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 ...1