Writing about Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation as a managing editor of Christianity Today is at once a daunting and complicated task. Graham founded this magazine. His portrait greets me every time I come in the building. I have on my wall a 1956 copy of his “Christianity Today Statement of Policy and Purpose.” On my desktop is a special 128-page issue on Graham’s life and legacy I put together years ago, ready to publish “at some point in the future,” as we euphemistically told our writers (several of whom Graham has now outlived).
So if Wacker calls himself “a partisan of the same evangelical tradition Graham represented,” I don’t quite know what that makes me—a fanatic of that tradition?
Wacker, who is about to retire from his position at Duke Divinity School as one of the preeminent historians of American religion, begins his book by warning that it’s “not a conventional biography. Numerous studies of Graham’s life or aspects of it already grace the shelves of public libraries, and many of them are excellent. My aim is different. I try to step back and ask another question: Why does Graham matter?”
Likewise, I won’t offer a conventional review, except to say that it is required reading for anyone seriously interested in evangelicalism, 20th-century American history, or the sociology of religion. If you want Graham’s life story, you may be better off with William Martin’s 1991 authorized (but honest) biography, Prophet with Honor. That volume is twice as long, and an updated version is due out “at some point in the future.” But for a thematic view of how Graham affected (and was affected by) American culture, Wacker’s book is unparalleled. And if you’re one of the many evangelicals under 40 who are only vaguely aware of how Graham shaped your world, you need this book.
What Did You Go Out to the Stadium to See?
Interviewing Wacker for Publishers Weekly, Henry L. Carrigan Jr. wrote, “Graham has affected so many people, Wacker believes, because he is a complex, multi-faceted figure who appeals to many segments of society; people see in Graham whatever part of him touches them most.”
That theme of Graham as a Rorschach inkblot recurs throughout Wacker’s book as he more directly examines Graham as preacher, icon, Southerner, entrepreneur, architect, pilgrim, pastor, and patriarch.
But it emerges even more so in the reviews of America’s Pastor.The reviews say far more about the reviewer than they do about Wacker’s history or Graham’s life.
To The Christian Century’s reviewer, for example, “Billy Graham was an enabler” of evangelicals’ worst instincts. “Graham perpetuated more than challenged the obscurantist and reactionary postures that were common within his core constituency,” David Hollinger writes. Rather than bravely fight against “ignorant and antiscientific ideas about evolution” or recant “his early-career assertion that the Bible declared same-sex relationships to be so sinful that those guilty of this sin must ‘repent,’” Graham “led a life of missed opportunities.” When the evangelist took steps to fight racism, poverty, and other injustices, Hollinger writes that “Graham and his cohort of evangelicals were merely falling into line at long last with an outlook the hated ecumenical Protestants had advanced for several generations.” Hollinger admits that this is “a different interpretation” than the one presented in Wacker’s book.
Where the Century sees Graham and evangelicals as backwards cowards, The Chronicle of Higher Education paints them as scoundrels. Why, wonders Stephen J. Whitfield, isn’t Wacker more skeptical about “the central dogmas upon which Graham built so spectacular a career, such as the possible imminence of the Second Coming and the inevitability of divine judgment that will separate the saved from the lost”? Whitfield, professor of American studies at Brandeis, complains that the book never tells the reader whether the tenets of Christianity that so motivated Graham are false. “The religious ideas that [Graham] has spent a lifetime promoting are nevertheless still ideas and therefore deserve to be examined with the same critical detachment as notions about the validity of race or the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. Ideas do not become true—or even sensible—merely because millions of people subscribe to them.”
For what it’s worth, Whitfield’s review also complains that Graham’s book on what the Bible teaches about angels “was listed in the category of nonfiction” and claims that the United States does not permit agnosticism.
The Wall Street Journal’s Barton Swaim, meanwhile, sees Graham and evangelicals as a bunch of loudmouths:
[Graham] simply could not keep silent when he could speak or write, whether he had thought through his opinion or not—and in that sense, too, he is the quintessence of the sociological stratum with which he is most closely associated. American evangelicals have cultivated a culture of instantaneous and constant self-expression: They do not think without writing those thoughts in controversial articles or Facebook posts. Evangelical athletes must overtly give God credit for touchdowns and home runs (though, curiously, not fumbles and strikeouts), and evangelical authors must write books on successful child-rearing principles while their children are still in diapers.
There’s actually an important point here I will come back to in a moment. But it’s hard not to be a bit insulted, especially as an evangelical writer. Then again, Swaim ends his review by saying, “In the end, America’s Pastor doesn’t tell us very much about how Billy Graham ‘shaped’ the nation. But it tells us a lot about why, during the second half of the 20th century, evangelicals didn’t.” One wonders if Swaim and Whitfield, discussing the book over drinks, would disagree about whether evangelical piety controls America or if they’d just be content to share a lament over evangelical boorishness.
SOURCE: Christianity Today