On Friday we reviewed Grant Wacker's new book, America's Pastor, and asked, "Is Billy Graham an Evangelical?" Today we're running an excerpt from that book, focusing on Graham's role not just as an evangelical, but as the leader of evangelical Protestantism in the second half of the 20th century.
Perspective is crucial. Graham did not build the edifice of modern evangelicalism. The key structures had been put in place, brick by brick, for three centuries. And countless hands had contributed every step of the way. Yet Graham’s influence on the architecture of the structure proved so profound that many Americans effectively identified him with it. George Marsden once said that an evangelical could be defined as “anyone who likes Billy Graham.” The line was tongue in cheek, of course, but it bore an element of truth, especially if measured by public perceptions.
The story started at home, with the multiple ways Graham helped shape the movement’s internal culture. For one thing, he prompted evangelicals to shift their focus from the venial sins of cussing, smoking, drinking, dancing, and premarital sex to the mortal sins of greed, lust, racism, and, above all, faithlessness. Which is to say, he prompted evangelicals to shift their focus from moral misdemeanors to moral felonies. That did not mean that he started out that way. Nor did it mean that he ever winked at the misdemeanors, or got entirely beyond preaching about them himself. But it did mean that he helped evangelicals establish a sense of scale. In a closely related move, Graham also alerted evangelicals to the difference between core and peripheral doctrines. Not every doctrinal difference was worth going to the ...1