Steven P. Miller has given us a political biography of Billy Graham that will help us remember the last half of the 20th century in America and will open our eyes to the interplay of religion and politics that has shaped us, especially in the South.
As a Baptist who came of age in the ’50s and lived to see a new century, I have always been keenly aware of Billy Graham. He put our people on the map and in the media. He preached the simple gospel and conducted himself with integrity when many television preachers did not.
As a southerner living through the end of segregation, I found encouragement in Graham’s stand for accepting all people in his crusades. I had some second thoughts after Watergate because of his close association with President Nixon. These increased in recent years when the Nixon tapes revealed the two men engaged in anti-Semitic conversation. Still, Graham stood tall, apologizing when he was wrong and continuing his mission to preach to the world.
Now the Billy Graham era is at an end, and we can look back and evaluate. Steven Miller has done this. Based on extensive research and documented with copious end notes, the book portrays Graham not only as a major religious leader of the 20th century but also as a major player in American politics, especially the Southern Strategy begun by Nixon that ended Democratic control of the South and delivered Dixie into the ranks of the Republicans.
Miller is a historian, teacher and writer with a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. He writes from a Christian (Mennonite) background and understands Graham’s religious basis. He affirms Graham’s accomplishments but gives a multi-layered analysis of his involvement in politics and culture, sometimes explaining the evangelist’s actions as motivated by ambition and sometimes questioning the accuracy of his memory of events.
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Graham came to national attention with his 1949 Los Angeles crusade. He was always primarily a preacher, but he welcomed the attention of the media and the politicians. He wanted to present the Christian message to the whole world. Presidents welcomed him to the White House, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower.
He was friend and counselor to every president up to and including George W. Bush, though he was not close to Jimmy Carter, a fellow Baptist. He was closest of all, too close he later realized, to Nixon. Graham has been a registered Democrat, but he actively supported Nixon and other Republicans to a degree most people won’t be aware of until they read Miller’s book.
Graham’s theology and his global strategy led him early on to distance himself from the racial segregation of his native South and insist that crusade attendance be open to all. He knew he could not be tied to the segregated institutions of the South if he was to preach to the whole world. But his belief in divine sanction for the authority of government caused him to resist the demonstrations and civil disobedience of the desegregation movement.
Southern segregationists found comfort in his insistence that only a change of heart, not law, could bring about change in race relations. Instead of supporting Martin Luther King Jr., Graham counseled patience and caution and continued to keep friendly relations with segregationist politicians.
The reader will sympathize with Graham as she or he learns of the pressures that were put on him by the politicians, and many of us Baptists in the South will have to confess that we did not do enough either to end segregation sooner. But Miller leaves room to conclude that Graham sometimes helped to calm the conflict that raged during the ’60s and to keep the country together while slow progress was being made.
This is a book that will help all of us understand what has happened to us these last 60 years. It will especially help us keep our balance between religion and politics, church and state. It is an academic book, published by University of Pennsylvania Press, and therefore will not gain wide readership. But for those of us who lived through these events and tried to maintain integrity in Christian ministry, it can be a page-turner.
David George is pastor emeritus of Immanuel Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn. He retired after 30 years there and now devotes his time to study, writing, preaching and interim ministry.