By Peter Smith / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Evangelist Billy Graham, now 96, has outlived most of his critics and most of the people who shared the headlines with him. He’s also outlasted generations of admirers. Surveys tell us many younger adults don’t know or care who he is.
That’s hard to fathom for anyone old enough to remember much of the 20th century. Billy Graham appeared regularly on Time and Newsweek covers for much of his active ministry, spanning more than 60 years. He showed up regularly on TV with stadium crusades and fireside Christmas specials with the likes of Johnny and June Carter Cash. He often visited the White House — really too often for his own good. When he blessed causes, candidates, wars and peace movements, people listened.
Nowadays, religious historian Grant Wacker has to explain to his students — seminarians, no less — who Billy Graham is. Mr. Wacker, a professor at Duke Divinity School and specialist in evangelical and Pentecostal history, says the time is ripe to assess this vastly influential career.
“America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation” (Belknap Press, $27.95) isn’t a straightforward biography of Rev. Graham. William Martin’s 1991 “A Prophet with Honor” remains the standard for that.
Rather, Mr. Wacker analyzes Rev. Graham’s impact on statesmen, churchmen, citizens and converts — and all the lonely people who sent him desperate letters by the millions.
Mr. Wacker convincingly argues that Rev. Graham helped in “the shaping of a nation,” guiding how “Americans perceived the world around them … and then how they acted.”
As Rev. Graham built his Christian media empire, he “displayed an uncanny ability to adopt trends in the wider culture and then use them for his evangelistic and moral reform purposes,” Mr. Wacker wrote.
As a personality, Billy Graham hardly seems fodder for 400 pages of analysis, endnotes included. He’s the straightest of straight arrows — a teenage convert, career preacher, faithful husband and family patriarch.
Even admirers acknowledge he really had one sermon — in short, come to Jesus. Not everyone could see the attraction (see Truman, Harry). But multitudes adored Rev. Graham as the plumb line of faithfulness and character.
Mr. Wacker finds nuance between the polarities.
Widely recognized for personal humility, Rev. Graham was also a chronic name-dropper and self-promoter. Hardly extravagant, he hobnobbed with the rich, famous and powerful.
In the 1950s, Rev. Graham scared many to their knees with warnings of communist advance. But he evolved in surprising ways.
He took heat for attending a 1982 peace conference in Moscow. While he knew the sclerotic Soviet regime was putting on a propaganda show, he believed he could do some good. Mr. Wacker, like many, says he did.
It was in Moscow where Rev. Graham made one of his most bracing confessions. He said he’s undergone three conversions in life: to Christ, racial equality and nuclear peace.
As for race, the native North Carolinian’s record frustrates the prophetically minded. He didn’t join the Rev. Martin Luther King on the streets, but he did invite him on stage. Rev. Graham didn’t march in Selma, but he did lead integrated crusades in the South. He didn’t bring the change, but as a favorite son of the white South, he made it go down more smoothly.
Mr. Wacker deals squarely with Rev. Graham’s toadying to President Richard Nixon, and the poisonous words about Jews that the evangelist voiced on Nixon’s secret White House tapes. Notwithstanding Rev. Graham’s apologies, the words clash with his generous interfaith relations. They will blemish his obituaries.
The most remarkable find in this book, however, may be all those letters sent by admirers. The postman knew where to deliver envelopes addressed simply to “God’s Man, Minneapolis, USA.”
The surviving letters represent a catalog of 20th-century maladies: alcoholism, drugs, depression, suicide, nursing-home isolation, wayward children, wayward spouses. Rev. Graham heard from the incarcerated, the conscience-torn, the doubting, the despairing.
“Graham’s achievement for all Americans ... lay in the offer of a second chance,” Wacker wrote.
The main limit for this book is one Mr. Wacker acknowledges — its focus on Graham as “America’s pastor” rather than as world figure. Rev. Graham was a rototiller for what became a massive evangelical harvest in the Global South, where he preached to millions and trained thousands of indigenous evangelists. That legacy deserves as fine a book as this one.