Albert Mohler: This is Thinking in Public. A program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline, theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I'm Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Grant Wacker is the Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Christian History at Duke Divinity School.
He specializes in the history of evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, World Missions and American Protestant thought. A PhD graduate of Harvard University. He's the author and co-editor of several books including Heaven Below, Early Pentecostals in American Culture. His most recent book is America's Pastor Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. Grant Wacker, welcome to Thinking in Public. Grant, you begin this work on Billy Graham with a very personal anecdote suggesting that both of you in one sense had descended on New York City in the same time in 1957. How did that come about?
Grant Wacker: Well, my parents were vacationing in New York and I grew up or they came from a small town in Southwest Missouri. This was a very big deal for us. Then, this was about halfway through his crusade, and so this was a major event. Now, I still remember it because it was the first time I was in ever in a meeting of that size. Of course, I remember Graham and what a spectacular charismatic figure he was.
Albert Mohler: I would think that would have to have an impact on a 12-year-old boy who was probably rather overwhelmed by the city of New York in the first place and-
Grant Wacker: Yeah. My gosh.
Albert Mohler: … just following through your book, I had a thought looking back to the 12-year-old Grant Wacker wondering, when you heard Billy Graham preach, did you have the impression that you were at some kind of Ground Zero of history, some kind of intersection of an American moment and what you might later call an evangelical moment as well?
Grant Wacker: The answer to all those questions is decidedly no. I was 12 years old and all I can remember is just how big it was and the crowds and… But I do remember how funny he was and the laughter. I remember one joke he told after all these years, he told the joke, he said, "Puppy love is not very important to parents but it's extremely real to the puppy."
There was just gales of laughter, but I mean that was characteristic of his preaching throughout his life that he knew how to use a down-home humor to capture people's attention.
Albert Mohler: Well, the historian who wrote this book was once the boy who was in that stadium and what did strike me, I have to say and I come a few years after you in this chronology is that I think there will be very few 12-year-olds in any evangelical culture in the future here in the United States who will know anything like that cultural moment including what you just even apprehended as a 12-year-old in terms of bigness.
I don't think there's going to be anything like that for another 12-year-old in our day to experience.
Grant Wacker: Right. No. I agree. I agree. There's a line I did not use in the book but might well have and from F. Scott Fitzgerald, "In American life, there are no second acts." I think that's true the whole Billy Graham phenomenon. I can't imagine any successor in that way. Yeah.
Albert Mohler: Well, when I looked at your new book entitled America's Pastor, Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation, I fully expected it would be a riveting tale and you deliver on that. I'm glad to say.
Grant Wacker: Oh, thank you.
Albert Mohler: But I also think your book raises some of the most important issues for evangelical thinking today and I know that's certainly part of your agenda in writing the book as well, but let me ask the most obvious question of all, how in the early decades of the 21st Century did you come to spend so much of your life and scholarly investment looking into Billy Graham and the meaning of the man and his ministry?
Grant Wacker: Well, the answer is really very simple and not very profound. I had spent years working on another project on early Pentecostalism and I was finished with it, and then a friend, Mark Noll, who's a very distinguished evangelical historian suggested that I needed another project, and he said, "Do you want to tell a big story?" Now coming to the end of my teaching career, and so I said, "What would be a big story?" He said, "A story of the intersection between Billy Graham and the rest of American life." There are many, many biographies of Graham and lots of studies of aspects of his life, but I didn't think that there was any study that probed Billy Graham as a broad cultural figure. That's what I tried to do. It's not really a biography as such. It's an attempt to understand how Graham opens a window in wider currents of American life.
Albert Mohler: I was very much drawn in by your introduction even before I read the remainder of the book. It seems to me that the thesis statement in many ways for what you're about is found on page 28 of the book when you write, "From first to last, Graham…" That is Billy Graham, "displayed an uncanny ability to adopt trends in the wider culture, and then use them for his evangelistic and moral reform purposes."
In one sense, it seems to me that everything that follows really flows from that thesis.
Grant Wacker: That's exactly right. You're very perceptive. I mean, you've got it nailed. That's the argument and it's not original to me. Well, I think it's original with reference to Billy Graham, at least, the way I put it, but I draw the notion from Richard Bushman's great book on Joseph Smith and the Beginning of the Mormons and he argues that's exactly what Joseph Smith did. He drew upon larger currents and then he applied them.
I thought that's what Graham was doing when I started to look at the evidence. It's important to say though, Al, I don't think he did that very intentionally. In some cases, it was intentional, but more often than not it was instinctive. He had a sense of what was going on in a sense of what he needed to do. Actually, one of his closest associates once said to me, Billy did his best work on the backstroke. I think that's exactly what happened.
Albert Mohler: Well, I think it's important upfront just to state that even as you identify yourself writing in your prologue and I quote you back to yourself as for point of view. "I count myself a partisan of the same evangelical tradition Graham represented." Especially you wrote the irenic inclusive pragmatic form of it so that he came to symbolize in the later years of his public ministry. You said, "That identification comes from my upbringing and from adult choice."
I speak from a very similar position, but also as one whose adult ministry has been very much marked by intersections with Dr. Graham. He spoke at my inauguration, in this office. He's been a dear friend for many years. I served as chairman of the crusade here in Louisville, Kentucky. At so many points, especially in my role here at Southern Seminary, he has played more than an off-screen part, and for that, I am just incredibly indebted.
