How Billy Graham Weaponized White Evangelical Christian Power In AmericaRoundup
tags: conservatism, Christianity, religious history, evangelicals, Billy Graham
Anthea Butler is an associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her most recent book White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America was published in March 2021.
Is Billy Graham’s legacy religious fervor or political polarization? It’s the question at the center of “Billy Graham,” a documentary that airs this week on many PBS stations across the U.S. The documentary, by Sarah Colt Productions, covers the life of “America’s Pastor” in rich detail, from his rise to power until his death in 2018. While Graham is at the center of this story of religion, presidents and power — told through reams of archival footage and a cast of historians (myself included) — the complex nature of Graham’s true impact looms throughout.
Historically speaking, Graham’s most enduring legacy may be his aligning of evangelical Christianity with political influence and fear. Fear has always been an important part of evangelical Christian messaging in America, whether about the end times, communism or anxiety about the American way of life “disappearing” due to demographic and social changes.
Indeed, Graham burst onto the media and political scene in the 1950s because of his scary messages about communism and godlessness. “I believe today that the battle is between communism and Christianity,” he said in 1952. “And I believe the only way that we’re going to win that battle is for America to turn back to God and back to Christ and back to the Bible at this hour! We need a revival!”
Graham made that statement as he preached from the steps of the U.S. Capitol during his Washington, D.C., revival, held from Jan. 13 to Feb. 7, 1952. That revival meeting set the groundwork for the National Prayer Breakfast, which began in 1953 with President Dwight Eisenhower — at the insistence of Graham.
The National Prayer Breakfast continues today, and Graham’s imprint on the intersection of religion and politics continues. White evangelical support for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election cycle stemmed in large part from his connection to leaders like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. Both men, sons of famous religious leaders, followed in their fathers’ footsteps, and both have made careers from promoting fear, faith and political allegiance to Republicans. Taking this polarizing alchemy of faith and politics one step further, however, this second generation is much more likely to embrace Christian nationalism, which in turn incentivizes political leaders to make Christian nationalism part of their stump speeches.
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