The modern evangelical movement has been tested, and it is failing. That’s the message of Michael Gerson’s new Atlantic cover story. In embracing President Donald Trump, Gerson says, evangelicals may have “lost their way,” grasping for power, without a real sense of what makes them who they are.
While I read Gerson’s story, Billy Graham was on my mind. His death last month, coming in the 50th anniversary year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, recalled another major test for the evangelical movement: its relationship with race and civil rights. Graham’s complicated approach to civic life in some ways mirrors the challenges evangelicals face today as they navigate a difficult set of political circumstances. Today, I’ll revisit that history, and, as a complement to Gerson’s article, we’ll provide a glossary to help you through the thorny terms that crop up when we talk about these issues.
Billy Graham’s Leadership—and Failures—on Civil Rights
Many of the obituaries published in the wake of Billy Graham’s death reference the same, hot afternoon in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was 1953, one year before the U.S. government passed its first anti-segregation law. Looking out at the thousands of people gathered to hear him preach, Graham asked an usher to remove the cord separating the white and black portions of the congregation. When the usher refused, Graham walked down from the stage and cut the cord himself.
But that vignette does not capture the complexity of Graham’s position on racial equality. While Graham clearly cared deeply about the issue, his lack of a clear model for political engagement limited his impact on the civil rights movement. Reacting to a peaceful sit-in that Martin Luther King led in 1960, Graham famously said, “No matter what the law may be—it may be an unjust law—I believe we have a Christian responsibility to obey it.” He refused to participate in civil rights marches, and chose not to publicly advocate for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Graham’s personal challenge reflects a wider issue among evangelicals
American evangelicals lack “a model or ideal of political engagement—an organizing theory of social action,” writes Gerson in his April cover story. While Catholic social thought emphasizes the responsibility to care and fight for the most vulnerable members of a community, evangelicals lack a similar, prevailing doctrine. That tension shows up in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical denomination in the United States, where Graham found his home. While some Southern Baptists in the 1960’s prioritized the Social Gospel, working to achieve social justice for all, the majority prioritized evangelism, personally sharing their faith with as many people as possible.
An outspoken evangelist, Graham believed that the best way to root out racism was to convert people to Christianity, and stay out of politics. “His approach was more of trying to get people into the relationship with Christ—that that would transform their mindset, the way in which they lived, so they would see people differently and therefore treat people differently,” Bernice King, Martin Luther King’s daughter, said in a video about Graham’s desegregation of the Chattanooga rally.
By default, social order came first
In a series of public statements he made throughout the 1960s, Graham urged civil rights leaders, including King, to be patient. After hearing King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Graham said, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” According to William Martin, author of the Billy Graham biography A Prophet With Honor, Graham also directly criticized civil rights leaders: “Jim Crow must go, but I am convinced that some Negro leaders are going too far and too fast.”
“Graham’s thinking is, ‘If both sides would both be quiet for a while, we’ll work it out in ten years,’” said Frances FitzGerald, author of The Evangelicals. “When King is in the Birmingham jail, Graham is still against confrontational tactics of any kind.” It did not go unnoticed at the time. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in 1964, Martin Luther King addressed the country’s white clergy, condemning the apathy of the “white moderate.” While he didn’t address Graham by name, scholars agree that King implicated Graham in his critique.
Without a clear theory of social action to help distinguish between just and unjust laws, evangelicals often emphasized the importance of adhering to the law, no matter what. In 1966 and 1967, Graham’s radio show, Hour of Decision, featured segments titled, “Rioting, Looting and Crime,” “Students in Revolt,” and “A Nation Rocked by Crime.” “By the summer of 1967,” FitzGerald wrote, “nearly all of his sermons dealt with ‘the anarchy’ in America.” Graham, according to FitzGerald, said that God “does not tolerate disorder.”
King’s killing changed something for Graham
I talked to three scholars who specialize in American evangelical history. All three told me that, when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, Billy Graham, along with many other evangelical leaders, immediately became more outwardly supportive of the Civil Rights Movement. According to Bill Leonard, professor of church history at Wake Forest University, upon hearing that King had been assassinated, Graham said, “I wish I had protested.”
After King’s assassination, as Americans became more sympathetic to the civil rights movement, evangelical leaders realized that they, too, had to change. Even within the ranks of the Southern Baptist Convention, FitzGerald wrote, segregation was no longer a “respectable position.” Evangelical leaders who wanted to appeal to more than just conservative, southern evangelicals, needed to take a clear stand against Jim Crow. “By 1968, if you were a segregationist, no northerner would listen to you,” she told me. “Period.”
Graham may have hesitated to participate in the more political aspects of the civil rights movement. But by desegregating his rallies, Graham did more to advocate for civil rights than many of his fellow evangelical preachers. “Billy Graham could always claim he was never a racist,” FitzGerald told me. “He would always say that all God’s children are equal.”
