Do We Need Another Billy Graham?

OBama and Graham

As far as I know, Tara Isabella Burton is not a historian.  But her piece on Billy Graham at VOX is a model of balanced historical writing.  It is refreshing to see a piece that does not:

  1.  Claim Graham was the most important figure in world history since Saul of Tarsus.
  2.  Use Graham’s death to exercise personal demons from evangelical childhoods.
  3.  Dismiss Graham because he failed to live up to contemporary moral standards.
  4.  Trash Graham as a huckster and peddler of superstition.

A lot of the pieces I refer to above have been written by historians.

Here is a taste of Burton’s piece, “Evangelical America Needs Billy Graham More Than Ever“:

As white evangelical Christianity in America comes to look more and more like Christian nationalism — a blend of GOP policy platforms, jingoism, white supremacy, and Christian rhetoric — it’s worth recognizing Billy Graham’s legacy as a spiritual leader who balanced a stringent, even uncompromising approach to his own faith with a ferocious independence from the American political arena. While today, faith and politics seem irredeemably intertwined (after all, 81 percent of white evangelicals famously voted for Trump), for Graham, political activism was — with the exception, as he himself recognized, of his disastrous friendship with Nixon — secondary to the faith principles he espoused.

In 2007, Graham defended his decision to distance himself from Falwell’s Moral Majority and its political successors:

I’m all for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.

In that regard, if he resembles any contemporary political figure, it is the Catholic Pope Francis — another figure whose theological convictions allow him to embrace perspectives and approaches from both sides of the secular political aisle, and who transcends the easy binary of left and right. Francis’s ferocious environmentalism, anti-capitalism, and commitment to eradicating income inequality, for example, have been lauded by the left, even as his views on abortion, say, place him in line with the “right.”

But Francis, like Graham before him, is a religious figure, not a political one, and words like “left” and “right” mean little. Both figures saw themselves as “pro-life” in the broadest sense of the word, a faith-based ethos that encompassed a variety of positions on the political spectrum.

Mike Pence famously caused controversy when he referred to himself as “A Christian, a conservative, and a Republican — in that order.” But almost the same must be said of Graham.

A religious leader whose convictions informed his politics, and not the other way around, Graham showed America that theological convictions and a deep religious faith could exist for their own sake, and not be made subordinate to Republican partisan aims. And in an increasingly religiously polarized America — in which political and religious identity have all but fused — a spiritual leader who rejects those binaries is exactly what we need.

We need, in other words, another Billy Graham.

Sadly, I don’t think Burton will get her wish.  Read the entire piece here.

Court Evangelical Robert Jeffress and Juan Williams Have a Debate

This is an interesting debate in the context of Juan Williams’s recent piece.

I thought Jeffress’s eyes were going to pop out of his head at one point.

Jeffress is  being very disingenuous here.   He fails to address the fact that he supported Trump in the GOP primary over Cruz, Rubio, Carson, and others.  For Jeffress, 2016 was not just a “binary choice” between two bad candidates.  He was pro-Trump from the beginning.  He did not hold his nose and vote for Trump, he strongly supported him almost from the moment The Donald came down the escalator at Trump Tower. (And this is giving Jeffress the benefit of the doubt when he says that Hillary Clinton is just as immoral as Trump.  I am not ready to concede that point yet).

You can get my take on the 2016 presidential election in Chapters 1 and 2 of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Don’t forget to pre-order.

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Jimmy Carter Will Deliver 2018 Liberty University Commencement Address

Last year it was Donald Trump. This year it is Jimmy Carter.

Some context:

Here is what Jerry Falwell Jr. said about Jimmy Carter in 2016. (Fast-forward to the 4:35 mark):

And then this happened.

Jimmy Carter is a grace-filled Christian.   But the antics of the Religious Right often put his Christian spirit to the test.  At one point during the 1980 presidential election campaign Carter said, “Jerry Falwell can go straight to hell…and I mean that in a Christian way.”

I doubt Carter will repeat these words at the 2018 Liberty commencement, but he does have a message that the university’s student body and administration needs to hear.  I hope he delivers it.

I should also add that Messiah College is well ahead of the curve here.  Carter spoke on our campus in 1986.