Also, for just coming to know him over the process of 30 years. I would just have to say, I would think it to be especially for a professor at Duke University writing a book that would eventually be published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University. I can imagine that this book could have gone in any number of different directions. Why did it go in the direction that it did in terms of how you organize the book and how you consider Billy Graham?
Grant Wacker: Well, those are great questions. I began with the idea that I would write a straightforward narrative biography looking at the broader currents of American life, but I soon came to the conclusion that I could not do a better job on biography than Bill Martin already has done in his book of Profit with Honor and every biography is different, but I did not want to spend years just trying to come up with a new angle.
That was also because it struck me that there are aspects of Graham's career that Bill had not explored very deeply. I want to stress that his book is just the best there is in terms of a biography, but I wanted to delve certain kinds of aspects of Graham's preaching style, the way he gave the call at the end which was so dramatic and was so effective. Those are the kinds of things that I thought required extra attention.
In terms of, go back to your own comments about your own personal relationship with Graham that I found myself drawn in. I started with a sympathetic attitude and as it progressed, as the work progressed, sympathy turned to admiration.
Now, I'm not uncritical. Graham like all great people made mistakes, and some of them were serious, but the overall result of his career is one that I think any Christian would have to admire.
Albert Mohler: That kind of points rather directly to my predicament even in this conversation. I'm the president of a seminary that has the only graduate school that bears the name of Billy Graham, and I want to confess and not reluctantly that he has been incredibly helpful to me, and especially in the early years that I came here was directly helpful in ways that actually intersect with so many of the things in your book, but I would also have to say that even as I had the opportunity to visit with him in the, what are certainly the latter years of his life, I would say that I wouldn't be able to have this conversation and I wouldn't feel morally at ease having this conversation if I didn't believe that Billy Graham would be the very first to say, "I've made mistakes and I want the story told exactly as it should be told."
Grant Wacker: Right. He said that to Bill Martin when Bill Martin started the major biography. Now, Martin’s biography is not an authorized one, but I'll speak of Graham in the past tense if I may. He's alive and well, but his ministry has passed. Graham used those exact words with Bill Martin. He said, "I want you to tell the mistakes that I made because it's important for younger evangelists to know what to avoid."
Then, I think he also said that simply because he's a very humble man and he would feel it's necessary to talk about his mistake, but beyond that, he wanted others to see the perils that he had fallen into and he wanted them to avoid it.
Albert Mohler: Especially in your chapters entitled Entrepreneur and Architect, especially in those chapters, I felt very much the tension in the very issue you're talking about because I too want to affirm that Dr. Graham is an incredibly humble man. Seemingly at times baffled in retrospect by the opportunities that he has known in ministry at the same time, and you document this so well.
He posed for the cover of an untold number of national magazines including several times Time and all the rest and had this enormous edifice of public relations and all the rest. I honestly think that as you identified your thesis, so to speak, in that sentence that I read, he really believed that all these things were in service to a larger cause which was his evangelistic ministry.
Grant Wacker: Right and not far behind that was his desire to bring moral reform to the nation. He was always clear that the evangelistic ministry was primary, but these other parts were important to him too. I would say that the main problem and main argument I advanced in the book is exactly what you say and that is to look at how he used the trends of the time to his own purposes, but there's another stream that runs through the book, and I've only actually come to see this after I wrote it and that is the recurrent tension between professional ambition and personal humility.
He was an enormously ambitious man. He had great visions for what could be done and what he was called to do, but all of that was coupled with deep personal humility and that's… I used the word tension, but I think that is probably not right. It's kind of invigorating distinction in his life.
Albert Mohler: I was born in the year 1959, there were never was a moment in my own Southern Baptist or evangelical self-awareness in which Billy Graham wasn't a part of the landscape. I can still remember walking into my grandmother's house, my mother's house and my grandmother and grandfather had there in the back porch of the house where everybody gathered.
There was a constant flow of material from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and life came to a stop when Billy Graham was doing anything on television. There was the immediate sense that he was speaking for all of us. In a sense that no one else in America could. I really appreciate the way you tell that story going back to the very beginnings of Dr. Graham's life and ministry.
In particular, how you point to that New York crusade as a crucial turning point in so many of these issues and just in terms of thinking about where evangelicalism is today and couldn't otherwise be except for Billy Graham, I think one of the tension points is I think we all want to judge decisions and actions taken in the past by what we know now, but of course, that's a conceit.
He did not know how all these things would unfold, but take us back to New York, in particular, not so much to Los Angeles, but take us back to New York when he's having to make major decisions that will reshape the evangelical movement for many years to come.
Grant Wacker: Yeah. Well, all right let me come at that from the side and that I do think the single most important event in his life was the Los Angeles crusade in 1949 because that's the crusade that catapulted him into public visibility. If that had not taken place I don't know how the rest of his career would have unfolded and what was crucial and the Los Angeles crusade, and then played out again in New York is his intersection with the two great journalists of the age, William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce.
When they came together to focus on his career, then his whole story changed. Well, actually he didn't meet Luce at that time, but very soon thereafter. New York was another important turning point and for a variety of reasons. One was the sheer magnitude of it.
He never again had a crusade that lasted as long or that physically depleted him as this one did. He would say that ever after 1957, he never physically quite recovered from the immense drain upon him personally. He was so invested in this enterprise. It lasted 16 weeks. The media coverage was unprecedented in evangelical circles, in any kind of religious circles. I think probably it remains unique. I can't think of anything that ever took place after 1957 that was comparable.
