Book Review: “America’s Pastor” by Grant Wacker (2014)

“Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation”

Image result for America's Pastor" by Grant WackerBilly Graham: ever heard of him? By far, the most famous Christian of the past seventy years, Billy Graham has left his indelible impression on probably hundreds of millions of people all around the world, though those impressions differ from person to person. Some view him as “God’s Man” who has lit the path to salvation for countless souls. Some view him as a good guy, but of a different flavor than myself. Some view him as a shameless sell-out who’s “done more to hurt the cause of Christ than anyone alive” (or some such nonsense that Bob Jones was once quoted as saying).

My own background in an independent, fundamental Baptist church (conservative, but not in the super-weird way) leaned more toward this latter opinion, for while I have certainly known the man’s name from my youth, I’ve known little else about him other than “we don’t agree with everything he does.” When an elderly friend of mine whom I respect greatly finally told me her own opinion of the guy, that he’s a wonderful man of God who has changed the landscape of evangelicalism for the better, I finally got curious enough to research him myself. About that same time, Grant Wacker published this book, America’s Pastor, and shortly thereafter, ChristianAudio.com gave the book away for free! Now I had no excuse to be unable to form my own opinion of the great Billy Graham.

This book is fully engaging, more than I had anticipated. Far from being a biography, it’s a cultural dissection using Graham himself as the scalpel. While Wacker views the man from so many angles you could easily call it a biography, he does so in a way that digs deep into the heart of the culture in which Graham was able to grow and thrive. Wacker unapologetically weeds his way through all information pertaining to Graham’s effect on the nation and the world, from the negative journalistic opinions and fundamentalist attacks to the love letters and near-cult-like following he had as his crusades moved from city to city. Then between these two extremes, Wacker reveals a composite of who Graham truly was and what impact he really did have on the generations to whom he preached.

I’d like to focus this review on the things that I learned about Graham—specifically points regarding his approach to theology—and how I’ve grown to understand his relationship to the fundamentalists of my own background. Key to it all, I found, is Wacker’s description that Graham formed a third stream in Protestantism between Mainline Protestantism and Fundamentalism, the stream of New Evangelicalism. Of course, many influential and even unknown pastors and theologians had been laying the foundation for this movement for decades before Graham arrived on the scene, but while Billy Graham might not be considered “The Father of New Evangelicalism,” he’s definitely the Doctor who delivered the Baby.

The fundamentalists blame him for turning the church into a “contemporary” church (not necessarily a bad thing) and for popularizing ecumenicalism (certainly not a good thing), while mainline Protestants viewed him as too dogmatic in some areas and otherwise too much a celebrity to be taken seriously. He had enemies on all sides, which is precisely how he became the bridge for so many others who were fed up with either of the other two extremes. As some had once called him “The Protestant Pope,” others might now call him “the religious Donald Trump.” In balancing two very divergent schools of Protestant thought, he helped form a middle-ground where countless Americans could once again become comfortably religious.

His own personal stand for truth was often misunderstood by these two poles, for he had made a commitment early on to fight for souls rather than to fight error. So long as he could preach the Gospel, he didn’t care whom he partnered with to get his message out. He maintained fundamentalist doctrine for the most part, and remained a Southern Baptist throughout his life, yet he also shared the stage with persons of many faiths, never offending yet always offering an alternative opinion. He emphasized social reform as well as spiritual, and sought the limelight whenever he could—specifically in his close friendships with the rich and powerful—yet also sought to maintain integrity in those areas which were especially deadly to ministries: money and women (as the Modesto Manifesto records).

As a fundamentalist myself, I learned a great deal from this book about Billy Graham and why people of my flavor have disagreed with him for so long. Thankfully, as an adult who can now think for myself, I’ve also come to appreciate all that this man has done for the cause of Christ and will forever view him in a much more kindly light than perhaps my parents would appreciate. That being said, I now also have a trove of facts with which I can weigh my own personal standards against those of the great Billy Graham.

While I wouldn’t accuse him of having hurt the cause of Christ in the way Bob Jones accused him, I would agree with many other fundamentalists that he could have done more to strengthen the Church of Christ than he actually did. I totally understand his goal of not simply winning souls to Christ, but also of getting those newly reborn souls into established churches, and it’s a commendable goal. At the same time, however, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of concern for which churches would help foster those new believers in the faith. The “any church will do” approach came from his goal of never wanting to marginalize his audience, yet it also set up many new believers for weak growth and spiritually dead futures, because some of the churches he inadvertently supported were doctrinally weak if not altogether heretical, and others were spiritually dead. While he may have felt he had no recourse but to take whichever volunteers volunteered, this approach undoubtedly had dire spiritual consequences for many souls and increased the rosters of many churches he’d never have himself supported.

On the same note, his public stand to never offend (even in the face of outright heresy and godlessness) affected generations of believers who eat up this “tolerance” garbage like candy. Jesus ate with sinners, sure, yet he attacked religious leaders. Protestantism has such a long, healthy history of standing not only for truth but against error that Billy Graham’s approach impacted this historical badge of honor in a very negative way. Too many new evangelicals now believe this hogwash because of Billy Graham, that it’s OK for others to preach lies as long as we can preach truth just as loudly. But Jesus Christ isn’t just one great option among many, He is The Way, The Truth, and The Life: no one can come to the Father but through Him. Unless we’re willing to state this truth publically—at the cost of marginalizing folks who believe otherwise—we run the risk of minimizing the importance of Jesus Christ, even if we purport to make a career in evangelism!

Granted, traditional fundamentalists swing too far in the other direction via their multi-degrees of separation. To the regular independent Baptist, it’s not “I’ll separate from you if I disagree with you” but rather “I’ll separate from you, even if I agree with you, if you don’t separate from someone who disagrees with us.” It’s a painful system that just reeks of disunity and a powerful misunderstanding of the teachings of Christ, and I’ve dealt with it my whole life. And I fear that if I intimate an appreciation for Billy Graham’s godly work, they’ll go that step further and say to me, “We’ll separate from you, even though you agree with us, because you won’t separate from someone who also agrees with us but who won’t himself separate from someone who doesn’t agree with us.” And if that’s really the case, then I’ll have to say to the fundamentalists of my roots, “Good riddance.” In this case, I need to agree with the Apostle Paul who claimed in similar circumstances: “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” And why wouldn’t I?

I learned many other things from this book about Billy Graham, America, and my own faith. I appreciate Wacker’s intense research into this subject and find that I have gained a much better perspective of a Christian landscape that had been hidden from me by my own upbringing. I really enjoyed this book, and while I admit it’s not for everyone, I would recommend it to those wanting to better understand the roots of New Evangelicalism.

©2016 E.T.

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