Still, Graham’s unique position as a national, not just regional, evangelical leader in the 1960s and 1970s posed a challenge. “He wanted a national revival, everyone together,” FitzGerald said. He wanted to be seen as a leader for Christians in the south, but also in the north, on the coasts, and in the midwest. That meant making political decisions he thought most Americans would find palatable.
Confronted with controversial political issues, Leonard said Graham would often fall back on saying, “I am an evangelist,” prioritizing his obligation to share the gospel over everything else. Even after Martin Luther King’s assassination, Graham never aggressively advocated for racial justice in the way he did for other issues, like nuclear disarmament. In hindsight, Graham said in a 2005 interview, he wished he’d done some things differently. “I think I made a mistake when I didn’t go to Selma. I would like to have done more.”
Fifty years after Martin Luther King’s death, leading evangelicals are still reckoning with race. Last year, at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, Dwight McKissic, a well-known black pastor, proposed a resolution that condemned white supremacy and the alt-right. As my colleague, Emma Green, reported, Convention leaders originally dismissed it. While a revised version of the resolution did eventually pass—after significant backlash—the incident evoked memories of the Convention’s racist history. “We must be clear,” Thabiti Anyabwile, a black Southern Baptist pastor, wrote in a tweet, responding to the initial dismissal of the resolution. “We live in a time when equivocating on these matters furthers the sin of racism even to violence and death.”
The Last Temptation: A Glossary
The term “evangelical” is “notoriously hard to define,” Gerson writes. In order to understand the movement, it’s helpful to unpack some of its key terms, which can often be confusing or hard to follow. Below, you’ll find a glossary to accompany “The Last Temptation.”
evangelical (lowercase): The definition of the term “evangelical” depends largely on who’s defining it. In fact, the term is so loosely defined that surveys have found that evangelicals can make up anywhere between 7 and 47 percent of the American population. But according to the historian David Bebbington, whose definition is widely accepted, evangelicals are Christians who share these four principles, as Jonathan Merritt wrote in The Atlantic in 2015: Biblicism (“a high regard for the Bible”), Crucicentrism (“a focus on Jesus’s crucifixion and its saving effects”), Conversionism (“a belief that humans need to be converted”), and Activism (“the belief that faith should influence one’s public life”).
Evangelical (uppercase): When capitalized, “Evangelical” denotes a member of an affiliated church who self-identifies with that term. Much like evangelicals (with a lowercase “e”), they are generally “born again” Christians who believe in the Bible as the word of God.
Mainline Protestant: Mainline Protestants composed the majority of American Christians up until the mid-20th century. They often take a more liberal stance on social issues than evangelical Protestants, and have involved themselves in the civil-rights and women’s movements, among others. Mainline Protestants diverged from the fundamentalist movement in the early 1900s, and helped lead the Social Gospel movement.
Social Gospel: The Social Gospel was a movement that applied Christian ethics to issues like racial inequality, poverty, and violations of labor rights. The movement came about because of the belief that the Second Coming would not happen until humankind cured the world of social ills.
Millennialism, pre- and post-: Premillennialism is the belief that the world is moving toward chaos and that progress will only happen after the Second Coming. As Gerson put it, premillennialists believe that only Christ “is capable of cleaning up the mess” and that “no amount of human effort can ... ultimately save a doomed world.” Postmillennialists, on the other hand, believe that the reverse is true. The expansion of the Christian Church and the spread of peace through human effort is what will bring about the Second Coming of Christ. For Christians with postmillennialist beliefs, progress toward greater social equality was seen as “evidence of the advance of [Christ’s] kingdom.”
Fundamentalism: As the progressive religious movement began studying modern science and combining it with their Christian faith, conservative Christians resisted and published The Fundamentals, a series of books that embraced orthodox views. Fundamentalists promoted literal interpretations of the Bible in response to modernity and the influence of science on the Christian faith.
Compassionate conservatism: When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he ran as a “compassionate conservative.” This was a term that many evangelical policymakers had adopted, and the idea was to solve issues like poverty, homelessness, and addiction through private and religious nonprofits. Both as a staffer on Capitol Hill and as the chief speechwriter for Bush, Gerson and his colleagues found themselves trying to best articulate a “compassionate conservatism.”
Southern Baptist Convention: Based in the United States, the Southern Baptist Convention is a Christian denomination with over 15 million members, making it the largest Baptist denomination in the world and the largest Protestant denomination in America. The Southern Baptists supported slavery before and during the Civil War, which separated them from northern denominations. Today, the Southern Baptist Convention is mostly white and conservative, although they have made new efforts to diversify their membership.
Today’s Wrap Up
Question of the Day: What do you remember about the life and legacy of Billy Graham?
Your Feedback: How likely are you to recommend The Masthead to people you know? Tell us in this quick survey.
- What’s Coming: On Friday, we’ll report on how the FBI is portrayed in American culture.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.