Most Popular Posts of the Last Week

Here are the most popular posts of the last week at The Way of Improvement Leads Home:

  1. “a historian at an evangelical college and a consistent critic of Trump”
  2. One of My Favorite Billy Graham Moments
  3. Yes, This Happened This Morning
  4. The Paragraph on Slavery That Thomas Jefferson Cut from the Declaration of Independence
  5. This is Huuuuuuge!  Believe Me!
  6. What the Court Evangelicals Might Learn from Billy Graham
  7. When Muhammad Ali Paid a Visit to Billy Graham
  8. When Good Historians Write About the “Right” and “Wrong” Side of History
  9. Randall Balmer on the Christian Right’s Changing Code of Ethics
  10. America is Only Three President’s Old

Morning Headlines

New York Times: “Trump Suggests Teachers Get a ‘Bit of a Bonus’ to Carry Guns”

Washington Post: “Putin ally spoke to Kremlin before his mercenaries attacked U.S. forces”

Wall Street Journal: “Trump’s Stance on Gun Laws Raises Pressure on Congress”

Harrisburg Patriot-News: “Threats made on social media close several Harrisburg-area schools Friday”

BBC: “Officer ‘failed to confront’ school killer”

CNN: “Bullets flew for 4 minutes as deputy waited outside”

FOX: “Armed deputy accused of hiding during Florida school shooting now guarded by police”

Am I a “Conservative Historian?”

Fea PA

Yesterday I got an e-mail from a writer requesting a phone interview.  The writer was working on a piece on “conservative historians” in the academy.  Several sources had told this writer to contact me.   Here is how I responded to the request:  “Thanks for the e-mail.  Sounds like a great piece, but I don’t consider myself a ‘conservative historian’ and I am not interested in going on record as one.  Good luck with it–I will try to do a post at my blog when the piece appears.”

I have never understood myself as a “conservative historian,” but it is apparent that others out there–perhaps readers of this blog–believe that I am a “conservative historian.”  (Others, of course, think I am a flaming liberal).

Frankly, I am not even sure what “conservative historian” means.  Does this mean that I am a historian who does not take many risks in my scholarship?  Does this mean that I write about subjects that might be deemed “conservative?”  Does this mean that my personal politics are conservative and somehow these apparent political convictions impact my work as a historian?  Does this mean that I don’t think historians should be activists?  I have no idea.


Juan Williams: “God Help Us”

Williams JuanOver at The Hill, Fox News commentator and former Messiah College commencement speaker Juan Williams weighs-in on the evangelical response to the Stormy Daniels affair:

When it comes to the Stormy Daniels story, it is hard for me to understand the silence from evangelical Christians.

Let it sink in: It is now confirmed that the president’s personal lawyer paid a porn star for her silence.

After the story broke, a friend sent me an old article from a left-wing website.

Democrats, the story said, beat themselves up for not better understanding white, Christian support for President Trump.

But that is a fool’s errand, the writer argued, because there is no understanding people who don’t accept facts.

The New Yorker magazine has now confirmed that the woman in question, Karen McDougal, wrote an account of the relationship. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier that she was paid for her story by the National Enquirer’s publisher, a Trump friend, and the tabloid sat on the story, presumably to protect Trump.

And there is no way to deny that FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress last week that Trump’s White House knew about two serious charges of domestic abuse against top aide Rob Porter but let him keep his job. Porter resigned only when those allegations became public.

Yes, the injunction to let he who is without sin cast the first stone is an important one. But it now seems clear that evangelical Christians, who hold up biblical edicts on lying, cheating and adultery, don’t care about the word of God when it comes to Trump.

For a group that regularly preaches about the “sanctity of marriage” and inveighs against the evils of divorce, it was a major political puzzle to me when evangelicals first backed the thrice-married, adulterous Trump over Hillary Clinton…

God help us.

Read the entire story here.

When Good Historians Talk About the “Right” and “Wrong” Side of History


I have never met Matthew Sutton, the Edward R. Meyer professor of history at Washington State University.  I admire his book American Apocalypse: A History of American Modern EvangelicalismYesterday he wrote an op-ed at The Guardian: Billy Graham was on the wrong side of history.”

Here is a taste:

When Billy Graham stands before the judgment seat of God, he may finally realize how badly he failed his country, and perhaps his God. On civil rights and the environmental crisis, the most important issues of his lifetime, he championed the wrong policies.

Graham was on the wrong side of history.

Opinion pages are for opinions.

Did Graham, as Sutton suggests, “fail” his country or his God?  Sutton believes that he did, but this is not a historical question.

