Billy Graham Is Still Shaping American Politics
Just before Christmas last year, Mark Galli of Christianity Today dropped a bomb in the already turbid waters of American evangelicalism. He called for President Donald Trump’s removal, either by ballot or by impeachment.
Billy Graham’s ghost stalked the drama that followed. The evangelist had founded the magazine in 1956. Though dead for nearly two years, and off the public stage for nearly 20, he still mattered.
Almost everyone invoked Graham one way or another. He usually appeared in one of two roles: as legitimator or as identifier. As legitimator, he purportedly backed up positions that the principals on all sides of the debate had taken. If Billy were still here, the rhetoric ran, he would have agreed with us. Other times he served as an identifier. His name provided not only an anchor in time and space but also, and more importantly, proof that this was a story worth reading.
Historians took a longer view. Years ago, George Marsden quipped that an evangelical could be defined as a person who really liked Billy Graham. The line invariably evoked a laugh because it rang true. When Graham died, another historian, Daniel Silliman—now news editor at CT—got the point exactly right. “For more than fifty years,” he said, “Graham was so famous people felt like they had to have an opinion about him. … [H]e became a lodestar of religious identity.”
Graham did not do it alone, of course. He built on a sprawling evangelical infrastructure already in place. And stinging attacks from mainline critics like Reinhold Niebuhr and fundamentalist ones like John R. Rice amplified his visibility. Even so, to tell fully the story of mid-century evangelicalism without Graham, and his lingering power to shape assumptions, is unimaginable.
So how did Billy become the unseen guest at the dinner table?
The short answer is that he spoke so much on so many topics that it is easy to find words from him that seem to support diverse positions. He authored or authorized 34 books, helped produce hundreds of articles, and talked on thousands of occasions. And on some topics, his views really did change—sometimes dramatically—between the fiery outings of the 1940s and the patriarchal benedictions of the early 2000s.
But this diversity ran deeper than sundry words uttered at different points in his life. Rather, Graham fathered distinguishable impulses not just within himself but deep within the movement itself. They might be called the centripetal and the centrifugal. The former term suggests an inclination to look inward, to locate and then preserve a still point in a turning world. The latter suggests a contrasting inclination to look outward, to see the trends of the age and then make the gospel relevant to them.
Or to adapt the helpful metaphors that CT’s CEO Timothy Dalrymple used, Billy’s ministry exemplified the flag—“here we stand”—and the table—“now let’s talk about it.” The task was to balance inherited convictions with new experiences.
To my knowledge, Graham never used the words centripetal or centrifugal, but he manifested their spirit. He instinctively understood that the two impulses needed each other. The preacher never budged an inch on the core convictions inherited from his evangelical teachers at Wheaton College and elsewhere, but a lifetime of circling the globe and encountering new people and new cultures forced him to speak in more winsome and capacious ways. The proportions shifted.
The centripetal—or flag-planting—inclination turned up everywhere, but perhaps most conspicuously in the founding of CT in 1956. Three motives fueled Graham’s efforts here. The first was to define a center point for the emerging yet amorphous movement. The second was to police its boundaries by publishing some authors and advertising some books—but not others. And the third was to help evangelical spokesmen (and virtually all were men—white men) gain a respected voice in the marketplace of public discussion. In time, all three motives saw considerable success.
The centrifugal—or table-setting—inclination showed up everywhere, but perhaps most conspicuously in the New York City crusade the following year, 1957. Other crusades were larger or posted more conversions, but none captured as much attention, then or later.
Here, too, Graham held three aims. The first was to reach beyond the largely “old stock” white constituency that had supported him from the beginning. His decision to invite Martin Luther King Jr. to pray—and King’s acceptance—marked a milestone. The second was to embrace mainline Protestants. Billy famously said he would work with anyone who would work with him if they did not ask him to change his message. The final one was to use print, electronic, and advertising media on a scale never seen in evangelism. The first aim enjoyed some success, the second significant, and the third massive.
Viewed as a whole, then, these centripetal and centrifugal motivations flowed like overlapping rivers through Graham’s ministry across 60 years. He held them together by the force of his personality, the genius of his organizational skills, and the power of his message to touch ordinary lives.
A late-in-life exchange with television celebrity Larry King showed how Graham’s thinking ran. King, a close friend, and a self-identified secular Jew, publicly asked Billy if he (King) would be doomed when he died. The question was reasonable, for Billy had never trimmed his insistence that Christ provided the only path to heaven. Yet Billy’s response then and later was classic Graham: I leave all that to God. First flag, then table.
Or again, Billy’s late-life view of same-sex relationships is instructive. From beginning to end he affirmed that they were sinful. But when a reporter asked how he would feel if he had a gay child, he said, simply, that he would love the child more because they would need it more. Again, first flag, then table.
At the beginning of the 2020s, the conventional narrative—which the mainstream media carefully cultivates—of relentless warfare between the bearers of the flag on one side and the setters of the table on the other holds considerable merit. I don’t see much room for compromise between, say, Paula White and Jim Wallis.
Even so, Graham’s pattern shows promising signs of vitality. The thoughtful comments of Peter Wehner, a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a regular columnist for TheNew York Times, offer a case in point. Wehner identifies himself as a conservative evangelical Republican—but also a “never-Trumper.” Which is to say that he argues for a politics built on a (centripetal) foundation of enduring truths yet tempered by a (centrifugal) openness to the winds of change.
In today’s toxic atmosphere, words such as foundation and openness wedded in the same sentence raise eyebrows. But it is easy to believe that Billy would have considered the marriage both good sense and good theology.
Final word. It is risky to presume to know what Graham would have said if he were still with us today. Jerushah Duford, Billy’s granddaughter, captured the point well: “I believe that assigning feelings to a man who is not here to agree or disagree with those assignments is dangerous.”
Still, the long trajectory of Graham’s career suggests that he would have sought a third way—especially in the latter half of his public ministry—as he grew increasingly irenic and inclusive. I don’t think he would have taken the easy way out and counseled “just split the difference” or “just stay out of it.” Rather, he would have tried to blend timeless theological principles with reassuring words of heartfelt care for all.
Exactly how, I am not sure, and even if I did know, the formula would have changed from time to time and place to place. A systematic thinker Graham was not. But the instinct first to define and preserve, and then to revise and apply, remained firm. And that adroit balancing of centripetal and centrifugal impulses—flag and table—might well be Billy’s most enduring legacy.
Grant Wacker is the author of One Soul at a Time: The Story of Billy Graham (Eerdmans).
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Billy Graham Is Still Shaping American Politics