Q&A: Billy Graham biographer talks about impact of Charlotte-born evangelist

Just in time for Billy Graham’s birthday – he turned 96 on Friday – there’s a major new biography out about the Charlotte-born evangelist.

Grant Wacker, a professor of Christian history at Duke University Divinity School, worked for seven years on “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.”

It was worth the wait. Wacker, who is an expert on evangelicalism, puts Graham and his worldwide ministry into historical, cultural and theological context. And he’s the first historian to explore the wealth of personal letters sent to Graham by ordinary Americans.

The Observer talked with Wacker about Graham and his impact on America from the 1940s until his last crusade in 2005. Here is the full transcript.

A review of Wacker’s book will be in the Observer’s Living section on Sunday (Nov. 9).

Q Why Billy Graham? Why did this son of a Charlotte dairy farmer became, as you say, America’s pastor?

A He rode the waves of current trends and I think he did that both self-consciously and unselfconsciously. One of his associates said, “He did his best work on the back stroke.” It was instinctive. He just knew what the current trends were and so he rode those waves. He capitalized on new trends in communications and the growing American fascination with the South and Southerners. He fell into an ecumenical mood which wasn’t universal – it wasn’t that everybody was ecumenical, but there were enough people who wanted to build bridges that they found in him a voice. He was effective in making major inroads with the major politicians of the era. And they carried him forward – sometimes for good, and sometimes it created problems for him. And I think also he brought extraordinary personal gifts to the project.

Q Talk about those gifts – his voice, his looks. When he came on the scene, there was this infant medium called television. He had this old-time religion message, and yet he seemed to use the most modern technology. Did he use it to promote the Word and himself as the messenger?

A Just in terms of personal gifts, he fit the stereotypical American ideal of the handsome male. Tall, lean, blond, blue-eyed. His voice was resonant. One reporter described his voice as an instrument of remarkable range and power. So he was just gifted with a strong and resonant voice. There was just enough of a Southern accent, his dialect, to seem interesting without seeming eccentric or too Southern. Just interesting. So there were those traits. His personality was charismatic in a small-c sense. Everyone who came into contact with him was drawn in. He commanded a room. And then that personal charisma translated easily into the public stage. In the vast stadiums, people sensed that as well. He was not a great theologian. He was not a theologian at all. And he did not pretend to be. I think that was part of his attraction, is that he did not pretend to speak a language that was not native to him. He spoke a down-home, common-sense translation of academic theology.

Q So he had mass appeal?

A He had mass appeal. He knew how to speak to people’s daily concerns. The vast archive of letters (to Graham) at Wheaton College are, I think, the most revealing of all the documents by and about Graham. Because they show how he touched ordinary people in their ordinary lives. These letters are funny, they’re touching, they’re filled with expressions of grief and joy. And he communicated. He communicated with vast numbers of people at the level at which they really lived.

Q There are a lot of biographies out there about Billy Graham. He’s written about his life. But a focus on these letters appears to be one of the new things you bring to the table with your book. Are you the first one who’s focused a lot about them?

A As far as I know, I am. Other historians have just mentioned them, but as far as I know I am the first to explore them in depth. And that’s because I immediately sensed that this was the most reliable index into his relation with middle America.

Q And he also got letters around the world. You see some at the Billy Graham Library addressed to just “Billy Graham – USA.” And they still got to him.

A Yeah. Some of them did not have any address at all. They just said “Billy Graham,” and they somehow got to him, which says something important about the pervasiveness of his name recognition in that era. Many of the letters were misaddressed, but they still got to him. Some were intentionally funny. One, for example, was addressed to Billy Graham, but also said, “In case of Rapture, never mind.”

Q What do you think these people saw in him that they would write a very personal letter to such a famous person?

A That’s an excellent question, and it puzzled me a long time. The letters were typically very personal. That is, they were utterly straightforward about the writer. I would say that that a large minority of the writers seemed to think that he himself was reading them. Now, probably a majority knew that he would not read them. But many thought that he was. Why did they write? It strikes me that it’s a Protestant version of going to a priest in a confessional. They shared their guilt, they told him about things they’d done wrong. Either they expected a response that would in some way provide absolution or just articulating their concerns was a way of confessing. Again, probably about half of the letters spoke of missteps, mistakes, sins that they had committed. Then perhaps half of them were written to thank him for how he had changed their lives.