Albert Mohler: Well, having read everything I could get a hold of in terms of those two big events, and I certainly agree with you without Los Angeles there wouldn't have been New York. As one who's trying to think through so many of the current issues facing evangelicalism, New York does, I have to tell you, loom very large in my view because there he's having to make huge decisions that will set the trajectory for his ministry, and in some ways for a mainstream evangelicalism in terms of who will be on the platform, how will he present this, how will he engage the larger culture in Gotham, there in New York City?
I think in terms, not to just one or two of your chapters, but throughout your book, you really are getting at what happened then, and then what followed.
Grant Wacker: Yeah. There are several events that transpired in the course of the crusade in New York that are representative of what would mark his crusade for… Well, his entire ministry. The first of those is then he made a very intentional move towards inclusivism. He determined that he would work with almost anyone who would work with him.
There are a few boundaries there, but for all practical purposes, he said, "If they do not ask me to change my message or style or way I do things, we'll work together." He reached out most conspicuously to the Protestant mainline and they reached back to him. There was also some support from the Roman Catholic community. It wasn't as significant as the mainline but it certainly was there.
There is some evidence even that he received some support from Jews and, of course, the Jews in New York would not support the Christian part of the message, but they supported presumably, they supported his call for moral integrity. Then, he's reaching out to people all around him.
Now, what happened on the other side of that endeavor is that he permanently alienated people who came to be called fundamentalists. My argument, Al, is that we really don't have a clear fundamentalist movement until 1957, and they came into existence in effect as a body of Christians who galvanized, crystallized because they did not want to cooperate with Graham's inclusiveness.
Albert Mohler: I came into my own evangelical sense of identity as a young Southern Baptist who was relatively unaware of a lot of these stresses and strains and certainly unaware of the strategic decisions made by Billy Graham, but when I came to my college experience, and when I was even in high school, I had independent fundamentalist friends and they didn't like Billy Graham and yet they had begrudging respect for him, I also have to point out.
Then, I've kind of lived my life within this massive transformation in the Southern Baptist Convention and Dr. Graham more than is documented in your book, played a rather significant part in that, in ways that might surprise even you having written this book. The theologian in me, I'll admit, has a great deal of difficulty imagining how Billy Graham in 1957 could have included some of the people he included on that platform.
I have to tell you, Grant, just speaking as honestly as I can, I find myself at many points wondering if Dr. Graham would do now what he did then knowing where mainline Protestantism went after 1957, and where I would argue, he should have seen it was going even then.
Grant Wacker: Well, I couldn't possibly answer what he would have done if he would have seen the future. All I can say is that, at the time, it struck me that he made what I will say a courageous decision and how he would comport himself and who he would associate with. It also is the case though that… Well, I think two things need to be said there.
The first is most historians and certainly, most secular historians have not treated the fundamentalist reaction fairly because most historians are on the other side of all such arguments. They can't really grasp the extent to which fundamentalists felt betrayed. Sydney Ahlstrom in another context, a great historian, Sydney Ahlstrom, in other contexts quote someone as saying that they felt the bitterness of disillusion love.
I think that was the case with people like Bob Jones. It was a bitterness of disillusion love and John R. Rice, the same. John R. Rice was a great supporter of Graham until New York. The depth of the break came from the depth of the cooperative in us in the beginning, but it was decisive, and you're right. They went separate several ways thereafter.
The second thing to say though is that it hurts Graham. He talked about it and his close associates would say that he was dismayed. I think he was surprised, but he was hurt by this rupture. That being said he never looked back.
Albert Mohler: He is such a mix of the irenic and of a very courageous and even just watching him and looking at some of the newsreels from 1957, it's a mixture of the two. You point out in your book what many people on the left assumed was a very calculated persona, a calculated… I think you called it, at one point, kind of North Carolina stage talk.
The rugged masculinity of his look and his appeal. His speed. You actually document how fast he spoke and how over time he slowed down.
Grant Wacker: Yeah. In the beginning, they clocked him at 240 words a minute, but now that was intentional. This is a good example of how Graham appropriated the trends at the time. He looked at or listened to prominent newscasters and especially Walter Winchell and HV Kaltenborn, who were prominent in the 1940s, and he noted how fast they talked.
He said this wasn't what he would naturally do, but he said, "I recognize that these people who won a great audience talked it to speed and one of the reasons they talked that way is they knew that it would attract people." That was calculated on his part. Much of what he did was not calculated but that was.
A second thing that is symptomatic of how Graham thought about how to proclaim his message was how he was determined to use short words, short paragraphs. He believed that the average American had a working vocabulary of 600 words, and he strove to stay within that framework of very simple words, short paragraphs, communicate with people. All of that preached very fast and dramatically and also loud. Everyone talked about how loud he was, and then, later on, he used to make fun of himself, and he'd say, "Oh, in those days I was so loud." But that was part of it, part of the strategy for sure.
Albert Mohler: Well, at two different places in your book, you cite him, you quote him as saying two things that very much play into this. One, you quote him from 2003 saying, "I have found that if I say the Bible says and God says, I get results."
Grant Wacker: Right.
Albert Mohler: Elsewhere you pointed out, and I don't recall exactly the context in which he said this, but it seems to me it was rather early in his ministry when he said, "The average American has the theological knowledge of a 12-year-old."
Grant Wacker: Yeah.
