Review: Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South
Steven P. Miller. Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. 304 pp. ISBN 9780812241518.
Steven P. Miller’s 2009 study of Billy Graham shows the strong involvement of the noted evangelist in American politics, an involvement that has been forgotten by much of the collective American memory. A cultivator of relationships with presidents and other political figures, Graham’s political involvement reached its peak with the Nixon Administration. The embarrassment of Watergate forced the minister to adopt a stated position of neutrality, although he continued to serve as a counsel of sorts to the presidents who followed (with the exception of Carter). Miller’s topic, however, is more precise than exploring the role of Graham on the national scene as pastor to the White House. The skilled historian contends that Graham’s involvement as a southerner in GOP politics paralleled the region’s shift from the Solid Democratic South to a firm Republican bastion. Moreover, Graham’s political involvement, the book argues, actually facilitated that shift.
The book covers more than Graham’s contribution to the dismantling of the Democratic Party’s southern base. It also covers Graham’s public response to the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. Graham’s political activity on behalf of the GOP and his relationship with King are actually two separate stories. Miller aptly weaves the narratives of the two issues together, although he does not clearly demonstrate how Graham’s response to King contributed to the growth of the southern GOP. Nonetheless, the account of the relationship between the two men and their differing perspectives on the methods needed to dismantle segregation rests on firm scholarship grounded in primary sources informed by secondary research.
Miller explains that an “evangelical universalism” informed Graham’s social and political involvement. This theological worldview, developed by mass evangelists like Dwight Moody, stressed the importance of personal, individual salvation and did not have a clear concept of corporate evil. Evil at the national or collective level was simply the sum of the evil intentions and deeds of large numbers of individuals. Accordingly, social reform without personal salvation always fails. Guided by this theology and its emphasis on personal morality, Graham saw his mass religious meetings as a key to desegregating the South and achieving racial harmony. This theology, which Miller explains with neutrality, helps the present day reader to grasp why Graham could condemn Klan violence while also calling for civil rights leaders to obey the law and to desist from marches that violate the law.
While Graham’s courting of national politicians has been largely recognized by historians, Miller shows how the national GOP used Graham to help win elections and build a southern party base. In making his case, Miller provides numerous examples of national GOP figures enlisting Graham to secure southern support. For example, the Nixon White House, fearful of a George Wallace third party candidacy in 1972, drafted Graham to reach out to the Alabama governor and encourage him to run in the Democratic primaries.
Miller’s study of the political involvement of Billy Graham as a southerner and its effect on southern politics merits a close read by all interested in Graham and American Evangelicalism, as well as the interface of southern politics and religion.