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 ...
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