Review: America’s Pastor
Grant Wacker. America's Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014. 413 pages. ISBN 978-0674052185.
Grant Wacker chose not to write a “conventional biography” of a man he terms—along with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pope John Paul II—“one of the most creatively influential Christians of the twentieth century.” Instead, in America’s Pastor, he frames his portrait of Billy Graham around a series of related questions. Why is Graham important? What does Graham’s career inform us about “evangelical religion”? And what does Graham’s story “say about the relation between religion and American culture itself” (1-2)? To answer those questions, Wacker eschews a chronological narrative of Graham’s career in favor of chapters on Graham as Preacher, Icon, Southerner, Entrepreneur, Architect, Pilgrim, Pastor, and Patriarch.
Wacker’s deep research ensures that even readers already familiar with Graham will learn much about the most famous evangelist of the twentieth century. Most students of American religious and political history know that Graham had a cozy relationship with conservative politicians. Fewer will know that he once went skinny-dipping with Lyndon Johnson in the White House pool, or that Graham slept at the White House on Johnson’s final night in office and then delivered a prayer the next morning at Nixon’s inaugural. Presidents came and went, but Graham remained center stage for decades.
Wacker proposes as his thesis that “Graham displayed an uncanny ability to adopt trends in the wider culture and then use them for his evangelistic and moral-reform purposes” (316). It is an easy thesis to prove in some respects. Graham first made his mark as an evangelist with Youth for Christ, which took as its motto, “Geared to the times, anchored to the rock.” Relentlessly adaptive, he distanced himself from “fundamentalism” in order to cooperate with a wide array of Protestants (and Catholics to a lesser extent). He ceased his early opposition to what he once called “boogie-woogie music.” His team used a host of cutting-edge entrepreneurial strategies to build Graham’s brand, financial resources, and evangelistic capabilities. Graham epitomized evangelical Christianity’s remarkable capacity for adaptation and reinvention.
Wacker, however, gives as much credence to what he terms Graham’s “theological core” as he does to the changing scaffolding that accompanied it. Graham cared about a relatively small number of ideas: “Bible, God, sin, Jesus Christ, new birth, growth in grace, second coming, reward (or punishment), and mission” (33). And at the center of it all was an emphasis on “new birth,” the belief that God would regenerate the hearts of those men, women, and children who made a “decision” to trust Jesus Christ and his offer of redemption. Though Graham became an enormous celebrity, Wacker rightly insists that Graham’s life work—his calling and obsession—was that of an evangelist. Graham did not see moral reform as his primary responsibility. By the 1970s, he spoke more frequently of the need to alleviate poverty, and he embraced the cause of nuclear arms control in the 1980s. For the most part, though, Graham organized his entire life around his insistence that professed faith in Jesus Christ could change individual hearts and lives.
And millions made those “decisions,” coming forward and signing commitment cards at the invitations Graham delivered during his crusades. The exact numbers and their significance remain unclear. Most of those who signed commitment cards after Graham’s crusades already belonged to churches. (Wacker notes that when Graham himself was converted at a 1934 revival in Charlotte, he marked “recommitment” on his card.) Graham understood that many people were born again and again, while others were reborn very slowly or not at all. Still, the figures are staggering. Graham filled Madison Square Garden for sixteen weeks in 1957. In 1973, he spoke to more than one million people at a single gathering in Seoul. “If the number of inquirers who walked forward to commit their lives to Christ measured effectiveness,” Wacker concludes, “Graham was the best in the world at what he did” (67).
Wacker introduces himself in a prologue as “a partisan of the same evangelical tradition Graham represented, especially the irenic, inclusive, pragmatic form of it that he came to symbolize in the later years of his public ministry” (3). He also begins his book by recounting his fuzzy memories of Graham’s 1957 New York City crusade and the surge of hundreds to the front at the conclusion. He ends his book with an account of his interviews with the increasingly frail Graham while he wrote America’s Pastor. Wacker comments that “being with the man in person confirmed that humility – deep, authentic, the real thing—constituted the core of his identity” (315). At least at first glance, that conclusion is hard to square with Graham’s decades-long presence in the cultural and political limelight. As Wacker notes, however, both journalists and many of Graham’s religious opponents found it impossible to gainsay Graham’s sincerity and earnestness.
While not hiding his admiration for Graham, Wacker asserts at the outset that America’s Pastor gives Graham “the benefit of the doubt when the evidence allows it” but tells “the truth without flinching when it does not” (3). For instance, on the subject of civil rights, Wacker begins with a chronology of Graham’s evolving stances toward segregation and racial injustice. Then he offers his own judgments. He notes that Graham “recurrently went out of his way to point out that racism was not a uniquely Southern flaw” and that he frequently “seemed reluctant to take a firm stand” (132). Moreover, Graham trivialized racial injustice and other social problems by suggesting that individual conversions could solve everything. Although he invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to pray at the 1957 New York City Crusade, he disturbed King and many others by giving segregationists places of prominence during other campaigns.
At the same time, Wacker concludes that it “is hard to think of another white evangelical of Graham’s generation, social location, and breadth of constituency who posted a stronger record” (133). By 1953, Graham forbade segregated seating at his crusades and other appearances. He supported Eisenhower’s use of National Guard troops in Little Rock, and he held an integrated crusade in the still-tense city two years later. In the mid-1960s, Graham became critical of the civil rights movement, criticizing “extremists” on both sides of the struggle. In the end, though, Wacker suggests that Graham “made it difficult for millions of people publically to resist racial justice and still call themselves Christian” (135).
Wacker correctly observes that the “literature … about Billy Graham is vast” (319). William Martin’s Prophet with Honor (1991) remains the preeminent biography of the evangelist. For a more detailed and sharply critical examination of Graham’s record on civil rights and infatuation with Richard Nixon, readers should consult Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South by Steven Miller (2009). America’s Pastor, however, is unsurpassed for its explanation of why so many Americans—southerners, “Plain Folk,” and “Heartland Americas,” but not only those groups—found Billy Graham irresistible. Wacker concludes that Graham “possessed an uncanny ability to speak both for and to the times.” Graham embodied the nation as “average [white] Americans” wished it to be and represented the South as many white Southerners envisioned it (316). Contrary to the subtitle of America’s Pastor, one suspects that Graham symbolized more than he shaped the post-World War II United States.
Yet Graham did much to shape the evangelicalism that reclaimed the center of American religious life for several decades beginning in the 1940s. More than any single other figure, he created perceived distance between “new evangelicalism” and fundamentalism. While Graham and his fellow evangelicals always had many detractors, he helped fashion a conservative Protestantism that enjoyed an unexpected public resurgence. Even many non-evangelicals found it difficult not to like Billy Graham, especially those who met him in person. It is probably no accident that evangelicalism’s standing among non-evangelical Americans has cratered as Graham’s presence diminished. For all of his faults and blind spots, he was by far his tradition’s most able exponent, and America’s Pastor is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the movement he helped to revive.