Sutton falls into the trap of claiming that there is a “right side” and a “wrong side” of history.  Such claims have nothing to do with history.  They have everything to do with politics.  They tell us more about Sutton’s politics than Billy Graham’s legacy.

I found this tweet from November 9, 2016, the day after the presidential election:

Read the rest of Sutton’s piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Randy Browne

51HQEW4XcnL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_Randy Browne is Assistant Professor of History at Xavier University. This interview is based on his new book, Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean?

RB: In graduate school I knew I wanted to study the history of slavery—and I thought I was going to write a dissertation about slave resistance in the American South. But two things happened that led me down a different path. First, as I turned my attention toward the wider Atlantic world, I was struck by the demographic differences between slavery in North America and the Caribbean and especially by just how deadly Caribbean plantation societies were. As historians have long known, most Atlantic slave societies were death traps; slave populations outside of the U.S. did not reproduce themselves, and slaveowners relied on the transatlantic slave trade to replace slaves they worked to death. But what, I wanted to know, did this demographic reality mean on the ground, for enslaved people’s day-to-day lives? The second thing that happened was that I came across a remarkable series of legal records—the reports of British Crown officials known as fiscals and protectors of slaves—from nineteenth-century Berbice (part of what is now Guyana) in which enslaved people themselves described their world, the challenges they faced, and their relationships with one another and their enslavers. It didn’t take long for me to realize that enslaved people were primarily concerned with trying to find ways to survive—which was extraordinarily difficult given the conditions they faced. Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean is my exploration of what the unrelenting struggle for survival looked like.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean?

RB: I argue that for most enslaved people the central problem was not how to resist or escape slavery but how to survive. I also argue that using survival as a lens changes they way we understand enslaved people’s social relationships, cultural practices, and political strategies. 

JF: Why do we need to read Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean?

RB: In my view, there are two major reasons to read my book. First, taking the problem of survival as the starting point challenges readers to reconsider some of their assumptions about slavery, power, and enslaved people’s agency. In particular, it offers an alternative to the domination and resistance framework that has predominated for decades—a framework that makes two problematic assumptions: (1) that the organizing principle for enslaved people’s politics was the struggle for “freedom” and (2) that slaves’ lives are best understood by focusing on their conflicts with enslavers. Instead, what I show is that most enslaved people recognized that escaping slavery was unlikely and were therefore preoccupied with the challenge of survival. Foregrounding survival also reveals that the power relationships of Atlantic slavery were much more complex than we often imagine. Enslaved people fought their oppressors, of course, but they also navigated complex and fraught relationships with one another that were at least as important. In the end, I hope readers will realize, like I did, that the story of enslaved people’s resistance to slavery and the story of their struggle to survive intersected but were not the same.

The other thing I hope readers take away from the book is an appreciation for the human stories that I reconstructed from the remarkable archive that distinguishes Berbice from most slave societies, where the voices of ordinary slaves are so much harder to find. Taken together, the records of the Berbice fiscals and protectors of slaves are the single largest archive of first-person testimony from enslaved people in the Americas. And rather than focus on a handful of exceptional characters, they document the day-to-day lives of hundreds of enslaved people from virtually every possible background. These stories reveal, in astonishing and often painful detail, the world that enslaved Africans and their descendants confronted, their hopes and fears, and their efforts to survive horrific conditions.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

RB: Even before college, I knew that I wanted to study and maybe teach history one day. As an undergraduate at Eckerd College, I got very interested in the history of slavery and especially the American South, which is what I thought I was going to focus on when I arrived at the University of North Carolina for graduate school. But as soon as I came across the sources I describe above, I knew I had to shift gears and focus on Berbice. I quickly fell in love with Caribbean and Atlantic history and never looked back.

JF: What is your next project?

RB: I’ve started work on a history of slave drivers—enslaved men appointed by plantation managers or planters as supervisors—throughout the Caribbean. I got interested in the complicated social and political role of drivers while writing my first book (which has a chapter devoted to drivers) and want to build on what I learned to take a wider approach to these crucial go-betweens, who haven’t received nearly as much attention as they deserve. I’ve found some very exciting records from Cuba and Jamaica already and am casting a wide net—so feel free to send any sources my way!

JF: Thanks, Randy!

Morning Headlines

New York Times: “‘How Many Children Have to Get Shot?’ Father Asks Trump”

Washington Post: “‘Fix it’: Students and parents tell Trump to address gun violence at schools”

Wall Street Journal: “In Florida, Trump Voices Support for Arming Teachers”

Harrisburg Patriot-News: “What’s in the minds of kids making all the violent threats disrupting central Pa. schools?”

