Billy Graham’s Political Lesson

From Matthew Milliner:

Golf was a symbol of Graham’s amity with America. Indeed, Wacker claims that hundreds of photos of Graham enjoying high-profile, high-green-fee golfing events circulated in major magazines. But then, reports Wacker, something changed:

The debacle of the Nixon presidency, which Graham had strongly supported, signaled a turning point, if not consistently in practice, at least in aspiration. The sordid revelations released with the Nixon tapes saved Graham from himself. They forced him back to the drawing boards to reassess his real and perceived complicity in the smugness of that administration and by implication the smugness of his associations with other parts of the American establishment.

To borrow a phrase that Andrew Walls applies to Christianity in general, evangelicalism is “infinitely translatable.” This translatability means that evangelicalism can function as effectual resistance to racism, as an ecumenical catalyst, a platform for women in ministry, or as an endorsement machine for American politicians. Billy Graham was associated with each of these translations, and each one is duly represented among the Billy Graham collections. But one of these translations comes with a warning from Graham himself. It’s right there in his autobiography: Graham’s friendship with Nixon “muffled those inner monitors that had warned me for years to stay out of partisan politics.”

A fresh round of sordid revelations will probably not hinder some evangelicals from the dream of golfing with our current president. And should they get the opportunity, I doubt they’ll be as lucky as Graham was in the Christmas of ’67. But exile and defiance are certainly among the movement’s infinite translations as well, and the roots of this kind of evangelicalism are as deep as Daniel. Such a faith brooks no nostalgia for Billy’s clubs from Monte Carlo, and might eventually find itself in the way of the billy club instead.

Matthew J. Milliner (whose views don’t necessarily represent those of his employer) is associate professor of art history at Wheaton College.


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