Q And some were about loneliness – is that what he told Johnny Carson on TV?

A If I were to break it down: Of those that expressed concern – it’d be about half – the largest number were about addictions. And of those, alcohol, tobacco and other forms of addictions were prominent. And very close to that would be those speaking of sexual lapses or suspicions – sexual lapses by a spouse. Or expressing worries about their own ability to maintain.

Q Do you think Billy Graham saw enough of these letters that they changed or affected him in any way?

A Yeah. What I was going to say is that, of the ones that expressed a concern, running very close to those about addictions were those that spoke of loneliness. And this is striking. The loneliness came in various forms. The elderly, lonely because their adult children did not write or call. Spouses who were lonely in their marriage. Grief: people who had lost children or, more often, spouses. So loneliness was a prominent theme. And Graham himself commented on how conspicuous this concern was.

Q Do you think these letters softened him at all? He was pretty hard-line when he first started out.

A Let me first address the question of the hard-line. The hard-line was present from beginning to end. But the proportion of hard-line shrunk dramatically over the years. So at the very end he was far more prone to talk about the capaciousness of God’s love. But he never gave up the element of judgment. And that provided a kind of tension in his preaching. So he never came close to falling into (preaching) a prosperity gospel or therapeutic gospel. There was always that line of God’s judgment. Now, your first question: Did it soften him? It’s hard to say. I think it did. I can’t prove it. But he often talked about how he had changed in the face of experience and maturity. I do not know of any place where he said the letters themselves had changed him. He talked about travel and the people he had met in his life and how they had changed him.

Q Let me ask you about another quality many people saw in him: His humility. Billy Graham was once asked the same question I asked you: Why Billy Graham? And he said that was one of the first questions he’d ask God when he got to heaven. In other words, it was all God’s doing and he was just the vessel. What do you think that answer says about Billy Graham? And was that part of his appeal as well?

A He was a deeply, genuinely, authentically humble man about himself. At the same time, he always believed that God had chosen him. He always insisted that he had no idea why God had chosen him. He was an ordinary farm boy with no special talents. He said that countless times. But he did say at the same time that God had chosen him and given him this task of proclaiming the Gospel around the world. So there’s always this duality in Graham where he’s personally humble but professionally ambitious. Let me rephrase that a little bit: He’s personally humble but fully confident of the importance of his calling. And that God did call him. And that he was doing important work. Let me elaborate. He never disparaged the work. He had an aw-shucks approach to himself but there was never an aw-shucks approach to the work God had called him to.

Q Your book title calls him “America’s pastor.” There are a lot of different Americas. Which one or ones most embraced Billy Graham?

A Middle America.

Q And did that change over time?

A Somewhat. It changed in two respects. The most conspicuous is that he appealed increasingly to a younger and younger constituency. And there’s lot of evidence that the median age of the attenders at the crusades dropped. I think that the number of African-Americans and other minorities grew over time. But they always remained a minority in his constituency. There were times and places where the African-American representation was proportional. But on the whole, he spoke to an older, white middle-class America.

Q Which in the 1950s and ’60s was pretty dominant, I guess?

A The proportion of African-Americans has not grown since the ’50s and ’60s. But the number of immigrant groups has. The data are elusive. I would see a growing number of people of color, but they never came close to constituting the majority.

Q You argue in your book that Graham helped shape the nation in various ways. How about race? He was born in the South during World War I. And yet, as an adult, he seems not to have been blinded by the racial prejudice that was fairly common in the Jim Crow South. What was his attitude about race?

