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Book Review: America’s Pastor

By (November 11, 2014) No Comment

America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nationamerica's pastor cover

by Grant Wacker

The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014

Burly Brooklyn-born actor Paul Sorvino isn’t generally associated with comedic roles, but in Carl Reiner’s 1977 film Oh,God! he’s clearly relishing the chance to send up American big-business televangelism by portraying his character, Reverend Willie Williams (dubbed by the President himself, we’re told, as “God’s own quarterback”) as a venal, short-tempered, bullying con man. Judging from the huge crowds that attend his money-siphoning rallies we know that Willie Williams has devoted followers, but unlike with the film’s other religious leaders, with Sorvino’s character we are shown only the backstage face of a thug and a huckster. The implication couldn’t be clearer: other types of religious leadership – rabbis, priests, ministers, and such – might actually operate from a core of genuine piety, but Southern American marquee preacher-men so completely lack such a core that no self-respecting satire can even momentarily lend it to them. The Reverend Willie Williams and his kind can only and ever be frauds.

Examining real-world specimens of that kind enormously re-enforces this impression. From its very beginnings with George Whitefield, one of the architects of Methodism and a life-long enthusiastic exponent of the Christian virtues of slavery (whose shouting, sweating mass preachings struck most of his fellow clerics as, at the very least, “affected”), right down to its heyday in the 20th century, hypocrisy of Biblical proportions has been the main defining characteristic of the American pulpit. Mid-century “Christian Crusade” leader Billy James Hargis, after a career of preaching against sexual licentiousness, was ruined when the media got word of the affairs he’d been having with students of both genders at the college he founded. “Moral Majority” founder Jerry Falwell’s frequent allusions to the “brotherhood in Christ” were belied by his open homophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism. Preacher Oral Roberts infamously told his followers that if a certain astronomical amount of their donations wasn’t met by a swiftly-approaching deadline, God would “call him home” (and it would, presumably, be all their fault). “Praise the Lord” ministry founder Jim Bakker fell from grace when he was condemned by fellow evangelists such as Jimmy Swaggart for repeatedly cheating on his lachrymose wife Tammy Faye. Multi-millionaire “Family Worship Center” founder Jimmy Swaggart in his turn was photographed consorting with a New Orleans prostitute, tearfully confessed on camera in a moment that distills the essence of televangelist ham-acting, and was soon caught sinning again. “New Life Church” founder Ted Haggard, after a career preaching the damnation of homosexuals, resigned in disgrace after his years of hiring male prostitutes came to light. Doddering “700 Club” host Pat Robertson’s bigoted, misogynistic, racist, homophobic rantings have been fodder for late-night comedians for decades. The list seems endless.

And because the list seems endless, the task of Duke University Divinity School professor Grant Wacker’s new book, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation, seems doomed from the start. Graham, whose preaching career has stretched for nearly seven decades and taken him into the confidences of many U.S. presidents and world leaders, was dubbed by the President himself – George H. W. Bush in this case – as “America’s pastor” (although in his entire career, Graham was actually a pastor for less than two years). And although Wacker is honest enough to front-load his biography with a sampler of the negative reactions Graham has inspired over the decades – President Truman thought he was “counterfeit,” George Will mocked his “golf-course spirituality,” I. F. Stone compared him to Rasputin, etc. – there’s never any real pretense of serious biographical inquiry in these pages, never any real doubt what Wacker thinks about a man he describes as “called of God for the specific vocation of evangelism.” America’s Pastor will no doubt be prominently displayed in the National Cathedral gift shop at Graham’s memorial service, when every living U.S. President dutifully troops to a crepe-draped pew.

It’s a dead U.S. President that gives Wacker’s earnest hagiography the most trouble. On February 1, 1972, Richard Nixon had Graham into the Oval Office, where his busily-spinning recording devices captured the two men chatting about life, religion … and how those damn Jews have a stranglehold on the media and entertainment world in the United States. American Jews, Graham says on the recording, “do not know how I really feel about them and what they are doing to this country.”

Wacker is correct in saying the impact of the tape’s release in 2002 was calamitous for Graham’s reputation (he’s less correct in some of the ways he tries to manipulate the reader’s reactions; when referring to the numerous pundits who excoriated Graham once the tapes came to light, for instance, he describes the late Christopher Hitchens, whose denunciation was typically scathing, as a “secular essayist” – as if his churchgoing status were somehow relevant to his dislike of anti-Semitism, let alone anti-Semitism in the Oval Office). Wacker does his best, according to his own lights, to explain the magnitude of the scandal:

One of the many problems in all this was that Americans had come to expect better things from Graham. The slur loomed large precisely because it felt so jarring, so out of character. Perhaps the preacher disappointed Americans in a way other preachers could not because they had not been standing on a pedestal in the first place. Americans needed a figure like Graham. He let them down.

Such theories, though fawning, are faintly possible – provided the “slur” remains singular. But shortly afterwards, another recording came to light, of a phone conversation Nixon had with Graham in which America’s Pastor makes bitter reference to good Jews and bad Jews: “The Bible talks about two kinds of Jews,” he says. “One is called ‘the synagogue of Satan.'” Once it’s clear to any objective reader that we’re seeing a pattern and not an isolated slur, there isn’t much that Wacker can do to salvage things. Catch me swapping vile anti-Semitic slanders with President Nixon once, shame on you, as the Old Russian proverb goes, catch me swapping vile anti-Semitic slanders with President Nixon twice, shame on me.

The book tries to rise above such sordid revelations by asking some intriguingly expansive questions. Wacker is genuinely interested in where figures like Graham fit in the fabric of modern American life. “For serious students of Graham’s role in the shaping of modern America a family of related words keeps cropping up, each carrying a slightly different connotation,” he contends. “Are we looking at adroitness or adaptability? Ambiguity or complexity? Slippage or paradox?”

But he hampers his ability to answer such questions if he’s really writing a saint’s life rather than a biography, and if that subterfuge weren’t obvious from the start of his enterprise, it’s certainly obvious by the end, when he and his wife visit a 91-year-old Graham at his home in 2009 and the interview gradually declines into a Carolina version of the blessing of Jacob:

An hour slipped by, he was tiring, and we stood to leave. Mr. Graham asked us not to go so soon. “You just got here.” Remembering that I did, after all, teach at a divinity school, I offered to pray with him. He said, “I would like that very much,” and extended his hand. Taking that glass-frail hand, which had gestured before more than two hundred million people in person, and hundreds of millions more on television, did not inspire much eloquence in me.

In that “You just got here” – and in the many similarly endearing human details that bookend the biographical meat of America’s Pastor – we see glimpses of a very different book Wacker might have chosen to write. Wacker is at his best when showing us Graham’s human side, his odd and unpredictable humor, his utterly sincere personal humility, his love of dogs and simple chat. In light of these things, it’s little wonder Graham has been the subject of dozens of volumes of personal reflections and memoirs. Had Wacker chosen to add a volume to that shelf, his own considerable literary skills would have made that volume the first among its kind. But instead he chooses to follow his subject out onto the world stage he trod for half a century, and the light out there is unforgiving.