Graham at the Confluence
Reflections on Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South

Steven P. Miller
Visiting Assistant Professor of History
Goshen College

Scholarship is, or should be, about confluences—finding them, creating them and, of course, having colleagues and mentors point them out to you.  The assists usually come first, even if their full value is difficult to perceive at the time.  During the fall of 2001, as I began my graduate career at Vanderbilt, two professors handed me a research topic that would define my career for much of the decade.  David Carlton, drawing from his knowledge of all things southern, mentioned a desegregated crusade that Billy Graham held in Piedmont South Carolina during the mid-1960s.  Dennis Dickerson, teaching a brilliant course on religion and the civil rights movement that I since have shamelessly copied, helped me to see the civil rights era as a kind of theological debate, involving (to name but a few Baptists) Martin Luther King, Jr., W. A. Criswell, Joseph H. Jackson and, yes, Billy Graham.  As neither a segregationist nor a civil rights activist, Graham represented a surely influential, but just as surely elusive party in that debate.  I started to think of Graham as a religious actor in the South, possibly even a political one.  In other words, I had a seminar paper topic.  Soon, Graham preached at the post-9/11 National Day of Prayer and Remembrance, colleagues pressed me for the scoop on America’s Pastor, and I realized just how little I knew about this most familiar of icons.  Fortunately, William Martin’s classic 1991 biography, A Prophet with Honor, and Jerry Berl Hopkins’ underappreciated 1986 dissertation, “Billy Graham and the Race Problem” gave me plenty of context.(1)

Even as historians of the American South grow increasingly insecure about describing themselves as such, they continue to produce works that need no apologies.  In retrospect, my project overlapped with two vibrant historiographical trends: a boom in the study of southern religion and a renaissance in works on the Sunbelt South.  Scholars in both areas who study the civil rights period saw a need to add interpretive heft to a group of southerners whose significance (like Graham’s) was often assumed, but underdeveloped, in narratives of postwar southern change.  I write here of those proverbial, yet indispensible white southern moderates.  They are not always the most fetching of subjects, frankly, but they tended to have a way of winning—or at least being influential.  Without them, how can one explain the emergence of a post-civil rights era South that satisfied neither movement activists nor their segregationist opponents?  Since, by definition, moderates are difficult to pin down, the way to grasp their significance (never mind make them interesting) is through a dynamic style of contextualization.  This was precisely what the new histories of southern religion and the Sunbelt provided.  In different, but overlapping ways, scholars such as David Chappell, Paul Harvey, Andrew Manis, and Charles Marsh revealed how white and black religious actors in the postwar South (and earlier, of course) are best understood in relation to each other.(2)Chappell and Harvey (at least as I read their books) moved beyond what I call the “crisis motif” in southern religious historiography: the suggestion that the most notable thing about white southern evangelicals is that, in striving to be more than conquerors, they have usually been less than prophets.(3)Meanwhile, political historians did something similar with the familiar thesis of white backlash.  They focused not just on the obvious racism and paternalism among moderate and conservative white leaders in the South, but also on how those figures made “strategic accommodations” (in the words of Joseph Crespino) to civil rights activism, judicial pressure, and federal legislation.(4)Perhaps a few such adjustments were theological, I thought.

Those historiographical streams were just forming in the early 2000s, however, and from the vantage point of my cramped library carrel I remained only marginally conscious of them.  I soon moved on to other research interests, hesitating to pursue a dissertation about such a big, superficially familiar topic.  Too many graduate students are advised away from breathing new life into known subjects.  (That said, I am in awe of those historians—Bethany Moreton and Darren Dochuk being two of relevance to this journal—who create or coalesce their own archives.(5)) Fortunately, friends and mentors convinced me that only a fool would abandon this story.

 Of course, stories about Billy were everywhere.(6)The challenge was to avoid writing an unwieldy biography without, in turn, writing a narrow one.  After all, my goal was not merely to demonstrate Graham’s southern-ness (whatever that means), but to show what his life and influence suggested about the modern South and two of its great themes: the end of formal Jim Crow and the rise of southern Republicanism.  I was trying, as I gradually realized, to merge southern religious history with the new Sunbelt historiography.  The result was a narrative effort to “seamlessly” blend the realms of faith and politics.(7)

That adverb now strikes me as a bit high-minded and perhaps begs the rejoinder that narratives do not eliminate seams; they merely conceal them.  But my point was relatively simple: If historians should acknowledge the “lived religion” of seemingly impious actors, then perhaps they should likewise account for the lived worldliness of avowedly religious leaders, such as Graham.  In works of modern American history, religion often possesses an additive quality, the recurring thesis being that it, too, was important.  Perhaps this tendency is unavoidable, or perhaps it is an accurate reflection of religion’s status in recent American society. My approach was to treat religion as a completely normal component of the civil rights era South, one that did not need to be flagged as such.

