I grew up in West Virginia as a Catholic in a Protestant culture, the kind we would today describe as evangelical. We Catholics had the pope — but he was a distant and, to be blunt, foreign figure. Our Protestant neighbors had Billy Graham, the friend of presidents, business magnates and celebrities, who through the magic of television was a frequent, familiar guest in the homes of ordinary people; and he was as American as apple pie.
We didn’t admit it in those days, but we Appalachian Catholics — like, I suspect, many of our coreligionists throughout the land — envied those Protestants. We figured that Billy Graham made being a Protestant in America something like what it was to be a Catholic in Italy. And while we weren’t quite sure it wasn’t a little bit disloyal to watch, listen to and even like and admire a Protestant preacher, watch and listen many of us did — sometimes against the warnings of our parish priests or the nuns who taught us in parochial schools.
It was hard not to watch and listen to Graham. He was mesmerizing: movie star looks; a strong, compelling voice; a charmingly soft Southern accent; stage presence. His message was as simple as it was powerful: Our lives on earth are short. Soon enough each of us will die. Do you want to go to heaven? Then you must give your life to Christ. You must accept him as your Lord and Savior and enter into a personal relationship with him. He is even now lovingly extending his hand to you. Will you not take it? Quoting Scripture, he would say, “ ‘Now is the accepted time; today is the day of salvation.’ This is the hour of decision.”
Then would come the altar call: As Graham’s superb musical team played and sang the moving old hymn “Just as I Am,” the acclaimed evangelist would invite — encourage — those attending his “crusades,” or listening to his “Hour of Decision” program, first on radio, then television, to stand up and give their lives to Christ. Watching from home, even we Catholics felt the impulse to get out of our seats, though we believed that we already belonged to Christ sacramentally, through baptism.
A significant part of Graham’s appeal was his manifest integrity. To be sure, he seemed to enjoy his celebrity — what celebrity doesn’t? — and to revel a bit in his connections with the culturally and politically powerful; but few thought he was in the game for money, status or personal aggrandizement.
In good Christian fashion, Graham “lacerated himself for the sin of pride,” Grant Wacker, the Gilbert T. Rowe professor of Christian history at Duke University Divinity School, notes in “America’s Pastor,” his excellent study of Graham’s ministry. But as Wacker convincingly argues, Graham was actually guilty of little more than “flashes of vanity” — though sometimes his desire to maintain connections with the influential and powerful caused him to remain silent at, or even affirm, remarks richly meriting rebuke (like Richard Nixon’s offensive comments about Jews). But on that rather human failing of casually deriding outsiders, perhaps he who is without sin should cast the first stone. Anyone who has sat in a faculty lounge has probably heard prejudiced remarks about evangelical Christians like Graham. Neither religion nor secularism immunizes us human beings against being, well, human — “all too human.
Wacker’s book is an academic project in the best sense. It is not a
biography, but rather a disciplined, admirably fair-minded effort to understand and explain how 20th-century American culture produced a figure like Billy Graham, and how Graham in turn helped to shape that same culture. Wacker’s thesis — capably defended at every turn — is that the key to Graham’s success was his “uncanny ability to adopt trends in the wider culture and then use them for his evangelistic and moral reform purposes Still, even so impressive a skill as that would have been for naught had it not been for Graham’s deep and genuine faith, his integrity and his ability to make and keep good friends, including some, like the vocalist George Beverly Shea and his music master and program organizer Cliff Barrows, who loyally worked with him over almost his whole ministry.
Billy Graham was a phenomenon. As Wacker shows, he fashioned an evangelical path between Protestant fundamentalism and theological liberalism. He found a way to work fruitfully with mainline Protestants and with Catholics. He had a way of reaching people in every stratum of society with his Christian message.
The white evangelical Graham, like many black evangelicals then and now, was a moral conservative and a civil rights liberal. At a crusade in 1953, he threatened to leave unless the organizers removed ropes they had put in place to segregate the races. He befriended Martin Luther King Jr., who accepted Graham’s invitation to preach at one of his New York City crusades, and even posted bail for King when he was arrested in Albany, Ga. Graham viewed integration less as a constitutional issue than as a religious imperative. He insisted that segregation was unscriptural and that blacks and whites were eqal “at the foot of the cross.”
Countless souls of all races in the United States and around the globe came to Christianity as a result of Graham’s ministry — many of them in response to a direct appeal from Graham himself at one of his crusades, or through his broadcasts or writings. Many others were brought to the Christian faith by those Graham had himself “discipled” or influenced.
I suspect that Graham’s only real competitor for the title of most influential Christian evangelist of the 20th century is Pope John Paul II. And the comparison is apt. A John Paul II event, whether in Paris, New York, Los Angeles or Manila, resembled nothing so much as one of Graham’s crusades — a vast crowd in an allegedly postreligious age, and often in an allegedly post-Christian city, drawn to a larger-than-life figure preaching a demanding message of repentance and reform, but doing it with the accent on God’s mercy and the liberating joy of the Christian life.
Wacker reports that Graham and John Paul II met three times, and that Graham’s admiration for John Paul was “manifest.” Did the pope reciprocate that admiration? At one of their meetings, he grasped the Protestant preacher by the thumb — yes, the thumb — and said, “We are brothers.” John Paul II was not a glad-hander or a flatterer. He didn’t say what he didn’t mean. In Graham he clearly saw a fellow Christian, a fellow evangelist and, no doubt, a fellow pioneer in the effort to heal the divisions that had fractured Christianity. Graham, who earlier in his life had been suspicious of Catholics, took great satisfaction in the pope’s regard for him.
Perhaps those on the Catholic side who in the 1960s and early ’70s watched and admired Billy Graham were ahead of their time. Perhaps they perceived that doctrinal differences, though important, did not dissolve the bond of Christian brotherhood. Wacker explains: “Over the years Graham’s fundamentalist former friends excoriated him for many things, including his stance on civil rights and working with mainline Protestants, but they especially deplored his rapprochement with Catholics. His enemies knew his heart.”
Indeed, they did. It was, in the end, that heart that made him, in the words of Wacker’s title, “America’s pastor.”
Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation
By Grant Wacker
Illustrated. 413 pp. The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. $27.95.