January 21, 2013


God and Politics: BILLY GRAHAM AND THE RISE OF THE REPUBLICAN SOUTH by Steven P. Miller (ROSS DOUTHAT, NY Times Book Review)

The story of the civil rights era is usually told as a collision between heroes and villains: the marchers on one side and the K.K.K. on the other; the Martin Luther Kings and Lyndon Johnsons making the way straight for justice, and the George Wallaces and Bull Connors standing sneering in their way. But the movement's successes and failures were ultimately determined by the choices of more un­heroic men -- men like Billy Graham.

These choices began with Graham's decision, in the early '50s, to shed the baggage of his segregationist upbringing and recast himself as a racial moderate -- a critic of Jim Crow, albeit a determined gradualist where its elimination was concerned. This was a moral and theological conversion. Miller, a historian, is very good at teasing out the connection between Graham's religious views and his evolving opinions on race, and the way that doctrinal controversies within evangelical Christianity (for instance, the argument between moderates and fundamentalists over whether God is a father to all mankind, or only to all believers) intersected with political debates about racial equality. Yet it was also a career-minded conversion. The young Graham had grand ambitions for his ministry, and to become an international spokesman for Christianity, in the age of the cold war and decolonization, required distancing himself from the South's controversial institutions.

But a similar combination of theological principle and careerist caution meant that Graham's critique of segregation never went nearly as far as civil rights activists wanted him to go. He stressed individual conversion over political change, supporting legal reform in lukewarm terms while insisting that only the Gospel could really improve race relations. He maintained strong friendships with segregationist clergymen and politicians, and his attacks on racism were always tempered by deliberate hedges and straddles -- denunciations of extremists on "both sides" of the debate, suggestions that race relations were worse in the North than in the South, and so forth. Where Martin Luther King used eschatological language as a spur to political change, Graham used eschatology to emphasize the limits of politics. "Only when Christ comes again," he reportedly said after King's speech at the March on Washington, "will the lion lie down with the lamb and the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with the little black children."

At the core of Graham's approach, Mil­ler argues, was an evangelical view of political authority as essentially God-­given and not to be lightly challenged. This made him a natural ally for presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and Johnson, who needed prominent white Southerners to serve as spokesmen for the acceptance of desegregation laws. And it enabled him, as Miller says, to "set the terms of the racial curve" that even as strident a segregationist as Wallace "would eventually round."

But it made him a fair-weather friend to the civil rights activists themselves. Graham supported the era's landmark legislation once it was passed into law, but he was a constant critic of the marches, demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience that helped make reform possible. His first commitment was always to law and order, and his first instinct was always to call for an end to further agitation.

...but live in the City of Man.

[originally posted: 4/18/09]

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Posted by at January 21, 2013 12:00 AM
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