A First, let me talk about him. Then I can talk about how I think he helped shape the nation. He was never racist. There’s no evidence of the public Graham – I can’t speak of the private Graham as a child. But there’s no evidence that the public Graham was racist. But in the ’40s, he inherited a paternalistic attitude – a white paternalism toward African-Americans. And he followed (early 20th century evangelist) Billy Sunday’s pattern of racially segregating the crowds he preached to. Occasionally, he preached to black-only or white-only. More often, they separated the audience. Sometimes they self-segregated, sometimes there were ropes. By the early ’50s, his conscience was gnawing on him and he came to believe that this (segregated) pattern was un-Scriptural and it was simply wrong. And by 1952, he had come to the place where he chastised his own Southern Baptist Convention for their unwillingness to admit African-Americans to their seminaries. The following year, probably in Chattanooga, Tenn., he pulled ropes down that separated black and white people in the audience. That was not permanent. Several months later, at the next crusade in Dallas, the ropes went back up. But by the following year, 1954, the ropes came down and they never went up again. So what’s significant about this is that he grew. It took him time to change. There was not an epiphany about it. Rather, he grew into a deeper understanding of what the Gospel called for.

Q And how did he help change America on race?

A I think his most important influence came in two forms. First, the crusades were always integrated, from 1954 onward. He received a great deal of vitriolic criticism. He also received death threats. His white friends chastised him, and he never backed down. And he said this is how he symbolized his commitment to racial justice. The other way I think he influenced the nation is that he took white racism off the table of views white people could hold with impunity.

Q White Christian people?

A Yes, white Christians. You could not be a Christian and a racist. He removed that possibility from the realm of discussion. And he insisted that racism was incompatible with Christian faith. Now he didn’t restrict it to whites. He argued that racism was incompatible with Christianity, but his main focus and discussion was toward whites.

Q Speaking more on shaping the nation, talk about what Graham did for evangelicalism. It’s become a major part of the religious landscape today. Everywhere you look: In the media. In mega-churches. Was he the father of all that?

A No, he was not the father of the tradition. It started in the early 18th century and it dominated American culture in the 19th century. It was highly fragmented by the 1940s. I think what Graham did was he united mainstream evangelicals and he gave them public definition and they became a coherent public force as the result of his work in many respects. So that they became visible and defined and they exercised a normative authority over other evangelicals, either intentionally or unintentionally. Conservative Christians had to come to terms with Graham. It does not mean every conservative Christian became an evangelical. But it does mean that they had to come to terms with Graham and the kind of evangelicalism he made central and normative.

Q We talked earlier about how Graham changed over the years. Why do you think this happened? You don’t always see change and growth in people.

A May I answer first by saying how I thought the change was most visible?

Q Sure.

A Where the change was most dramatic was in reference to military and American foreign policy. In the early 1950s, he was a strident anti-Communist. Now, most Americans were anti-Communist and most prominent Americans were, too. But Graham ranked among the most muscular of the anti-Communists and the militarists. And even into the beginning of the Vietnam era, he endorsed muscle-flexing and the use of military solutions. By the end of the Vietnam War, he was beginning to have second thoughts. But the real reassessment came in the late 1970s and there he became deeply worried about the threat of nuclear annihilation of the (human) race. And he took up the cause of mutual nuclear disarmament with vigor. So by the early 1980s, he said in Moscow that he’d gone through three conversions in his life: the first, a conversion to Christ; the second, a need for racial justice; and the third, the necessity of nuclear disarmament. So that’s where I think the main change came. There were both specific issues and broader ones. Specific issues: For example, a tour of the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1979 aroused his conscience about what human beings were capable of doing to each other. A talk in his home from Henry Kissinger about the results of nuclear war alerted him. So there were specific things like this. But the larger change came from his world tours. The impact they had on him in seeing the range and kinds of cultures around the world. And the danger that we were courting in destroying civilization.

Q Did Graham bring his followers with him? Did they also change their attitudes toward race, Catholics, nuclear disarmament, ecumenism?

A I would say yes, but I cannot comment on the percentages . I just don’t know. It does seem that he would not have retained his financial base and steady flow of letters if there were not a substantial number of people who agreed with the changes he was articulating. Because there were always strong critics of Graham on the left and on the right. So, indirectly, it would seem he brought millions of people along with him.