Sources, unsurprisingly, were abundant.  The Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College contains a wealth of materials (not all of which, I gathered, had been tapped), including scores of oral histories that led to long fits of cross-checking.  The clippings files alone could have yielded a lively trade book.  But Wheaton was just a start.  As research turned to writing, I found myself engaging in acts of interpretive triangulation, weighing archival findings against press coverage and both of those against the innumerable Graham anecdotes found in books by Taylor Branch, Rick Perlstein, and many others.  I triangulated in two major ways.  First, my sources offered clues about Graham’s correspondence partners (his personal letters being largely off-limits by dictate of the ever-protective Billy Graham Evangelistic Association) that resulted in rewarding finds in the papers of Ralph McGill, A. Willis Robertson, Frank Clement, and Price Daniel, among many other southern power brokers.  These folks understood the importance of Graham both as a pre-Brown racial moderate and as a supporter of Republicans Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon.  Interpretative triangulation also helped me to weigh the many Graham myths against something approaching the historical record.  Why had a peer of mine—a practicing Pentecostal—once stated with such confidence that Dr. Graham and Dr. King had been “brothers”?  Perhaps it was because the Graham Association had implied so (to select markets) since the mid-1960s.

I have come to understand that my book is not a work of religious history conventionally understood (although I am not sure "political biography" is the right term, either). This point has been made to me in ways sympathetic and otherwise. Yet I did aspire to contribute to the historiography of southern religion, as well as several other fields. I view these tasks as complementary, although readers can judge for themselves, of course.

Take, for example, the religious and theological status of postwar segregationism. The question here is just how seriously to take the religiosity of southern segregationists. As a well-remembered 2004 Southern Historical Association panel made clear, Jane Dailey takes it very seriously, while David Chappell is struck by the reticence of southern Christian elites to make overtly theological arguments in support of Jim Crow. I think Dailey has a richer understanding of the place of purity in the white southern religious imagination, and as such I believe that Graham did take some risks in conducting desegregated services in places like 1954 New Orleans or 1964 Birmingham. But Chappell is right: Conventional religious discourse is strikingly missing from the arguments of many self-styled respectable segregationists.(8)The lingering issue, then, is what precisely Graham’s desegregated services meant, if someone like the arch-segregationist James Byrnes could endorse the evangelist’s controversial 1958 rally in Fort Jackson, South Carolina.  Graham, I argue, voiced an early evangelical theology of color blindness in an age when color blindness normally functioned as a liberal platitude.  He offered a spiritually comfortable way for some white southerners to back away from massive resistance, a path that did not lead to liberalism and certainly not to civil rights activism.

The full implications of color blindness became evident during the Sunbelt hype of the mid-1970s.  A new wave of scholarship is irreversibly writing evangelical Christianity into the Sunbelt narrative. Graham, I would argue, suggests the spiritual terms of southern modernization: the transformation of Charlotte’s Park Road from Graham family homestead to prime suburban real estate (alongside the transfer of the Graham family farmhouse to Heritage USA and more recently to the Graham Association’s new headquarters).  Graham’s example and influence suggests how Atlanta-style boosterism was fundamentally not in tension with Lynchburg-style activism.  The evangelist bridged those two worlds, even if he did not rest comfortably in either.  Both Jerry Falwell and Atlanta real estate mogul Tom Cousins (a Graham booster and a model for the protagonist of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full) came to embrace a form of racial color blindness that Graham had made accessible.  I term this potent blend of prosperity, piety, and post-racial triumphalism the “Sunbelt mystique.”(9)

"By raising the profile of conservative evangelical Christianity, to be sure, Graham cleared the path that Christian Right activists would later tread. But Graham himself steered a middle course through the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s."  


