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Billy Graham: Have Journalists Given Us an Accurate Picture?

One year ago, my inbox bulged with stories about Billy Graham. The renowned evangelist, about whom I was then writing my doctoral dissertation, was holding a three-day crusade in New York City. This would likely be the final domestic crusade for the aging evangelist, whose career (or calling, as Graham would, of course, see it) had endured over seven successful decades. In the mainstream media, this lion in winter was being, well, lionized. My ever-supportive family and colleagues forwarded article after article drawn from the 250 journalists who had attended Graham’s opening press conference.

Billy Graham does not make headlines the way he did in, say, 1957, when he held a summer-long crusade in the Big Apple—or 1974, when he confessed his shock at the profanity-laced transcripts of the Nixon White House recordings. But the coverage of Graham is now almost uniformly positive. He stands as the definitive religious figure of the post-1945 United States, and the public renaissance of evangelical Protestantism makes his shaping of the social landscape more relevant than ever. The media accolades have come for a number of reasons. First, his message of personal salvation has proven remarkably straightforward and consistent, as well as inclusive and popular. Secondly, Graham offers a form of evangelicalism less controversial than that of his presently more visible peers—the spokespersons for George W. Bush’s oft-cited political “base.”

Such glowing coverage presents a number of dilemmas familiar to historians of the recent United States. My colleagues and I constantly seek to distinguish our work from journalism, at the same time that we readily use journalism as the proverbial (and essential) “first draft” of historiography. For scholars dealing with familiar figures—with veritable icons, such as Graham—this tension becomes especially acute. Graham is a known and, as Gallup polls suggest, deeply beloved quantity. Much of his story is already familiar—his North Carolina upbringing, his breakthrough 1949 crusade in Los Angeles, his complex friendship with Richard Nixon, and his later embrace of nuclear disarmament. Yet, as historians and journalists both know, such stories become less familiar the closer one gets to the sources.

My challenge, then, has been to historicize Graham—to put him in context (and a changing context, at that). But how does one historicize an icon with an established public narrative? Two approaches were apparent. First, one could attempt to puncture myths. In this case, though, the most important public narratives about Graham are basically accurate, if by no means complete. Secondly, then, one could delve into un-explored or, in my case, under-analyzed sources. Doing so, of course, is the responsibility of any historian.

Yet I quickly realized that I wanted to factor popular understandings of Graham into my analysis—to account for his status as a larger than life figure. I drew inspiration from the maturing field of memory studies, which probes how public narratives are created and internalized. Applied to individuals, memory studies become in many respects image studies, the analysis of how a given person acquired certain public profiles. An excellent example is Nixon’s Shadow, David Greenberg’s study of competing and evolving interpretations of that polarizing politician. I asked myself, why has Graham proven so enduringly popular? Moreover, why does Graham now stand as the favorite evangelical of many American liberals? Certainly, this was not the case during the Watergate crisis!

I desired to treat Graham as more than an icon, however. I also wanted to consider him as an actor. Indeed, I worried that a preoccupation with image would distract from the more discrete, nuanced ways that Graham influenced American religion, society, and politics. Another strategy, then, is to choose a responsible, flexible angle from which to interpret an icon. In my work, I analyzed Graham’s influence on his home region of the American South. Specifically, I treated him in relation to the larger stories of desegregation and political realignment. Choosing this approach allowed me to contextualize my subject, arguably the single most important thing any historical work can accomplish. Since one of my specialties is Southern history, my choice also permitted me to say something about the modern South, which (as I argue) Graham helped to create.

So how does Graham look when historicized? How do the stories that dominated the 2005 New York City crusade coverage hold up? As reported, Graham clearly experienced what he has called a “pilgrimage” toward new social perspectives. During the latter half of the 1970s, for example, he toned down his political statements and departed from his reputation as a Cold War hawk. In these respects, he stood in contrast to the emerging Christian Right.

Since the late 1970s, American political culture has, with some notable exceptions, shifted rightward. Graham, meanwhile, became more internationalist in his outlook. As such, his truest heirs are the well-publicized Rick Warren, best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life and vocal supporter of global AIDS prevention, and Graham’s own son, Franklin, who heads an international relief organization called Samaritan’s Purse. Warren and the younger Graham are indicative of the growing global conscience of American evangelicalism—a trend that Billy Graham pioneered.

Yet historians have a responsibility not to view such largely commendable work in a political vacuum. In certain respects, American popular conservatism and evangelicalism have come of age together. For example, the causes of Warren and Franklin Graham bear intriguing resemblance to the rhetoric of" compassionate conservatism" embraced by George W. Bush. Days before the 2000 presidential election, in fact, Billy Graham publicly endorsed Bush in the critical and soon-to-be-controversial state of Florida, where the evangelist was holding services. Graham’s public distance from the Christian Right, a major theme of the New York crusade coverage, also requires a closer look. Graham possessed many early professional and social ties to figures, such as Bill Bright, W. A. Criswell, and James Robison, who played foundational roles in the Christian Right. While Graham distanced himself from efforts to create what he called a Christian “political bloc,” he had long urged believers to participate more actively in American politics. A key difference between Graham and the Christian Right was that he embraced Christians in politics, rather than Christianity as politics. Still, Graham advocated a certain type of political engagement well before some of his fundamentalist peers made a more dramatic turn and organized the Christian Right.

My intention is not to “zing” journalists for their coverage of Graham. Nor do I desire to reduce Graham—an evangelist in heart, mind, and soul—to his location on the political continuum. Actually, Graham’s overall success in not politicizing himself goes a long way toward explaining his popularity. But any historical icon merits a portrait that factors in popular perceptions, changes over time, and the big picture of a complex and notable life.