Melani McAlister doesn’t just recite the Party Line on Billy Graham, she constructs an apologetic for this Old Time Religion Entrepreneur, whose religion and politics were equally banal and utterly conformist
Billy Graham, who died Wednesday at the age of 99, may have been “America’s Pastor,” but he was also a man of the world. From the early days of his ministry, when he visited U.S. military forces in Korea, to his quiet message of healing at Washington Cathedral in the aftermath of September 11, Graham was a frequent commentator on—and participant in—global politics. He used his status as the most important American religious figure of the 20th century to help lead American evangelicals into a more robust engagement with the rest of the world. He was also an institution builder who was deeply invested in Christianity as a global faith.
There were other people who taught more missionaries, and some who reached more people on television; there were even those whose preaching events rivaled Graham’s in size. But no one else did as much to turn evangelicalism into an international movement that could stand alongside—and ultimately challenge—both the Vatican and the liberal World Council of Churches for the mantle of global Christian leadership.
In Graham’s early days, he was known as both a straightforward anti-communist and a crusader for souls. “Either Communism must die, or Christianity must die,” he famously said, “because it is actually a battle between Christ and the anti-Christ.” When the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association organized the World Congress on Evangelism in 1966, they chose to hold it in the divided city of Berlin, which Graham called a “symbol of freedom and democracy.” For Graham and his people, the Cold War and the expansion of American-style evangelicalism were two sides of the same coin. This was a vision that held sway among American evangelicals for the next two decades, although it would also soon be challenged by the very globalization of the church that Graham sought to champion.
Ms. McAlister presents this:
Graham also understood, and celebrated, the fact that the future of the evangelical movement lay with leaders in the Global South.
And then this about the Global South, and the utterly un-mentioned Catholic Liberation Theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez :
One faction, led by Graham, saw evangelism as their single most urgent priority. The other, led largely by a contingent of social-justice minded Latin Americans, believed that evangelicals must make a commitment to “social concern” for the poor and oppressed. Their list of evangelicalism’s failings was long and political: We have frequently denied the rights of the underprivileged, they said; we have distorted the gospel and offered simplistic answers to complex problems; we have been partisan in condemning totalitarianism but ignoring racism. The group saw themselves as offering a fundamental challenge to the American-style evangelism embodied by Billy Graham. Graham never came around to this view, but he did come to recognize that the future of the evangelical movement lay in the Global South.
Mr. Graham was a political moral conformist whose stances on Nixon, the War in Vietnam, Apartheid and The War on Terror, LGBT rights and Islam were completely predictable, dominated by his need to seem within the ‘political mainstream’. Franklin is a reactionary theocrat, a mirror image of the Iranian mullahs. Billy was just an Empire Builder for Christ in the Age of the 21 inch black and white screen.
Ms. McAlister almost constructs a believable critique of Graham, while maintaining, at all costs, her bourgeois academic respectability.
For readers old enough to recall Elizabeth Hardwick’s essay from the New York Review of Books of August 16, 1979 titled The Portable Canterbury, in which she reviews these three books:
Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness
Billy Graham: Evangelist to the World
Angels: God’s Secret Agents
by Billy Graham
The David Levine caricature is irresistibly evocative portrait of Mr. Graham. Some long, but eminently readable, selective quotation from Ms. Hardwick’s essay are both tellingly observed and elegantly written. Ms. McAlister is, to put it charitably, an American provincial of the Neo-Liberal Age.
The long, hectic pilgrimages, or “crusades” as the preferred word has it, to India, the Soviet Union, South Africa, Australia, Korea (South), and even to the foreign territory of Madison Square Garden: these are his biography. And Graham himself is a sort of double emanation: he is both the pilgrim and the shrine, the portable Canterbury to be visited and experienced. For God’s Star it is an iron routine, with the shape and the form of the appearance settled and unchanging, except for various scriptural texts read out and briefly connected to a generality, and sometimes for conservative political asides suitable to the nation under the siege of the crusade. This is, as it must be, a long-running play, sustained by the inspiration that comes to Graham, as it does to gifted actors, from the presence of the audience.