The rhetoric of color blindness, usually attributed to New Right strategists and neoconservative intellectuals, also made a nationally salable conservative politics more possible.  This is a tricky point to make, because popular conservatism obviously benefited from very real feelings of racial and cultural resentment.  Moreover, Graham’s status vis-à-vis the post-1968 conservative turn is ambiguous.  If one defines American or southern conservatism primarily as a movement, then Graham appears to be an outlier at best.  By raising the profile of conservative evangelical Christianity, to be sure, Graham cleared the path that Christian Right activists would later tread.  But Graham himself steered a middle course through the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s.  He never aligned himself with the Christian Right and he never became a crank; he is beloved by millions for these reasons alone.  Yet his influence on the broader conservative turn is more manifest if one considers what enabled conservative or conservative-leaning politicians to build broad coalitions over several decades.  Color blindness was critical. 

A more recent example is the concept of “compassionate conservatism,” which became a vapid slogan after George W. Bush and Karl Rove got through with it, but which tapped into a very real world of evangelical social concern not directly linked with the usual suspects of the Christian Right.  In many ways, compassionate conservatism (which might be defined as state-endorsed faith-based volunteerism) represents a more durable challenge to the liberal theory of governance than do reflexive appeals to the Laffer curve.  Neither utopian nor reactionary, it offers an alternative vision of the public good.  While I did not pursue this point in the book, Graham upheld the worldview of the compassionate conservative: skepticism about the ambitions of liberal statism (but not about the state itself) alongside a heartfelt, but vaguely defined belief that Christians (including God-fearing political leaders) should play a guardianship role in a fallen society.  Graham’s legacy helps to explain the often misinterpreted political posture of Rick Warren, the closest thing to a true Graham heir (since the official heir, Franklin Graham, lacks both the tactfulness and the bridge-building impulses of his father).  Warren is an effective critic of the Christian Right and a useful non-enemy for the Obama administration.  But there is a reason why the purpose-driven pastor sees fit to warn against “salvation by government.”(10)

To return to my opening conceit, confluences abound in the life of Billy Graham, just as they should in the scholarship on him.  The danger, no doubt, is that so many confluences will sweep the writer (not to mention the reader) away from the protagonist himself.  In the end, then, my book is about Graham.  I hope readers will find my interpretation of his influence and significance convincing.  Just as likely, though, they will observe or create a completely different set of confluences.  Such is the case with complex world-historical figures, who have warranted multiple biographers.  One thing we all might agree on: Graham fits that bill.

Volume XII, Table of Contents


(I would like to thank Dr. Peter Kuryla for his comments on an earlier draft of this article.)

1 William Martin, A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story (New York: William Morrow, 1991). Jerry Berl Hopkins, "Billy Graham and the Race Problem, 1949-1969)," (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Kentucky, 1986).
2 David L. Chappell, A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Paul Harvey, Freedom's Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Andrew Michael Manis, Southern Civil Religions in Conflict: Civil Rights and the Culture Wars, 2nd edition (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2002); and Charles Marsh, God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).
3 Steven P. Miller, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 9-10.  
4 See especially Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Counterrevolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 11-12 and passim; Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); and Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).
5 Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Chrisitan Free Enterprise (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); and Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain- folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: Norton, forthcoming 2010).
6 Notable recent works that treat Graham as a significant figure in postwar America include Chappell, A Stone of Hope; Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House (New York: Center Street, 2007); Andrew Finstuen, Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); and Michael G. Long, Billy Graham and the Beloved Community: America's Evangelist and the Dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).
7 Miller, Billy Graham, 10-11.
8 For expressions of their views in public scholarship, see Jane Dailey, "Sex, Segregation, and the Sacred After Brown," Journal of American History 91.1 (June 2004): 119-144; and Chappell, A Stone of Hope.
9 See, for example, Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sunbelt; Eileen Luhr, Witnessing Suburbia: Conservatives and Christian Youth Culture (Berkley: University of California Press, 2009); Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart; Daniel K. Williams, Republican Faith: The Making of America's Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming); and a forthcoming dissertation by Darren Grem, History Ph.D. candidate at the University of Georgia. Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full (New York: Farrat, Strauss, and Giroux, 1998). Miller, Billy Graham, 178-181.
10 See Naomi Schaeffer Riley, "What Saddleback's Pastor Really Thinks About Politics," Wall Street Journal, 23 August 2008, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121944811327665223.html (accessed 27 January 2010).


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