It’s helpful to step back and consider how American evangelicalism tells its own story. That story starts in the 1920s.
Yes, there’s plenty of evangelical history and heritage before the 1920s. There’s Edwards and Whitefield and Finney and Moody. There’s the first Great Awakening and then Awakening 2: The New Batch, etc. But that part of the story covers the generations in which American evangelical Protestantism enjoyed a kind of uncontested — and therefore uninteresting — cultural hegemony. The story only gets interesting once we can introduce conflict and contrast. Without conflict and contrast, the story can’t tell us about our identity.
So the story starts with conflict, with the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s. The Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 usually stands in for that whole theological culture clash, but it was really a sideshow to the main event. This was the great divorce between the pious traditionalism of biblical literalists and the pointy-headed intellectual theology of the so-called “liberals.” It was a parting of the ways between those American Protestants who affirmed biblical criticism and those who affirmed uncritical biblicism.
According to the terms of this divorce, the “modernists” got to keep all the mainline denominations and the seminaries while the fundamentalists moved out, retreating into their own private subculture of new denominations, non-denominational parachurch agencies, and a thousand new “Bible” institutes. (They didn’t want those crummy seminaries anyway.)
The fundamentalist retreat, according to this narrative of history, meant a withdrawal from society, from politics and from public life. That retreat lasted for several decades until the post-war rise of the “Neo-evangelicals” — a term meant to hark back to the glory days from before the great split in which evangelicals had devolved into either fundamentalists or modernists.
You can see why this narrative is particularly appealing to evangelicals (they soon dropped the “Neo-“). Whereas the earlier fundamentalist-modernist split offered a dispute with two equal sides, this narrative positions evangelicals in the reasonable middle. It’s a nifty little Hegel’s Bluff that allowed these Neo-evangelicals emerging back out of fundamentalism to see themselves as the synthesis between two antithetical mistakes.
This “Neo-evangelical” emergence brings us all the big names that we now associate with 20th-century white evangelicalism — from Carl Henry and the founding of Christianity Today to, of course, the Rev. Billy Graham. (To fully appreciate Graham’s role in this narrative, it helps to imagine his name sung with the reverent tone the townspeople reserve for the name “Randolph Scott” in Blazing Saddles.)
Graham and the Neo-evangelicals dragged much of American fundamentalist Christianity back out of the shadows, reasserting its place in public life and society. But this reassertion of evangelicalism in public life was also scrupulously non-partisan and a-political. Bill-lee-ee Graham was an evangelist, not a prophet. To the extent that he believed political change was necessary or even desirable, he expected it would come as an outgrowth of individual personal salvation — as individuals became born again, they would gradually bring about the rebirth of society.
The mainstream, mid-20th-century white evangelicalism of Graham and CT were thus a-political in the same sense that George Orwell described Charles Dickens as being a-political:
It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane, and his attitude is sufficiently summed up in that remark about Strong’s school being as different from Creakle’s “as good is from evil.” Two things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different. Heaven and Hell are in the same place. Useless to change institutions without a “change of heart” — that, essentially, is what he is always saying.
That, essentially, is what Billy Graham and the mainstream white Neo-evangelicals of the mid-20th-century were also always saying, with the added qualification that individuals would not behave decently unless they were born again. But Dickens clearly saw the effects of structural injustice, even while he was unable to understand its root causes. Mainstream white evangelicalism has never even recognized those effects. That’s why, from the mid-20th-century on, white evangelical social reform has always seemed more focused on vice than on injustice.
And that’s why Graham was willing to fight for integrated evangelistic rallies and integrated altar calls, but not for integrated lunch counters, schools or voting booths.
This otherworldly gospel of individual salvation and a-political decency helped the Neo-evangelicals regain some of the cultural prominence they had abandoned during their earlier decades of fundamentalist retreat. Billy (all stand, hats over hearts) Graham became a fixture at the side of American presidents and Gallup polls perennially hailed him as the “most trusted” man in America.
That’s the story white evangelicals tell, and that narrative is largely reinforced by many mainstream historians of American religion. It’s a story, appropriately, of rebirth — of evangelicalism rising from the ashes of fundamentalism to regain its original state of cultural influence.
This narrative conveys some truth, but it also misleads in many ways — by omission and by implication.
The main problem with this narrative, though, is that it’s incomplete. It takes us, semi-reliably, through the post-war rebirth of evangelicalism and the peak years of Billy Graham’s influence, but it cannot account for the decades that follow all that. It doesn’t tell us the rest of the story — the emergence of politicized fundamentalism, the rise of the religious right, and the way the fundamentalists of the religious right have swallowed, reshaped and redefined Neo-evangelicalism into a partisan voting bloc that is, today, more a subset of the Republican party than of the Protestant religion.
The narrative, in other words, doesn’t tell us how it was that we got from Billy Graham to Franklin Graham. It doesn’t explain how the post-fundamentalist Neo-evangelicals gradually morphed into the post-evangelical partisans of 21st-century white “evangelicalism.”
To understand that part of the story, we need to turn to religious historians like Randall Balmer, who tirelessly explains how anti-abortionism became the surrogate expression of anti-integrationism. And we need to turn to political historians like Rick Perlstein, who can help us to understand how the Dixiecrats turned into the Reagan Democrats before ultimately settling in as teavangelicals. Because, really, if you want to understand white evangelicalism ca. 2014, you don’t need to study the religious career of Billy Graham, you need to study the political career of Strom Thurmond.