In Graham’s life and in his enterprise, it is as if one were to make a large foot-print with one’s initials on it signifying a single choice under which all the rest of experience would somehow be subsumed. This in many ways makes Graham a resistant object for Frady’s intense contemplation. First of all, if Graham is in a sense deprived by the habits of his mind, cut off from the vitality of struggling language, Frady is all language and flowing connection. Fluent sentences and paragraphs, a streaming abundance of imagery, a Faulknerian enchantment with the scenery in which these bare lives flourish. Frady’s biography of George Wallace1 and the present large work on Graham are outstanding works of literature, not quite like any other in their intention and quality.
Imaginative saturation, a special kind of interest and intelligence, much that is quirky and novelistic, high creative ambitions are brought to bear on his charmless, driven Americans, Wallace and Graham. Wallace’s nastiness and gift of tongues almost accumulate in Frady’s fascination with speech rhythm and anecdote into a kind of charm.
Validation by the powerful and well-known is a natural wish of one absorbed in number, one for whom any remaining pocket of smallness or obscurity is a defeat. And this need for validation will multiply in those lives that are marked by the exploitation of personality. Graham is anything but an exception. His “vulnerability was that, while he contended that he looked on all his associations now in government and commerce as mere openings for a fuller propagation of his ministry, at the same time he also was given to a compulsive entrancement with all those larger affairs and offices of the world.”
Current evangelism is as far as one can go in the pursuit of faith without works. Graham has brought to perfection the notion of a global parish, that is, no parish at all. He is relieved of the need to make private visits, to gather boxes of old clothes in the church basement, to perform weddings, bury the dead, to encourage rummage sales and pie-suppers. Not only is he relieved, but the saved are also, if they like, outside the demands of works in community with others. With their salvation kits, they are like patients making a single visit to a clinic and who are thereby recorded in the cure statistics. The commitment does not require one to attend Mass or to go about ringing doorbells, selling the Watch Tower, refusing blood transfusions and military service, making hasty recalculations of the procrastinating Day of Judgment.
In speaking of demonstrations, he was inclined to promote his own large gatherings. “I have been holding demonstrations myself for fifteen years—but in a stadium where it was legal.” At a meeting with Martin Luther King, he said, “So let me do my work in the stadium…and you do yours in the streets.” Perhaps Graham feared some usurpation of his authority and of the national attention as the cameras directed themselves to the hymn-singing “fellowship” in Selma and other southern cities.
Marshall Frady, with his high sense of American scenery and his creative ordering of the meaning of character as it displays itself in history, writes about Graham and King that they were “like the antipodal prophets of that continuing duality in the American nature between the Plymouth asperities and the readiness for spiritual adventure, between the authoritarian and the visionary.” Of King: “The genius of his otherwise baroque and ponderous metaphors was that they were the rhetoric of the human spirit gathering itself to terrific and massive struggle.”
To the numb and static vocabulary of Graham, the bad language of the Nixon tapes was a personal affront and a spiritual distress of the first order. Or perhaps it was the first and last order. The will to power cannot be admitted by Graham, who in his own driven will falls back upon the “stewardship mentioned so many times by Christ.” And what did he decide when he could no longer fail to name something askew in Nixon? “I think it was sleeping pills. Sleeping pills and demons.” As Frady expresses it, “Thus he has made his final peace with it: it had all been an exterior, artificial, demonic, chemical intervention. The fault had lain, not in Nixon, but in the dark stars and dark winds of the underworld.”
As the emblem to the Graham biography, Frady quotes from Billy Budd. And he returns to this theme in the matter of Nixon, telling of a visitor to Graham reading out Melville’s passages on Claggart’s evil. The visitor must have been Marshall Frady himself. Who else? In thinking of Graham, he writes: “There was also something about his equally abiding eager innocence throughout his relationship with Nixon that somehow strikingly evoked, more than anything else, Herman Melville’s moral fable Billy Budd.”
The television ministry: “the means of Graham’s greatest single impact on his own country.” It is “a massive closed system with its own vision and terms of evaluation and its own independent dynamic for self-preservation.” Almost impossible to recall the lonely and stricken aspect of the old evangelical tent and street corner, the listeners with hangovers and prison records, the hand-organ performances on a desolate evening, the forbidding, charitable soup kitchen. Or the rural gravity of Dinah, the anxious refinement of the elder Gosses.
Ms. Hardwick’s essay is behind a pay wall, but for $4.95 you can read her essay with its unmatched insights and translucent literary style: a breath of fresh air from 1979!