BBC: “Trump: Armed teachers could stop attacks”

CNN: “Rubio knew it would be tense. He still showed up.”

FOX: “Canadian women’s hockey player takes off medal after defeat to US”

How Major Media Outlets Covered Billy Graham’s Death

Duisburg, Veranstaltung mit Billy Graham

Via Wikipedia commons

I haven’t watched much television today, but I have noticed that every time I tuned into CNN on my computer I found very little coverage about the death of Billy Graham, arguably the most famous person in the 20th-century world.  Granted, there are issues related to guns and school shootings in Florida and beyond.  I thus fully understand why Graham took a back seat on my preferred cable news station.

So I decided to cruise around the Internet a bit.  On CNN’s website, I needed to scroll down a bit before I found a link to Graham’s death.  The same was true for MSNBC, Fox News, and The Washington Post.

Graham’s death is front and center at the websites of the BBC, The New York TimesLos Angeles TimesUSA TodayThe Wall Street Journal.  On the BBC site I was able to click on links to two articles on Graham without having to scroll down.

Grant Wacker on How Billy Graham Thought About His Own Death

WackerEarlier today I noted on Facebook that Grant Wacker of Duke Divinity School was going to have a busy day.  In 2014, he published America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.  I imagine his phone was ringing off the hook today.

Here is Wacker’s piece at The Washington Post about how Graham thought about his own death.

A taste:

Graham told a friend that he was prepared for death but not for growing old.

Still, Graham soldiered on, year after year, until he preached his final evangelistic crusade in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., in the summer of 2005. Though others had to help him to the pulpit, the image of an old warrior of the cross, pressing far past the normal retirement age, help normalize the aging process for many and provided inspiration for millions.

As for his future, Graham made clear that he anticipated his demise as a door to a new life in heaven. “I’m looking forward to it — I really am,” he said in 1995, in his late 70s. “I’ll be happy the day the Lord says, ‘Come on. I’ve got something better planned.’ ”

To be sure, Graham admitted that he did not look forward to the dying process itself. He said he had seen “some of the terrible things that happen to people that are dying. I don’t want that.”

But beyond the event itself stood heaven as a place of glorious fellowship with the Lord, saints, loved ones and invigorating work to do. “Think of a place where there will be no sorrow and no parting, no pain, no sickness, no death, no quarrels, no misunderstandings, no sin and no cares.” The preacher even speculated about golf courses and beloved pets — whatever it took to make folks happy.

Read the entire piece here.


Stacy Schiff on Writing Biography

SchiffIf you are unfamiliar with the work of Stacy Schiff I would encourage you to read her books on Ben Franklin and the Salem Witch Trials.  Over at The Paris Review, Schiff talks about her work and the writing of biography.

Here is a taste of the interview:


So you don’t set out at the beginning knowing the story you want to tell?


Absolutely not. I think it my obligation to set out with neither thesis nor agenda. Time and again I think of E. B. White’s counsel—“It is best to have strong curiosity, weak affiliations.” The preconceptions, the convictions are what blind you. Similarly, I feel the material should dictate the form of the life. With the Nabokovs, for example, there is throughout the book a sort of fox-trot between past and future. That was not something I could have anticipated. I’m not sure I ever actually think without a pencil in my hand. Certainly I never wind up where I thought I would. I’m unapologetic about this. It means the reader and I arrive together at our destination, which strikes me as the point of the exercise. 


How does the book evolve? 


I begin to write only after I’ve completed the bulk of the research. This is not the most efficient way to proceed, but it’s the only way I seem able to. The themes have emerged by then. Sometimes the shape of the narrative has begun to glint in the distance. Which won’t matter, as it will evolve anyway.

The years in the archives can feel endless, as if you’re on an eternal grocery-­shopping expedition and will never actually cook anything. If ever you were actually a writer, you are no more. You’re more like a sponge, with all the personality of one. Finally one day you wake to discover sentences forming in your head, the signal that it’s safe to leave the archive. And of course your deadline is by now also uncomfortably imminent, if not somewhere behind you. The panic is propulsive.

Read the entire interview here.

What the Court Evangelicals Might Learn From Billy Graham

WackerThis post is worth re-publishing today:

I was also thinking about titling this post “The First Court Evangelical

From Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of the Nation, pp.212-214.

