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Reviewed by:
  • Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South
  • Stephen J. Whitfield
Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South By Steven P. Miller; University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009 304 pp. Cloth $29.95;

Books are not to be judged by their covers, we are warned; but a blurb for this valuable political profile of the Reverend Billy Graham is provocative enough to warrant consideration. Has he been "the most important American religious figure of the twentieth century"? Such a claim would, almost by itself, justify the judicious scrutiny that Steven P. Miller has provided. Over the course of the second half of the last century, no American was more consistently admired, and perhaps no public figure was more inescapable than this charismatic evangelist. But if importance entails the shaping of events, then surely the blurb would be more aptly bestowed on a monograph on Martin Luther King Jr. Like Graham, King was both a Baptist and a southerner. (They professed to be friends.) King pursued a prophetic mission that made him difficult to domesticate. Graham, by contrast, gave voice to the commonplace, articulating opinions that vast swaths of Christendom already accepted. That is why his high favorability ratings rarely dropped. Even the transfer of the partisan loyalties of the white South, which constitutes the subtext of Miller's study, was a post-Sixties process that Graham encouraged but did not decisively shape.

Both King and Graham were prophets with honor overseas as well, though the extraordinary international reach of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is obscured in Miller's account. Yet Graham's ministry has also been what sculptors call "site-specific." No matter how many Russians and South Koreans and Australians he preached to on his crusades, Graham's southern roots were evident. Though the national headquarters of the Association were long in Minneapolis, the current [End Page 101] address is Charlotte (which sponsored Billy Graham Day in 1971), and Montreat, North Carolina, is where Graham has made his home. His accent, his affable, awshucks unpretentiousness, and above all his theology (suspended between the perils of personal sin and the belief in individual redemption) have all made Graham as regionally identifiable as Elvis Presley's "Little Sister" ("She's mean and she's evil/Like that old boll weevil"). Miller's book emphasizes how snugly Graham's political values have fit within the contours of the postwar white South.

In 1953, Graham removed the ropes separating black and white attendees at his crusade in Chattanooga, and asserted that, were segregated seating restored, "you can go on and have the revival without me" (p. 28). Bill Clinton has also testified to the impact upon him of a racially mixed revival that Graham conducted in Little Rock in the wake of the turmoil there. Even as Southern politicians were advocating massive resistance, Graham accepted Brown v. Board of Education. But he had little if any passion for social justice as liberals understood the term. Favoring obedience to the law, he had no desire to mobilize moral protest against laws that codified white supremacy and perpetuated its legacy. Graham's sympathies were with those white moderates who acknowledged the inevitability of racial equality but did not feel its urgency. Even if he could have managed to empathize with the activists of the Civil Rights Movement, however, Graham was trapped within a Protestantism that defined "the heart of the problem of race" as "loving our neighbor. But man must love God before he can love his neighbor" (quoted on p. 31).

Here the author cuts Graham too much slack; Miller even refers to the evangelist's stance as "the politics of decency." That ethos elevated personal virtue above institutional reform, and privileged a change in the human heart over the rejection of unjust laws. But Graham failed to realize that Jim Crow was itself a rebuke to the human heart, a violation of conscience. Even if whites had wanted to treat blacks as equals, the law forbade such expressions of decency. The rules of racial segregation were already unnatural, and determined by fiat how southerners were to behave toward their neighbors. Graham never acknowledged that contradiction to his own...


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pp. 101-103
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