Q What did Billy Graham see in Richard Nixon? He touted Nixon as a man of God while, behind the scenes, Nixon was spouting anti-Semitic and racist remarks. He was compiling an enemies list. How could Billy Graham have not seen all this?

A Yeah. Two questions. What did he see? And how could Graham have not seen the real Nixon? Graham saw a man who was very smart and an astute student of world affairs. And after all, Nixon won the 1972 election by the largest majority of any election in American history. So tens of millions of Americans felt the same way. But Graham thought he was a man of great moral integrity and extremely knowledgeable and the most qualified person in the nation to be president. How Graham was so deceived is very difficult. Nixon exercised a kind of charismatic power over Graham, just as Graham exercised charismatic power over millions of people. And one of Graham’s associates said Billy never did know how badly Nixon snookered him. So he was hoodwinked. Nixon drew him in. How did it happen? Well, besides the fact that Nixon was, in fact, very smart, he was circumspect about how he talked around Graham. He never cussed. And in Graham’s subculture, cussing said a lot. And Nixon talked the language, he talked an evangelical kind of language. Although, having said that, Graham was always curious as to why Nixon was not more explicit about his faith. He urged him to be. So Nixon played the role, and Graham was sucked along with it. Graham later bitterly and frequently apologized for how he had allowed himself to be used.

Q Graham and Nixon did both seem to have a real appeal to middle America.

A Absolutely. And with Eisenhower – middle America. Lyndon Johnson. Among the presidents, his closest friend was Lyndon Johnson. Of the 11 presidents he knew, he was friends with 10 of them. Truman was the only one he wasn’t. And I’m excluding Obama (since that was after Graham retired). But of the 11 he knew – he knew Truman, but they were not friends – those he was close to would be Nixon, Johnson, Reagan and the senior Bush. Johnson was the closest.

Q He was known, famously, as the pastor to presidents. But some who have looked into it say being around the presidents brought out this people-pleasing side of Graham. Did he lose around that kind of power? Did he ever challenge the presidents like the prophets of old?

A He was deeply impressed with presidential power. And the glamour. And the fame. Without question. It all drew him in. Also, Graham himself liked to be liked. He did not like to have enemies. So when presidents were nice to him and treated him like a peer, that gratified him greatly. Did he ever challenge them? Good question, difficult to answer. As far as I know, with one minor exception, he never challenged the presidents in public. Once, on a very minor occasion, he challenged Lyndon Johnson. But for all practical purposes, he did not challenge them in public. Now, what he did in private, we do not know. He was very careful to say that his conversations with presidents were absolutely confidential. And he said that he was committed to maintaining that confidentiality. So we don’t know.

Q Some Anglican publications have picked up something else that’s new with your book. Apparently, Billy Graham, you write, said that if he had it to do all over again, he’d be an “evangelical Anglican.” First, what is an evangelical Anglican?

A I’m not so sure, either.

Q In his crusades, he seemed to have little use for high-church rituals, bells, incense. Did he change later in life?

A I think that, in principle, he was intrigued by ritual and liturgy. He also had some very warm words to say about Greek Orthodox (worship) later in life. I think this was a genuine statement, but it was in principle. In fact, I don’t ever see him really engaging in any kind of a high-church tradition except ecumenically. He attended most of the World Council of Churches meetings. He had many Catholic friends. But I think this was more of – maybe not fantasy, but a self-image (thing).

Q Most of the people who are mentioned as the big evangelical mega-pastors of today – Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes – have their own churches. Billy Graham was only briefly a pastor in the 1940s. Then he went his own way, in stadiums. Tell me why he never had his own individual church base after that.

A I think he had a pilgrim soul.

Q Well put.

A He was restless as a local pastor. He had a larger vision and he liked to move and travel, meet people. Engage new people and new horizons. He was simply too restless to be confined to a local church.

Q Billy Graham really hit the big time in the 1950s. That was the decade when America began printing “In God We Trust” on its paper money and added “God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. And the country was fighting atheistic Communism. Did he ride that wave or do you think he helped create it?