Graham possessed boundless admiration for Nixon.  In the 1968 contest between Nixon and Senator Hubert Humphrey, as in the 1960 race between Nixon and Kennedy, Graham did not issue a formal or explicit endorsement of Nixon, but he made no attempt to camouflage his views either.  One week before the election the press reported that Nixon’s name was on Graham’s absentee ballot…

The relationship continued to thicken….Honor Billy Graham Day in Charlotte on October 15, 1971, won another visit from the president.  Some felt that Nixon’s remarks about Graham that day crossed the line from honor to adulation.  Less than a month before the 1972 presidential election, Graham declared on the Merv Griffin Show: “Nixon is the most able and the best trained man for the job probably in American history.  In an election year that divides people…I [have] to be honest.

These events form the context in which Graham’s reaction to Nixon’s role in the Watergate controversy should be framed.  The details of the low-level crime and high-level mendacity that led to Nixon’s impeachment and forced his resignation in August 1974 have been rehearsed many times and need not detain us.  The crucial point is that Graham continued to defend Nixon long after most Americans smelled a rat.  When the first hint of something amiss came to light in 1972, Graham dismissed it as pettifogery.  He pointed out that illicit undercover behavior was no stranger to the White House.  Through 1972 Graham allowed that the Watergate events themselves were troubling but insisted that Nixon had nothing to do with them.  As late as December he privately assured Nixon of his personal affection and “complete confidence in your personal integrity./”  Graham maintained that posture through January 1974.

Finally, on April 29, 1974, the House Judiciary Committee received 1,200 pages of transcripts of Oval Office conversations.  They showed that Nixon had participated in the cover-up virtually from the outset.  The transcripts also showed Nixon’s capacity for vulgarity and profanity.  Graham finally muscled up the courage to start reading New York Times excerpts in the middle of May. “The think that surprised me and shook me most was the vulgar language he used…I felt physically sick.”   Elsewhere Graham admitted to weeping and throwing up.  Graham biographer Marshall Frady said Graham attributed Nixon’s fall to “sleeping pills and demons.”  Graham insisted he was misquoted. But he was prepared to say that “all of Watergate was demonic because…it caused the American people to lose confidence in its institutions….almost as though some supernatural power of evil was trying to destroy this country.

Graham’s reference to Nixon’s language left many journalists and historians appalled. They felt Graham had proved incapable of distinguishing between the minor issue of cussing and the major one of undermining the government.  On the face of it they were right….

Graham’s entanglement with Nixon marked a turning point.  Until 1974 Graham had tumbled more and more rapidly into the vortex of partisan politics.  When Nixon crashed, his muddy reputation soiled Graham’s.  The Nixon years represented the bottom of Graham’s slide.  Graham acknowledged that Nixon’s magnetism had clouded his judgment.  In 1993 he would say, simply, that his friendship with Nixon had “muffled those inner monitors that had warned me for years to stay out of partisan politics.  He urged young evangelists to avoid his mistake…

Needless to say, I also tell a version of this story in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.



Initial Thoughts on the Death of Billy Graham

Graham crowd

I am not sure how to begin to process this.  The death of Billy Graham today has led to a blurring of identities for me.

As an evangelical Christian, I feel a deep sense of loss.  Graham had his flaws, but his consistent proclamation of the Gospel is a continued inspiration to me.  But perhaps these kinds of reflections are more appropriate among the community of faith.

As a historian, my mind is spinning about how to think of Graham’s place in the American story.  I should have been prepared. Stay tuned.  In the meantime, my good friend Eric Miller wrote to me this morning with these words: “I now feel like the 20th century, the American Century, is really over.”

As a blogger, I am trying to bring some order to all of the tributes and reflections circulating right now.  Stay tuned, I will try to post things as I see them and process them.

This morning I announced Graham’s death to my U.S. survey class at Messiah College.  I did not expect much of a reaction from the 80 or so students in the lecture hall.  Many of my students do not recognize the name “Billy Graham.”  This is even true of many of my evangelical students.  But I was pleasantly surprised today to hear a quiet gasp in the room when I passed along this news.  (I announced in the middle of a lecture on Puritans in which I was trying to articulate the differences between the Puritan understanding of the conversion and the more free-will view of conversation made popular by Graham’s stadium-style revivals).  Perhaps Graham’s legacy among Christian college students is stronger than I thought.