Albert Mohler: He spoke with great simplicity. He intentionally spoke with tremendous simplicity.
Grant Wacker: Yeah. Let's talk first about the Bible. He was convinced that he spoke with the authority of scripture. I think he understood that it was, that the Bible held great authority in the culture, more then than now, but still the Bible was by far the bestselling book ever in American history and people had the Bible as a point in the turning world for them.
He held the Bible in his left hand as he preached, he quoted passages with great rapidity and accuracy. He had a prodigious memory and sometimes stenographers would note that he quoted more than 100 passages of scripture in the course of a sermon. He used the Bible both exegetically though he was not a deep exegete, but he would use it that way, and then he had also used it symbolically to emphasize his words.
Actually, back in Los Angeles, I've just recently discovered there was a very large cardboard Bible set up right in front of his pulpit. It was about six feet high and maybe six feet wide. In other words, a visual symbol of the centrality of scripture in his preaching.
Albert Mohler: Just in terms of the Bible, you deal, especially in the chapter entitled Creature with his own theological convictions and his convictions has translated into his preaching, and when it comes to the Bible, you talk about an evangelical shift from an inerrancy to infallibility. You actually say that even as Dr. Graham was quite resistant to so-called higher criticism of the Bible, critical approaches as we would say more contemporaneously concerning the Bible.
You say that "There's little evidence that Graham clearly understood yet alone supported the principles of biblical higher criticism or related critical methods taught in mainline Protestant seminaries and in secular colleges and universities." Yet, it seems to me that the way you present him, he is seeking to affirm the total authority and truthfulness of scripture, but not to become overly controversial or inserted into specific controversies.
Grant Wacker: Exactly right. Yeah. Well, you've got that nailed. I think there are several things to say there. The first is that he was overwhelmingly pragmatic and sometimes that is taken to be a criticism. I do not mean it that way. I think that he would accept the word. He said absolutely right. He said, "I have the best product in the world and so why don't I use the best means available to…" I don't know if he used the word market, but to proclaim it, to herald it.
He was very self-conscious about preaching in a way that would be effective. There are lots of controversy, who's the best preacher in America? Okay? Graham was not the best preacher in America by a long shot. I would argue he was the most effective. One of the ways that he was so effective is he insisted that he would not get entangled in debates about the nature of inerrancy or infallibility or inspiration.
He knew that that did not interest people in general. What he wanted to do is proclaim the saving message of the Bible, and the heart of it. These are my words, but the heart of it is to proclaim a message of a transforming relationship with Christ or with God that would transform everything else in life.
Albert Mohler: I don't think there's any doubt that that's accurate. I would say, I don't think it's quite the whole story and it's for this reason. I appreciate the way you said that Dr. Graham decided he wouldn't do this in terms of inserting himself in these controversies and yet, I think like all of us, he didn't do it except when he did.
When I was like the president here in 1993, I'm afraid part of the story will be lost. Dr. Graham actually told me as he was here, and as he was speaking in my inauguration, he told me of his own experience and coming to an affirmation, and you do recall that in your book of the Authority of Scripture, but he made very clear that he knew that I had come with a specific set of convictions including the inerrancy of scripture.
He made very clear using that vocabulary that that's what he expected and supported when he spoke that night. Then, back in 1984, in the middle of the Southern Baptist controversy over inerrancy. He actually publicly intervened by writing a letter to be read at the pastor's conference of the Southern Baptist Convention. One of most crucial deciding points. He did that again in 1987.
A part of me wonders if this was a change over time that what happened in '84, '87, and in '93 wouldn't have happened in 1957 or for that matter in 1977. Do you think there's anything to that?
Grant Wacker: Well, there's lots of room for honest difference of interpretation of Graham. He said an awful lot. I mean, he uttered millions of words in the course of his life. I don't think that at any point, he consciously dissimulated. Well, I'm certain he did not consciously do so, but he spoke to different audiences and he emphasized different things in different contexts.
He may well have and in no way deny that he said and did at Southern what you're saying, but I'm saying that his legacy is complicated just because he spoke so much and he wrote some much for multiple audiences. That means like John Wesley for example, all right?
That's one issue. A second issue for Graham is that I think that personally, he was quite conservative on most issues, but he was not willing to break fellowship on very many. That's an important distinction. As time went on, he became less and less willing to break fellowship with other people. That was for a variety of reasons, but I think he's own maturing that he just didn't feel that that would serve the gospel purposes.
Albert Mohler: Well, I think one of the issues for me coming into the story when I did was that I know what I know from my experience with Dr. Graham, which leads me, again, and again to say how indebted I am to him for his friendship and his support through the years, and for the continuation of that throughout all the years that I've been here, but I also go back when I was first on the campus of Bob Jones University as a visitor, I went in…
This would be during the 1980s. I went in the bookstore, I wasn't wearing, and I'm a Southern Baptist, pin on my coat, I can tell you that. I went in and the two great polemical issues that were clear when you walked on that campus were they were opposed to Southern Baptists and to Billy Graham.
Grant Wacker: That's funny.
Albert Mohler: That was just very much out there and tremendous change has come in the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the things you documented is that change has come in the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association as well, but the other thing I just want to document as we're talking about this is something that you deal within two of the most important of your chapters. They're all I think incredibly well done, entrepreneur and architect because had Dr. Graham modified the influence that he had in some of the direction within the evangelical empire and infrastructure, we would have a very different movement than we have.