A Both. And that’s part of his genius all along is that he rode the waves of contemporary culture and, in many ways, he spurred those waves along. And so he was both a beneficiary and a participant and a catalyst for all those waves, but especially, as you say, broad-based consensual American spirit.

Q As in “civil religion,” where the U.S. presidents are always saying, “God bless the United States of America”?

A That term has come into disrepute lately. But when it was first used in the 1960s, it was thought to be a good thing. Graham certainly thought it was a good thing. He was advocating broad values that all Americans could share and should share. So, yeah, he was most definitely an advocate of civil religion in its positive form.

Q In the 1960s, when I grew up, I remember him as sort of this religious celebrity. He was on the “Tonight” show, he was golfing with presidents and Hollywood stars. He even bantered on TV with Woody Allen. Did he see this celebrity culture as a way to spread the Gospel by speaking people’s language? Or was he was seduced by it all? He even has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

A He certainly saw it as a way to present and publicize the Gospel. He was a salesman at heart, and a very good one. He often said, “I have the best product in the world. Why shouldn’t I use the best means available in presenting it?” Now, was he seduced by the fame and glamour? Seduced is a strong word. I’d say he was captivated. He was drawn in, not totally uncritically. He could poke fun at himself. But he was certainly captivated, certainly enchanted by the fame.

Q Then, by the 1990s up until he did his last crusade in 2005, he had become almost a grandfatherly figure who really stressed the love of God. Where did that come from?

A Again, it’s a question of proportion. He never allowed the theme of love of God to overwhelm the message. But it became a larger part of what he presented as the years passed. He resolutely refused to condemn anyone to hell. And he received great pressure to say that people who had not been saved by faith in Jesus Christ would go to hell. And he would never, never say that. He simply said, “My sole job is to present the Gospel and leave the rest to God.”

Q “Unbroken,” the movie version of the book about Louie Zamperini, is coming out this Christmas. Zamperini is one of the most famous converts at a Billy Graham crusade. And that leads me to another one of the themes in your book: that Billy Graham offered Americans a second chance.

A Yes, I think this might be the very heart of Graham’s legacy, this sense that we can be more than our genes and our circumstances have dictated. Or that our genes and our circumstances have not dictated and defined who we can be. We can grow beyond that in our personal maturity and in our spiritual maturity. There’s a second chance.

Q That’s a very American thing.

A Very American. That’s what the reform movements have classically been about: reclaiming the potential in the American story. And Graham did that, particularly with reference to spiritual growth. And I think I said at the end of the book that Martin Luther King is best known for his call for justice, John Paul II for his call for solidarity and Graham for his call for personal transformation.

Q Which is at the heart of Christianity, of course.

A Yes.

Q Yet you say in your book that Billy Graham is not a particularly introspective person. Did he ever get in touch with the mystery and ambiguity of spirituality?

A To the best of my knowledge, the answer is no. He did not. There was not an introspective bone in his body. There was not a mystic bone in his body. He did not speak in terms of metaphor or allusions. He was just constitutionally not wired that way. Now his wife Ruth wrote a great deal of poetry and that poetry had those elements of mystery in it. But not Billy.

Q I have to ask you the question that every Billy Graham scholar gets asked: Will we ever see another Billy Graham?

A I doubt it. And the reason I doubt it is that the conditions that created Graham have changed and have passed away. Graham is a product of his time and place. And he brought personal gifts to the task, but he fit the age. And the age has changed.

Q It’s more of a niche culture now?

A . . . Not least because of social media and the electronic revolution.

Q We talked about how Billy Graham fathered a lot of spiritual sons – Rick Warren and others. What about his real son? Compare and contrast Billy and Franklin Graham.

A It seems to me that Franklin is more hard-line, both politically and theologically. But with the important exception that he has launched and orchestrated one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the world in Samaritan’s Purse. His father fostered relief measures, but did not ever bring about a major and long-range philanthropic organization the way Samaritan’s Purse is. So there are two sides to Franklin. There is his public side, that is hard, unyielding. He’s a cultural warrior. His father was never a cultural warrior. And certainly, in the later years, when that become an option, his father resisted falling into the culture wars. Franklin has embraced them. But at the same time, there’s this other side to him. So Franklin is a very complex figure.

