue.” They mobilized instead to protest the rescission of tax-exempt status at Bob Jones University and other “segregation academies.”…Only later, in advance of the 1980 election, did Weyrich and others recognize that abortion could mobilize grass-roots evangelical voters.
Never mind the fact that the Bible never condemns abortion. In fact, in at least one place it actually prescribes it. After decades of increasing irrelevance, evangelicals were primed and ready to matter again, and they were all too willing to accept the invitations of big shots in Washington to attend photo opportunities in order to make it look like suddenly the small-town faithful would regain their voice in the public square.
So a movement which started out as an effort to preserve racially discriminatory school policies soon evolved to become about something entirely different, something less optically problematic like the defense of “the unborn.” Prior to this moment, Catholics and evangelicals feared and distrusted each other deeply—the handwringing over the election of Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy was almost comical in retrospect.
But Baptists soon adopted the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion, even if they never did internalize the larger disdain for birth control in general. It was a marriage of convenience that would serve the former rivals well by giving them a larger, more visible presence in matters of public policy. And the Republican Party was eager to welcome them with open arms.
The Southern Strategy was like a Faustian bargain but in reverse. The GOP sold their souls to Jesus in exchange for 40 more years of life.
— Neil Carter (@godlessindixie) March 5, 2018
Evangelicalism Was Always About Politics
People outside the conservative political bubble often decry the influence of religion in matters of public policy, complaining that white evangelical Protestantism unduly bends our legislators toward favoring their own perspectives over all others. And they’re absolutely correct.
But what’s less understood is how over time the political platforms themselves come to influence the religious beliefs of the groups their proponents so aggressively court. Over time the Republican Party and the Evangelical Church became like the married couple who start to look like each other.
What stories like this should make crystal clear is the political and ideological influence between evangelicals and the Republican Party has always been mutual, a two-way street. Baptists didn’t condemn abortion before the Republican Party helped make it an issue for them, an identity marker by which they could be exalted to a place of greater visibility and power in the public square once again. It had been more than a generation.
Preachers with no considerable skill or knowledge of civic government soon were being called upon by politicians and their funders everywhere for their support, and that was just fine by the preachers. Suddenly they felt they had a voice again, as did their churches, and they’ve been happy to shake all manner of sweaty hands to keep it that way.
In America’s last presidential election, high profile ministers from all over the country gathered around Donald Trump to show their unqualified support for a man who by all accounts is the least qualified human being ever to achieve a major party’s nomination. No matter how brazen or foolhardy his words and actions, they continue to support his presidency as if he were divinely appointed by the hand of God. It’s what they were told to do by the party they trust, and churches are good at nothing if not training people to think and act as they are told. The damage this has already caused our national reputation may be irreversible.
Sadly, this will become the lasting legacy of evangelicalism in the United States, effectively removing from them any public credibility in matters of spiritual or moral guidance. Years down the road, adherents to whatever new version of Christianity succeeds evangelicalism will insist either that these things never really happened, or else that the people who sold their birthright for this bowl of porridge never really deserved the name “Christian” anyway. Then they will wash their hands clean of the matter and find something else to make their entire lives about.
But make no mistake: the evangelical label was always a political one. It was fashioned by a joint effort between the sincerely devout and the wealthiest of pragmatists. And gifted, photogenic preachers like Billy Graham, whether or not they ever realized it, have always just been along for the ride.
[Image Source: Christianity Today]
* In 1981 Graham exhorted Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell: “I want to preserve the purity of the Gospel and the freedom of religion in America. I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form…. it would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”