A part of my reading of Billy Graham comes through a man who was a direct mentor to me and that's Carl Henry. When Carl Henry becomes the first content editor, the founding visionary for Christianity Today. I mean, Carl Henry believes himself to be very much doing what Billy Graham had intended for Christianity Today to do that he also saw it, and you document this, as a direct counter-voice to the Christian Sentry and the Mainline Protestantism.
Grant Wacker: Yeah. There are I think multiple motives there and one is to provide a respectable alternative theological voice, and the keyword, a keyword is respectable. Graham was self-conscious that he wanted a theological voice that won the respect of the broader public. He felt that until then conservatives had resided out on the margins and that there were sophisticated voices within the movement, but they did not have a public airing.
That was I think the key motive behind the founding of Christianity Today. But another motive and one that's received last notice is that Graham wanted to create a magazine that would galvanize the movement. The movement was suspiros, there were just all kinds of fragments out there and they weren't working together and he thought if there was a central voice that that could bring coherence to the movement.
That I think is one of his great contributions. He brought evangelicalism into the mainstream of American religious life. If I could continue there for just a second?
Albert Mohler: Please.
Grant Wacker: One of my graduate students had this insight. He said, "After Graham, it was necessary in any kind of a public forum about American religious life, it was necessary to have a mainline speaker, a Jewish speaker, and a Roman Catholic speaker, and an evangelical speaker." Not until Graham did evangelicals have that place in the public discussion.
Albert Mohler: Going back to how you trace his influence within the evangelical movement, just doing some research on my own recently on some of these institutional questions, it becomes apparent to me that if you take Billy Graham, the man out of so many of these stories, you actually don't end up with the story.
Grant Wacker: That's right. Yeah.
Albert Mohler: Whether it's Fuller Theological Seminary or Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary or Christianity Today or any number of other, or those on conference, the World Evangelism that without Billy Graham those things don't happen, at least, they don't happen the way they happen.
Grant Wacker: Yeah. That's exactly right. He was not simply involved in the actual organization of many of these developments, but his approval legitimated them, and so his influence was… It sounds ironic, but his influence was greater than what he himself did. There were ripples, maybe is what I'm trying to say.
He was symbolic and he was symbolic of the importance of bringing evangelicalism into the mainstream to bring, give it coherence, measure of unity, and respectability. I quote Sam Hill, who's a major historian of the south and Sam said this with a wink, but there's a lot of truth to it. He said, "Billy Graham taught evangelicals when to wear a necktie."
Now, that's an overstatement, of course, because they were wearing neckties in lots of places but we taught them how to get involved in the public discussion and not alienate people.
Albert Mohler: Given the fact that Billy Graham is such a towering figure in American evangelicalism, and for that matter, in American culture, especially in the 20th Century. It's very difficult to get the measure of the man from any kind of contemporary distance. One of the features we see in terms of books about Billy Graham is that they tend to be looking at one aspect or another.
One of the great advantages, one of the strengths of Grant Wacker's new book America's Pastor is that in successive chapters, he looks at all of these dimensions of Billy Graham's life and work. He deals very specifically with the theological issues and the theological development of Billy Graham and his ministry. He looks at Billy Graham as the architect and engineer of an entire movement.
He looks at Billy Graham as the symbol of an American Century. He also looks at Billy Graham's relationship with the press. Billy Graham in terms of his relationship with presidents. All that leads to just more interesting conversation to come, and one of the reasons why America's Pastor is such an important book.
Now, there's a portion, a dimension of Billy Graham's life to which I think the secular world would want to turn first and would find most interesting. It is interesting. I just don't think it's the most important part of the story, but you deal with it very directly in your chapter in which you talk about pastor and also when you talk about pilgrim. I mean, you are talking about a man who had direct friendships probably with more United States presidents than any other non-partisan non-political figure, right? Many of those had a material impact on the history of the nation.
Grant Wacker: Right. The secular historical community is overwhelmingly interested in Graham as a political figure or as a player in the political scene. He did not see himself that way. There's no way for me to calculate this, but my guess is that probably 80%, 90% of the words he ever uttered or wrote pertained to evangelism.
Now, having said that, he was drawn into politics. He admitted it. He was like a moth drawn into the flame. He said if he hadn't been a preacher, he would have been a politician. It was always there. I don't want to say that historians have fabricated that it's a strain that was there, but in his own mind, it was definitely as sub-stream and I would firm that. It was a comparatively minor theme in his life, but he did have these extraordinary relationships with presidents.
He is friends with 10 presidents in a row. He knew Harry Truman. They were not friends. Graham himself bungled an early meetings with Truman. Truman never forgave him, but he was friends with every other president and you could add Barack Obama there. Of course, he didn't know President Obama personally in a significant way although President Obama visited in his home, but for all practical purposes, we could say that he was friends with 10 presidents in a row.
He was very close to four of them. Close to Lyndon Johnson and to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan into the senior Bush. In fact, I even have hazarded the judgment that except for his immediate associates probably the closest friend he ever had in his life was Lyndon Johnson.
Albert Mohler: I could just affirm that in my last conversation with him, the two people we talked about more than any other because he wanted to talk about them were Lyndon Johnson and Mordecai Ham.
Grant Wacker: Really? How interesting? My goodness.
Albert Mohler: Yes. Mordecai Ham because I had once lived across from where he lived here in Louisville.
Quite controversial by the way. He lived in a very expensive home in the aftermath of the Great Depression that became very controversial here in this city.