Q He’s done yeoman work on fighting the Ebola virus. But then on the cover of Decision magazine this month (published by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which Franklin Graham now leads), there’s a bloody dagger and the headline, “Is Islam really a religion of peace?”

A This is the great paradox of Franklin. On the front line, fighting Ebola. But also a cultural warrior about gay marriage, about the threat of Islam. He is difficult for me to analyze.

Q Were you surprised in 2012 when the image of Billy Graham and words attributed to him were on ads against same-sex marriage and for Mitt Romney? Some accused Franklin of orchestrating this, but Franklin said no, his father believed these things.

A What can be said is that the senior Graham’s immersion in partisan politics in those last two elections was out of character for where he had been for the last 30 years of his public ministry. It was dramatically out of character. And he had insisted for 30 years that politics should stay out of the pulpit. The Gospel transcended politics. So what we see is a dramatic change in presentation, Now, whether this represented Franklin using his father or whether this was the senior Graham’s own views, there’s no way to know. That’s private, within his family.

Q One of the most moving parts of your book is at the end, when you write about going to Graham’s home in Montreat three or four times. He’s in his 90s now. But he still impressed and affected you. What was it like to be one-on-one with this man you’ve studied and written about?

A One word: Overwhelming. The charisma is overwhelming. And there’s no way to be with him and not feel it. It radiates from him. The second thing is (his) humility. At the personal level, you gain a strong sense that he really believes that he is only an instrument and nothing more. That’s hard to fake. Sincerity of his faith – that was there. But the last thing that struck us – my wife went with me – is how funny he is in person. You don’t get a sense of that on television or radio. Well, you get a bit of that in that very famous Woody Allen (interview with Graham). But on a personal level, his quips and one-liners were just remarkable. And it bespoke a kind of personal engagement that we did not expect.

Q You took your granddaughter to the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte. She was enamored of the mechanical cow. What were your impressions of the library?

A It’s celebratory. It’s not a genuinely historical library like a presidential library would be. One does not gain a sense of any of the problems or the wrinkles or difficulties in his ministry. So it’s celebratory about him and about his ministry and about the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. So that’s important to know. It’s not like a presidential library that purports to offer a kind of objective reportage. It’s also, I think, a classic expression of the modern South. You see a silo and a barn and all this agricultural ministry. It’s Southern in that sense. But it’s also ultra-modern. A mechanized cow – the kind of thing you’d see at Disneyland.

Q It also seems like an evangelizing tool.

A Most definitely. At the end, there is a strong pitch for people to make a Christian commitment. Everybody has to go through that part.

Q But the classic line from Billy Graham when he was asked about the library was: “Too much Billy Graham.”

A That’s classic. That’s exactly how he saw himself, as an ordinary person. Nonetheless, it is still named the Billy Graham Library. And you see, that’s the paradox. But if you were talking to him now, he’d say, “Me as a person? I’m nothing. But the Billy Graham Library attracts people.”

Q You sent a copy of your book to him. How did you inscribe it?

A I would say if I could remember the exact words. I think I said, “With deep appreciation and admiration.” And it’s to Mr. Graham even though he invites everyone to call him Billy. He was also very clear that he was not an academic. Not an intellectual, not even a graduate of a seminary. That’s part of his appeal. Ordinary Americans are leery of academically trained theologians. He appealed to their sense of common sense.

Q He’s turning 96 this week. His active ministry ended nearly 10 years ago. You have pointed out more than others than many young people don’t know who Billy Graham is any more. So will he eventually be forgotten? Or will his story and influence live on?

A It depends on the media. When you get far from politics and how evangelicals vote, the interest of many in the media flags. But if the media continues to make an effort to understand the faith of common people outside the realm of politics Graham’s work will linger. A lot depends on the authenticity and the integrity of the work of the media.

Q Last question: When Billy Graham passes one day, what should be on his tombstone? What should we remember about Billy Graham’s life?

A If it were up to me, I would say: “He preached the Gospel.” I think that captures both what he intended to do and what he did, in fact, do.

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