Mentioning the name Billy Graham evokes all kinds of responses. Deep respect for a faithful evangelist. Admiration for a life of unparalleled achievements. Anger toward a figure who failed to do what some subgroup wanted him to do. Disappointment over a man who appeared ever drawn to politics and presidents. Increasing ignorance of who he is.
While the sentiments toward Graham vary, of all these opinions, perhaps the most surprising—and least justifiable—is ignorance. But even if many pay less heed to Graham, who as of this writing is still kicking at age ninety-six, his legacy is palpable in evangelicalism and even American culture. So argues Grant Wacker in his masterfully written America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (Belknap, 2014; source: publisher).
From the outset of this volume, the reader should be aware that Wacker has no interest in writing a traditional biography of Graham. Rather, he offers an analysis of Graham’s life captured in eight themes—his preaching and theology, his celebrity status, his Southern roots, his entrepreneurial skills, his bridge-building efforts across denominations and faiths, his engagement with politics and the American nation, his pastoral approach toward his constituency, and his role as an American and evangelical patriarch.
As one can see, these themes are by no means simplistic. They draw together the winding roads of Graham’s life and influence. In short, Wacker offers us “Graham interpreted.” And one would expect no less from this respected Duke Divinity School historian, who provides an impressive synthesis not only of sources by and about Graham but also of American religious literature.
Wacker covers a lot of ground. Rather than treating each of the eight organizing themes for his book—and all offer valuable and illuminating insights into Graham and his world—I will discuss three refrains that echo throughout the book’s chapters.
First, one can’t walk away from this book without a vivid sense that Graham underwent many changes in his lifetime. Graham himself stated in 1983, “I’ve picked up a thing or two as I’ve been around, and you can’t help but change” (242). Examples of such change abound. Graham went from holding segregated crusades to standing up for racial justice. He went from railing against Communism to attending a peace talk in the Soviet Union in 1982 and championing nuclear disarmament. He went from being a down-home American patriot to defending the dispossessed around the globe. He increasingly promoted the social implications of the gospel. He grew more open to those who differed with him. Billy Graham changed. And the astute student of recent American history will recognize that these changes largely mirrored broader changes in American culture. As Wacker shows, Graham both paralleled and propelled such changes.
To be sure, many things about Graham did not change. For example, to the end, he always prioritized evangelism and heart transformation, his “single aim”—“to draw men and women to make a decision for Christ” (63). But even these top-level principles took a new frame with the other changes in Graham’s mind—just as they did in a changing American culture.
And that leads to a second refrain. Graham influenced America at large. For example, his attitudes on race and integration shifted significantly for a Southerner who had grown up in a culture that assumed black subservience to whites. While many felt he moved too slowly on the race issue—and Wacker ably explores the details of his sometimes back-and-forth movement on race, especially in the 1960s—move Graham did. And his efforts to promote integration helped evangelicals and some other Americans gradually embrace it themselves.
One can see similar influence on American culture in his approach toward other religions. Graham increasingly held an open hand toward those of other faiths. He opposed coercing Jews, leaving them to make their own decision. While never affirming universalism, he left the fate of those in other religions to God alone. In contrast to not a few aggressive evangelical preachers, this approach was more palatable to the emerging American culture.
One could point to other aspects of Graham’s impact on American culture at large. But one final refrain deserves attention: Graham’s relationship to evangelicalism. So much could be said here. Graham played key roles in erecting evangelical institutions such as Christianity Today and Fuller Theological Seminary—not to mention his own Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. He helped establish evangelicalism as a middle way between fundamentalism and the Protestant mainline. In many ways Graham played the most public role in defining the evangelicalism of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Put another way, if one looks around at evangelicalism today, one will see all kinds of characteristic marks. Evangelicals like churches to be big but to feel intimate (think megachurches and their small groups). They want preachers to speak on serious topics with a casual delivery. They prefer charismatic speakers who aren’t too heady. They’re devoted to Christian celebrities (and their books and sermons and tours). They emphasize individual choice. And perhaps most important of all, evangelicals want to major on the theological majors (like the broad gospel) and minor on the theological minors in order to build bridges with other Christians.
Graham was all of these things. He spoke in a baritone voice with a slightly Southern accent that made people feel at ease—even though he was a big, charismatic celebrity. He never pretended to be a theologian, and he worked hard at building bridges to create a broad evangelicalism that emphasized not theological debates but an evangelism based on the lowest common theological denominator. And that’s why Wacker notes that perhaps “the most widely quoted words Graham ever uttered” were these: the “one badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy, but love. There is far more emphasis on love and unity among God’s people in the New Testament than there is on orthodoxy, as important as it is” (182).
To put it another way, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that one of the driving forces behind evangelicals embracing these values was Graham. But to nuance that further, Wacker reminds us that Graham was both mimicking the changes in the culture as he promoted those changes in evangelicals. Put succinctly, Graham changed. He changed America. And his changes, driven by the American context, helped define American evangelicalism. And all of this reinforces Wacker’s thesis: “From first to last, Graham displayed an uncanny ability to adopt trends in the wider culture and then use them for his evangelistic and moral-reform purposes,” which “helps explain Graham’s rise in the evangelical world, evangelicalism’s rise as a powerful force in American religion, and religion’s rise as a powerful force in recent American history” (316).
What can we say of Wacker’s treatment? At various points, the reader can see that Wacker has a respect for his subject. This sentiment comes through especially in his epilogue. A few may think this makes him too biased. And sometimes it does seem that he highlights in Graham the “irenic, inclusive, pragmatic form” of evangelicalism to which he himself is partisan (3). In response, some will ask if he sufficiently recognizes Graham’s commitment to the exclusivity of Christ. At the same time, a few diehard devotees will think he is too critical of Graham.
On the whole, Wacker strikes an admirable balance of seeking to understand Graham for who he was and for what genuinely motivated him. That is to say, I think he largely achieves his goal “simply to be fair” (3). He has no problem showing Graham’s faults—such as his self-admitted vanity and penchant for wading into partisan politics, try though he did to stop. And he has no problem pointing to his successes. But ultimately, as a historian, Wacker aims not to excuse Graham or applaud Graham but to understand Graham and what his life says about his time and place. And Graham is a fruitful subject, for his life tells us a great deal about twentieth- and early twenty-first-century America and religion.
Is it important to know about Billy Graham? He was no great theologian. He didn’t found a college or pastor an influential megachurch. Rather, in his own way he left an indelible mark on American evangelicalism and American culture, a mark that in many ways made it possible for other evangelicals to found colleges and build megachurches. Put another way, Wacker identifies Graham as one of the three “most resonant voices” in America in the second half of the twentieth century, along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paul II (316). Understanding Graham thus helps one understand the evangelicalism and the America in which we find ourselves today.
And reading America’s Pastor will help you better understand Graham and recent developments in evangelicalism and America. If you are an evangelical, reading it will help you better understand yourself. And whether you appreciate Graham or not—and for all the legitimate debates over his legacy, Wacker makes a convincing argument that he was a man of genuine motive and moral integrity—you owe it to yourself not to be found among those who are ignorant of the towering yet affable Billy Graham.
*Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.