Grant Wacker: Oh, wow. I don't know that much about him. Thank you.
Albert Mohler: Well, I think most of us talked about him only because he was preaching when Billy Graham documents his conversion. I think, otherwise, no one would be talking about Mordecai Ham, but it was very interesting that he goes back to when he was a 16-year-old boy and brought up stories, and then about Lyndon Johnson about whom he spoke with great warmth.
In your book, you asked two questions. I'm having to summarize here. You asked the question, what did Billy Graham gain from those friendships and relationships with presidents? But you also document… Oh, not only presidents but candidates who are running for the presidency especially in 1960, but then you asked the question, what did they get from Billy Graham? I would appreciate you addressing both of those questions you address in your book.
Grant Wacker: The first one is friendship. Again, many historians try to probe deep political motives and that's not the way Graham thought. What he got out of the friendships was friendships, it was primarily a pastoral relationship. I don't want to overstate that. I mean, there was a lot of schmoozing and just palling around.
He played golf with all the presidents until the '80s. He played golf with Richard Nixon more than 100 times. He had a lot of fun. He went sailing with George Bush, but there is not much reason to think that those relationships were very political.
Again, the presidents asked him very serious personal theological questions. What's going to happen to me when I die? These are the questions with the presidents brought to him.
Now, what they got in return, not to be cynical about it, but just analytical is that legitimation. They knew that if they were seen with Billy Graham in public that that would win the confidence of millions of people. Now, I think also, Al, many of the presidents enjoyed his friendship as well, especially Johnson and the senior Bush. They really did enjoy each other, but they also knew what his friendship would do for them politically.
Albert Mohler: Yeah. One of the most interesting stories you document in the book is Dr. Graham's role in the 1960 presidential election. The article that he wrote that almost was published endorsing Nixon, and then his very, I would say angular relationship with John F. Kennedy during and after the election.
Grant Wacker: Right. There's no question that Graham was entangled with Nixon and that is the most serious mistake of his life. He himself repeatedly said so, especially after 1974 after Watergate. He urged other evangelists to avoid partisan politics. He would say, "As I did not." He looked at himself as an example of how you can get entangled and brought down.
Now, I do not mean that there was any kind of moral compromise but what I do mean is that Graham violated his own principle of keeping partisan politics out of the pulpit. He was just sucked in. He was sucked in by Nixon in a lot of ways. But I mean, after all, the whole nation was. You think about it in the election of 1972, Nixon won that election by a greater majority than any other person in the history of presidential elections.
Albert Mohler: Well, he lost one state in the District of Columbia. That says something.
Grant Wacker: Yeah. That's it. I was there. I was in Massachusetts in those days and I know and, but that was a totality of what McGovern won. Graham allowed himself to be dragged down into the mud by Nixon and that's one of the great puzzles why… I see Graham was an astute reader of people usually but in this one case, there was a kind of a blind spot. But he repented of it and that's where he's different from many, many Christian leaders. He saw the mistake and repented and urged others to avoid that path.
Albert Mohler: Well, he also has the amazing gift of an incredible longevity during one of the most crucial periods of world history. He really comes to adulthood in the period very much marked by the build-up to the Second World War, and then that war, and then he's shaped by the Cold War and one of the things that's in the background of your book, not in the foreground is that the Cold War, I would argue, provided a kind of American unity that even is pictured in that 1957 crusade in New York City.
A unity that was bipartisan, by the way, looking at the fact that most younger Americans would be shocked to know that it was the Democratic candidate in 1960 who was the colder cold warrior than the Republican candidate in 1960.
Grant Wacker: That's right. That's right.
Albert Mohler: Claiming a missile gap and all the rest, and so he's… Every man, I'm sure every single one of us, every individual has a context that's explicable only by history, but when you look at Billy Graham, the 10 decades of his life just spans such interesting times.
Grant Wacker: Well, two points there. One is that his longevity counts a great deal. He has been front and center for about six decades. Of course, in that book, I compared him, his influence with Martin Luther King, with John Paul II, and they were influential in other ways, but neither of them had the public visibility that Graham did for so long year after year.
What's important about that too is his resilience in the public eye. It wasn't like he rose and fell, but rather he has remained on the Gallup poll for I think it's now 55 consecutive years as the most, one of the most, 10 most admired men in America. Well, it's the poll of most admired men in the world, but the poll was taken in the United States. Longevity in the public eye is one of the crucial features of his success. Yes.
Albert Mohler: I want to ask you another question just stepping back. I'm very indebted to your work on Pentecostalism and now your work on Billy Graham so many other dimensions. The evangelical historical world or the world of evangelical historians and biographers and frankly, those who are thinking about the movement and its history. There's been a pretty active debate now going on for at least 15 or 20 years on how that history should be undertaken.
Famously, a debate, in print, so to speak, between Ian Murray, on the one hand, and Harry Stout on the other. You mentioned Mark Noll earlier, and just in terms of how you wrote this book. How do you believe history should be done when we're dealing with the intersection of very deep theological beliefs and the critical discipline of history?
Grant Wacker: Well, I'd love to talk about this for a long time, but because it touches me deeply. I'm nearing retirement and I define myself as a Christian, as an evangelical Christian, but I'm also a critical historian and putting these two together is a challenge, but it's also very exciting. It seems to me that what Christian historians such as myself usually do is ask the kinds of questions of the past that are important to Christian faith, but at the same time, the answers that we come up with must be persuasive to anyone.
