Friday, 2 March 2012

Grant Wacker and the Shaping of Billy Graham

Last evening Grant Wacker delivered the final LeRoy Martin Lecture at UTC on "Billy Graham and the Shaping of America."

This was a big event for the philosophy and religion department at UTC. We placed ads in the Chattanooga Times Free Press and on the local NPR station, WUTC. We also hosted a dinner for thirty people before the lecture that included some of the local clergy, faculty at outside institutions, and distinguished guests from the community. I would estimate that over 200 people attended the lecture, which was the largest crowd that we have had to date for any one particular lecture.

Wacker is a very good speaker. He presented a balanced approach of Graham and an explanation for why such an evangelist could have gained the hearts of Americans in the latter half of the twentieth century. Wacker suggested that Graham was likeable because of his rural, "genteel" southern background, his good looks, and moral values. Graham grew up liking baseball, fast cars, and socializing with girls. He represented a person who had experienced a typical male adolescent upbringing and therefore was appealing to heartland America. As Graham got older he followed the trajectory of many Americans who changed their mind as the years passed on issues like communism, racial segregation, and partisan politics. Graham was not free from controversy. He had his critics on the far left and extreme right. He has been called a bigot by Christopher Hitchens for a racially inappropriate comment regarding Jews that he had made at one time to Richard Nixon. The fundamentalist Bob Jones disowned Graham for associating with mainline Protestants. But Graham emerged at the end of the century as a religious figure who had gained the respect of most American Christians. His mark can be seen in a host of para-church organizations that he founded including Young Life, Youth for Christ, and the flagship evangelical magazine, Christianity Today.

As I listened to Dr. Wacker's excellent talk, I was struck with how appealing Graham was to a variety of people--conservative evangelicals as well as liberal Protestants and Catholics. Graham seemed to have a gift for avoiding controversy and maintained his integrity as a man of God by steering clear of sexual sins and shady business deals. Regardless of whether a person believes what Graham preached, it would be impossible to ignore the influence that he has had on religion, particularly in America. Graham is a reminder to evangelicals that it is possible to adhere to traditional doctrines without becoming a separatist.

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