Puff the Magic Graham -- John Fea
Did anyone get a chance to see the special edition of ABC’s 20/20 devoted to Billy Graham and the presidency? I am eager to hear what the “Religion in American History” blog community thought about it. Here are a few of my own thoughts to get the ball rolling.
1). While the documentary was generally favorable toward Graham, I was pleased that Charlie Gibson asked some of the tough questions about a Christian minister’s responsibility to speak truth to power. (I should add here that he never asked this question to Graham himself. This line of questioning was most evident in his interview with Charles Colson about the anti-Semitic remarks Graham uttered during a taped conversation in the oval office with Richard Nixon.
2). Was Graham a spiritual counselor or a prophet? Can we separate the two? If he was a counselor (as seems to have been the case with the Clintons), then I do not have as much of a problem with him hanging out in the corridors of power. Even presidents have spiritual needs. If he was a prophet, however, then I think he was definitely seduced by power. The Washington Post reporters who wrote the book that inspired the ABC documentary suggested that the presidents and Graham benefited from each other, but much of the focus in the show was on the way the presidents benefited from Graham and not the other way around. (With the exception of a brief commentary on how Graham used his fame to open doors for the preaching of the gospel in communist countries). Whatever the case, Graham seemed to thoroughly enjoy hobnobbing with presidents at the White House, on the golf course, and at a host of presidential vacation homes. In this sense, he was certainly no John the Baptist. (I might add here that Truman thought Graham, with his pistachio-colored suits, was a publicity hound. Carter, a strict Baptist, thought a relationship with Graham during his presidency would violate the principles of separation of church and state).
3). There seems to be a larger issue here about evangelicals and power. Pundits and commentators like to date the return of American evangelicals into public life sometime around the mid-1970s when Jerry Falwell started the Moral Majority and Newsweek declared 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical.” But well before these developments, evangelicals (they called themselves “neo-evangelicals”) had made serious attempts to break away from the separatism of fundamentalism and engage the world. Graham, with his inclusive and ecumenical crusades, represented this shift. But so did a host of neo-evangelical scholars such as Carl F.H. Henry, E.J. Carnell, and others who joined the faculty of the newly established Fuller Theological Seminary. (See George Marsden’s excellent account of Fuller’s early years in Reforming Fundamentalism).
Today when we think of evangelicals in positions of power, we think about politics. But the neo-evangelicals of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s also set the stage for theologically conservative Protestants to gain influence in the academy. (And, I might add, they have done quite well—especially in our field of American religious history). If any of us were put off by the way Graham may have been seduced by the power of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I wonder if we can say the same thing about evangelical scholars and their relationship to the academy? (And I will confess that I am getting a bit autobiographical here). Is it really possible for evangelical academics to be “in the world, but not of it?” As we all know, success in the academic world requires ambition, a good bit of self-promotion, and the ever present temptation to write primarily for the approval of others. Can an evangelical be a good academic citizen without compromising her or his faith? I wonder.
4). Did anyone notice that the sole American religious historian on the show, Randall Balmer, got very little air time?
5). I still think that if you want to really understand what Billy Graham was all about, you have to watch his 1969 appearance on the short-lived Woody Allen Show. Check it out.