Secular readers need to read it and say, "That's credible. That makes sense." In other words, Al, I do not think that we can have a private justifications, private warrants and say, "Well, this is true because I prayed about it." We have to have evidence that makes it persuasive.
It's not always easy to do that, but, in general, I mean, that's the goal to ask the kinds of questions and exhibit the kinds of sympathies that I think Christians should, but what we generate as our answers should make sense to the entire world. Yeah.
Albert Mohler: Well, I really think you've achieved that in this book and that's made me look forward to the conversation, but if I could speak as someone reading over your shoulder in one sense looking at this book, it seems to me that one thing that might have changed in that conversation over the last decade or so is illustrated by your book and a couple of others to which I would point as well, in which there is a shift towards doing what you did in your prologue in stating your own convictions and kind of placing yourself in the story, and then doing your very best to tell the story well, but also to demonstrate a sympathy, not just for the central subject but a sympathy of motivation and of understanding which I think you extended just about everyone that is included in your book.
I think if I were not an evangelical, I'll admit that's a rather difficult thing for me to imagine, but if I could, I think I would see this book as eminently fair.
Grant Wacker: Thank you. Thank you. I tried. I'm going to say let's take an example like Bob Jones, Bob Jones Sr. I think he was wrong theologically, but I try to understand the hurt that he felt and try to understand how much that he felt that Billy Graham had failed him and why he felt that.
This is what we, I think historians should be trying to do always is portray people from the inside. Give them their best shot or apply the golden rule to our subjects. If I may go on for one minute, one of my favorite historians is Richard Bushman is a great historian of the Mormon tradition and Richard says that the people we write about we're going to see someday in heaven and we'll have to look them in the eye and we'll have to account for ourselves.
I tell that to graduate students as a kind of model. We will have to account for ourselves in how we describe people. It's important to give them the benefit of the doubt whenever you can. Now, there's some times when you have people who be had other people then that's a different story but, in general-
Albert Mohler: That's a different kind of moral clarity. Yeah. Let me ask you one final question if I might Grant and that is that having done not only the research and the writing of this book, but now having, at least, an initial round of its critical reception, if I were to ask you as a final question, how do you believe Billy Graham will be placed in terms of the history the Christian Church?
To narrow it down, let's just say the English-speaking Church in the modern age. What do you think the telling of that story, the placement of Billy Graham is likely to be?
Grant Wacker: Well, I've already intimated and I'll go back to it and say that I think when historians look at the 20th Century they all see Graham and Martin Luther King and John Paul II as the towering figures and they were all dramatically different and they came from different traditions and their accomplishments were different, but these are the people that Americans keep looking to, and this is supposedly a secular age and yet who are the people that we still look to for moral guidance?
Our eyes go back to these three, and then within the evangelical world, there's no question that Graham is the tallest tree in the forest. I think he always will be in retrospect. I don't think there will be another Graham but historians will look at our era and they'll see him towering over everyone else and that's not inevitable.
In other words, I mean, we often think that Graham's stature was somehow given. It wasn't. I mean, it came into being in the early, in the late '40s, in the 1950s, early '50s. That stature grew but by, as you're talking about how about the New York crusade in 1957, and I think that it was about by 1957 that his reputation soared out of reach from anyone else.
Albert Mohler: The book is entitled America's Pastor Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. Grant Wacker, thank you for joining me today in Thinking in Public.
Grant Wacker: Thank you. I love talking with you and you ask great questions. Thank you so much.
Albert Mohler: I really enjoyed this conversation with Grant Wacker. When I read a book, I tend to write in the book. That's one of the things I often say to those who ask about reading. I point out that what we should develop is a library, not a book collection.
Now, we might have some rare or antiquarian books in which we wouldn't want to write but when it comes to a book like this, I read it with pen in hand and that was a stretch for me when it comes to America's Pastor Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation by Grant Wacker because I wore my pin out even as I was turning page by page.
This book presents to me a particular challenge in many ways because I know not only the man who is the subject of the book, but I also know so many who are also detailed in the book. Those who were the associates and the friends of Dr. Graham and those who were his critics as well. That puts me in a very interesting position.
For one thing, as I stated in my conversation with Grant Wacker, I was born in 1959. A lot of this story precedes me. I came to adulthood in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, a very different time. At a time when Billy Graham was not only a household name among American evangelicals, but also a time when he loomed over American history and American evangelicalism as something of a character of almost mythic status, given the fact that he dominated that movement like no one else before and like no one else since.
I have to admit that as I read this book, I learned a great deal about people I knew, but people I came to know at some point along the way of this story. I came to know Carl Henry is in so many ways a mentor to me and a dear friend. I came to know many of the associate to Billy Graham and eventually, I came to know Dr. Graham himself.
As I certainly understand when it comes to, for instance, my grandfathers, I knew them only as older adults. I never knew the younger men that they one day were. In reading Grant Wacker's book on Billy Graham, I came to understand I think the younger man, that Billy Graham once was, and the younger men that so many others were alongside him. The men and women of the evangelical movement who shaped that movement in its very earliest decades and had such a formative influence in the decades that followed.
They are people who are now passing from the scene. Many of them already have now passed, names like Harold J. Ockenga and Carl Henry and so many others. Billy Graham is still alive and even as his public ministry has come to a close, the very fact that he now lives in Montreat, North Carolina is a sign of the continuity of a movement that is, we need to remember, as old as Billy Graham and really in terms of American evangelicalism in its contemporary form no older.
