Tara Isabella Burton writes that “Evangelical America needs Billy Graham now more than ever.” This is one of the better entries in the class of wistful, “I wish the current white religious right were more like Billy used to be” tributes. (Ruth [N.R.] Graham’s playful “Being Ruth Graham” is another nice contribution to this genre.)
I certainly agree with that sentiment, but that sentiment is less interesting and less complicated than the man himself.
Burton calls Graham “a religious leader whose convictions informed his politics, and not the other way around.” Would that this distinction were so easy to make, or to practice. To assume that it is that easy, or even that possible, opens the door to a lot of Very Bad Things.
To assume that it is true of Billy Graham just because his politics involved a difference in tone and priority from that of angry culture-warriors like his son is to misunderstand the man. More importantly, it ensures that we will continue to misunderstand ourselves.
I think Burton is right that Billy Graham earnestly wanted to be “a religious leader whose convictions informed his politics, and not the other way around.” I think that’s an admirable, maybe even a necessary, aspiration. But I don’t think Graham achieved that. I don’t think anyone has. And I think the only way to get anywhere remotely close to approximating that is to start by acknowledging that it’s impossible.
I have a degree from an evangelical seminary in the study of faith and politics. I’ve read and studied several dozen books by earnest Christian writers earnestly arguing that our political views must derive from our religious or “biblical” convictions, and not the other way around. That is what all of those authors and all of those books purport to do themselves (even as they all “arrive” at different political conclusions, all of which seem suspiciously like the political preferences of the authors).For a long time I was convinced that this was the proper way to go about things. Make one’s politics a blank slate, strip away all of your political preconceptions and just start with the Bible and with one’s Christian principles, then build one’s politics based on that.
Like all of those books and authors, I imagined I was actually doing that. I imagined I was capable of doing that.
But humans don’t work like that. We aren’t blank slates capable of stripping away every influence of culture, class, privilege, location, habit, upbringing, and self-interest. It’s always the other way around.
This is always easier to see in somebody else. I’m sure it’s what Billy Graham saw when he looked at his fervently segregationist father-in-law, but it would have been far more difficult for him to recognize the ways in which it was true for him too. That’s partly because it’s far more difficult for any of us to see this in ourselves, but also partly because Graham’s theology required him to think that absolute certainty and clarity were accessible to us.
Thinking that our political views can be purely derived from some abstract, wholly a-political, a-cultural, class-less, colorblind, Platonic set of of untainted religious convictions is a dangerous fantasy. It’s a will-o’-the-wisp that will lead us astray while tricking us into imagining that we’re not lost (and, even worse, that everyone else is).
Realizing that we work the other way around is a better, more honest, more accurate starting point.
If we want to understand Billy Graham, and to learn from him — from his achievements and from his failings — then it doesn’t help to imagine that he succeeded in allowing his religious convictions to inform his politics, and not the other way around. If we imagine that’s what he did, and that’s what we need to learn from his life and ministry, then we might as well replace all of these Billy Graham tributes with a series of essays entitled “Evangelical America needs Dwight D. Eisenhower now more than ever.”