Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South
By Steven P. Miller
University of Pennsylvania Press, 312 pp.
Amid the flap over Rick Warren giving the invocation at President Obama's inauguration was the fact that it marked the end of an era: Billy Graham as an evangelical force in American politics. Now that he's 90 years old and in frail health, the tendency is to remember Graham as a spiritual leader—a man who since the late 1940s has been so focused on saving souls that he's risen above the mundane quibbles of politics. Indeed, compared to the more vociferous pillars of the Christian right, like Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, Graham has seemed almost politically neutral, a model of moderation, humility and Christian charity.
But, as the independent scholar Steven P. Miller reminds us in Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, Graham played a key role in shaping the American political landscape of the second half of the 20th century, as confidante to presidents and adviser on domestic issues (particularly civil rights) and foreign policy (Communism and the Cold War). Much has been written about Graham the evangelist, contends Miller in this edifying but hardly accessible book of academic nuance, but less has been said about Graham the de facto politician, especially his role in paving the way for the South's seismic shift from a Democratic bloc to the bulwark of the GOP.
The shift began when Graham went to Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., a well-regarded evangelical institution. There, he studied not religion but anthropology, a field that Miller notes was associated with agnosticism if not atheism. Even so, Graham later said he "practically memorized" Up from the Ape, a textbook on evolutionary anthropology that convinced this young Southern boy, raised on the "truth" of Jim Crow, that justifications for racial segregation were relative, constructed and arbitrary.
This, Miller says, led to Graham's mastery of triangulation, an ability to find a credible stance between segregationists, who wanted to preserve racist laws and customs, and integrationists, who wanted equality and justice seemingly at the expense of the social order. Graham managed to desegregate his crusades on religious grounds—"The audience may be segregated, but there is no segregation at the altar," he said. His message showed moderate Southern whites how they could back away from Jim Crow without alientating themselves from their communities. Miller also notes the effect Graham's biracial ministry had on a young Bill Clinton, who as a teenager attended one of Graham's crusades in Little Rock. (But one can also imagine the evangelist's influence on Clinton's split-the-difference political tendencies, such as "don't ask, don't tell.")
To Graham, Jim Crow was a liability. He believed, like many others, that communism was an evil faith, the anti-Christianity, and that God had chosen the United States to defeat it, just as it had fascism. But being an international beacon of morality and justice abroad was encumbered, Graham came to realize, by America's immorality and injustice at home. Though he deserves credit for desegregating his hugely popular crusades by the 1950s, Miller writes, Graham's "color-blind" evangelism stemmed for the most part from Cold War anxiety.
Even so, Graham's hope for racial harmony dried up after the Watts Riots of 1965, a year after the landmark Civil Rights Bill was enacted by Congress. Graham toured LA's black neighborhood and came away disgusted by the devastation he saw and, in his view, racial progress gone too far too fast. The experience renewed in Graham the country's need for law and order. Two years later, he gave a speech in Atlanta that encouraged people to demonstrate for change by taking to Christ, not the streets. This, Graham said, would be a peaceful version of "rioting and rebellion." It would be a "quiet revolution."
Graham had close ties to every post-World War II president except Kennedy and Truman. Graham was attracted to power, Miller writes, but those in power also understood the political benefits of being associated with Graham. Johnson, Ford, Carter and Reagan all turned to him, at one time or another. But none was so closely associated with Graham as Richard Nixon, who would expand the rhetoric of the "quiet revolution" to include "the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators."
"Law and order" quickly became code words in Nixon's Southern strategy, in which he appealed to white Americans disinclined toward or disillusioned by social change. Much has been said about the Democratic Party losing the South after 1968, but little has been said about the influence of a man who was a spiritual leader for millions of Americans—and mostly white Americans, at that—for decades. This new book is a welcome corrective.
Steven Miller reads and signs copies of the book at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham Thursday, July 16, at 7 p.m.