The chapters at Grant Wacker's book are entitled Preacher, Icon, Southerner, Entrepreneur, Architect, Pilgrim, Pastor, and Patriarch. It's really hard to imagine eight words that might better encapsulate Billy Graham's ministry than those eight words. But, of course, even as with every one of those words, Grant Wacker is seeking to look at a different dimension of Billy Graham's life and work and ministry, his place in the culture and his influence in the larger evangelical movement.
The reality is there's a great deal of bleed over in terms of those eight words and what Grant Wacker means to encapsulate by his use of them. As I said in my conversation with Grant Wacker, I think one of the great achievements of his book is the kind of scholarly sympathy that he extends to virtually everyone who's considered within the book. Starting, of course, with Billy Graham but extending to others, not only his friends but including also his critics.
Over the years, it is interesting to note how this conversation has changed. There are so many issues I wish we'd had time to address, so many theological issues that are simply essential to the story of Billy Graham, so many historical intersection points, so many personalities and personages that belong in a part of this story, and are found in the main in Grant Wacker's book, but in a single conversation, I am amazed how much we were able to discuss.
How many different dimensions of Billy Graham's life and work in ministry we were able to consider. I really do commend the book. I believe that this book more than any other yet written about Billy Graham gets at Billy Graham, the man, gets at Billy Graham's message, gets at his meaning, in terms of the evangelical movement, and also, deals with his motivations in a way that I think has not yet been achieved in any other volume.
There are difficult issues that are addressed in the book, difficult issues to discuss when looking at the 20th Century, difficult issues to discuss when looking at the life, and at the words of Billy Graham. But we also have to recognize just as I said, that it is Billy Graham himself who I firmly believe would want the story told in a way that is true to the facts and true to the unfolding knowledge of the story.
It is Billy Graham, I believe with full confidence who would want us to have this discussion looking at what we, as contemporary evangelicals, living in the first decades of the 20th Century should learn from his life and work. In conclusion, I will venture forth these judgments. Grant Wacker said that there will be no other Billy Graham. It's interesting that that was one of the big questions people were asking in the evangelical world in the 1980s and the '90s, and perhaps even into the early years of the 21st Century.
No one's asking that question anymore. I think the reason for that is quite profound and simple. The world has changed such that it is not now imaginable that American evangelicals could ever occupy a position in the center of this culture as was represented by Billy Graham. Billy Graham's singular influence that placed him in the center of American life, American public life, not just American Christian or American evangelical life, that is an unprecedented development that is now virtually unimaginable.
In our contemporary era, we're looking at a situation in which evangelicals are increasingly going to stand out from the culture as a counterculture, not so much by choice, not that really at all, but rather by the force of circumstances and the tremendous shift in terms of the worldview and the moral judgment of the world around us. The Christian gospel according to the scripture has always been foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others but during those crucial decades of the 20th Century, in the cultural context of the Cold War and in America's attempt to try to come into some form of the modern age, there was a moment when American evangelicals did occupy something far closer to the center of American public life.
There was a moment when Billy Graham was not only possible but actual, in terms of the influence of a singular individual in that American moment. We can look back now and say that that moment also produced some unique temptations and Grant Wacker deals with those as well. The temptations of being just a bit too close to power without recognizing that the Christian gospel is sometimes undermined in terms of its preaching by that very proximity to power.
When it comes to the theological inclusiveness that marked, at least, some of the early decades of Dr. Graham's ministry, it is now even more clear that American Protestantism was moving in two very different and eventually contradictory directions. One towards an explicit accommodation with modernity, the course of Protestant liberalism, and the other, in the direction of a very counter-cultural stance, made necessary by the theological convictions that are essential and central to what it means to be a Christian.
In particular, what it means to be known and self-identified as an evangelical. In that sense, looking with full sympathy the decisions that were made by Billy Graham then, we can understand that we face no opportunity of having such illusions now. We come to understand that the theological options that present us in the early decades of the 21st Century are not between an establishment Protestantism that still retains some form of allegiance to historic Christian doctrine and to a more conservative variant that is more theologically precise.
We are now looking at two movements that are separated by a great theological chasm. It is now not possible to look at the situation as Billy Graham confronted it in the 1950s and believed that in any way it now represents what we know to be the theological options in the 21st Century.
I know from firsthand knowledge that many of those who were the conservative critics of Dr. Graham's ministry during his public years that many of those critics were motivated by a very sincere theological assessment that forced them to create distance between themselves and Dr. Graham. Over time many of those concerns were substantiated, certainly by the leftward trajectory of mainline Protestantism, but many of those conservative critics also had underlying that distance that was created between themselves, a basic gladness in the fact that Billy Graham was preaching the gospel and they were glad to hear the gospel preached and they were glad to see so many people respond to the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
On the left, there were those who were very severe critics, but even as many of those mellowed over the years, they mellowed because of the personal integrity of Billy Graham, and the understanding of the fact that in his role in American culture, not only is he indispensable to the story of American evangelicalism, he's indispensable to the story of many other developments in American culture. Given all that Billy Graham represents, it is far easier to start a conversation about him and his place in history than to end it, but end it we must.
Once again, I want to commend Grant Wacker's excellent new book, America's Pastor Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. I deeply appreciate him joining me for Thinking in Public today. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boys College, go to boycecollege.com. Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I'm Albert Mohler.