Friday, March 02, 2018

Billy Graham and the cool (?) version of evangelicalism

The President of the United States looms large in the news because of the power and influence of the office. With a narcissist running a seriously dysfunctional Administration in the White House, the number of Presidential incursions into the daily news can get exhausting. Susie Madrak recounts Joe Scarborough's lament about information overload in Scarborough: So Much News, It's Hard To Know Where To Begin C&L 03/01/2018.

But taking a break from the current Presidential professional-wrestling spectacle, I ran across a journal article about an interesting moment in the public ministry of Billy Graham, who this week lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda as though he were a departed head of state.

The period in question is the early 1970s, when Graham most clearly and publicly identified politically with a President, Richard Nixon at the time. At this same period, he took a new interest in youth evangelism. This was part of what is sometimes called the Long Sixties. And one feature of the times was the prominent presence of a kind of alternative-lifestyle brand of evangelical Christianity, which the national press hyped as the "Jesus movement," a label with which participants identified.

One notable instance of that tendency was led by Francis Schaeffer, whose son and one-time heir apparent in his ministry now regularly criticizes the Christian Right and it's authoritarian Christian dominionist politics. The elder Schaeffer establised what later came to be called an "intentional community" called L'Abri in Switzerland, a kind of fundamentalist Christian commune. A biographical sketch in the conservative evangelical magazine Christianity Today by Michael Hamilton ("The dissatisfaction of Francis Schaeffer" 41:3 03/03/1997) described his intervention in American evangelical culture this way:
... this was no ordinary fundamentalist preacher. He and his wife, Edith, had lived for ten years in a student commune they had started in the Swiss Alps. When he lectured, he wore an alpine hiking outfit--knickers, knee socks, walking shoes. By 1972 he had added to his already singular appearance long hair and a white tufted goat's-chin beard. Most curious of all, he seldom quoted from the Bible. He was more apt to talk about the philosophical importance of Henry Miller (then regarded as the most pornographic writer in American letters).

During the next two decades the Schaeffers organized a multiple-thrust ministry that reshaped American evangelicalism. Perhaps no intellectual save C. S. Lewis affected the thinking of evangelicals more profoundly; perhaps no leader of the period save Billy Graham left a deeper stamp on the movement as a whole. Together the Schaeffers gave currency to the idea of intentional Christian community, prodded evangelicals out of their cultural ghetto, inspired an army of evangelicals to become serious scholars, encouraged women who chose roles as mothers and homemakers, mentored the leaders of the New Christian Right, and solidified popular evangelical opposition to abortion.

The Schaeffers left an imprint on the wildly diverse careers of Jesus People organizer Jack Sparks; musicians Larry Norman and Mark Heard; political figures Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jack Kemp, Chuck Colson, Randall Terry, C. Everett Koop, Cal Thomas, and Tim and Beverly LaHaye; and scholars Harold O. J. Brown, Os Guinness, Thomas Morris, Clark Pinnock, and Ronald Wells. Strange bedfellows, indeed, and this is part of the puzzle of Francis Schaeffer. Clues to its solution are spread across a half-century and two continents--from Westminster Seminary, the art galleries of Europe, and an English boarding school to the Mayo Clinic and the U.S. Supreme Court. And in the end, when the pieces of the puzzle are all assembled, the life of Francis Schaeffer gives us a picture of a side of evangelicalism quite at odds with the trajectory of the modern world. [my emphasis]
As the list of famous Christian Right figures who saw him as a major influence shows, despite the "hippie" and intellectually highbrow image he struck, his contribution to evangelical culture landed heavily on the side of the Christian Right and dominionism. We can't blame Schaeffer for what his self-proclaimed followers may have done. But it's worth noting that Randall Terry was not only the leader of the militantly anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. He was also an important player in getting the violent Patriot Militia movement going. HIs now liberal/progressive Christian son Frank has emphasized what a major role his father played in promoting the anti-abortion cause.

It's probably worth mentioning here that "evangelical" in the American usage is not a blanket term for Protestant, as it is in parts of Europe including Germany. The American usage refers to theologically conservative Protestants, including but not limited to fundamentalism. People not immersed in the politics of that world may find it difficult to see a distinction between fundamentalists and their non-fundamentalist fellow evangelicals. But participants in denominational politics and theological polemics are keenly aware of the differences. Billy Graham is particularly known for appealing to both "evangelicals" and "fundamentalists," which gave him a more moderate image than a closer familiarity with his faith and politics might justify. Francis Schaeffer, too, bridged that gap while planting his feet in conservative American Republican politics. As Hamilton writes, "Schaeffer created for himself a highly independent place in the public world of evangelicalism. He had wide appeal to students with countercultural leanings, but also to conservative politicians. He remained in touch with but aloof from the other leading figures of American evangelicalism."

Graham continued to cultivate a more moderate image, while Schaeffer became more and more radicalized in a rightward direction. Hamilton writes:

In trying to assess the meaning of Francis Schaeffer, it is instructive to compare him to Billy Graham. Both reached the peak of their influence at about the same time, and both had an immeasurable impact on American evangelicalism. Graham in many ways represents the moderate middle of evangelicalism--defusing controversy, wishing the best for everyone, friend of both Republicans and Democrats, slow to disturb middle-class conventions willing to cooperate with anyone who will let him preach the gospel. As historian Grant Wacker once wrote, "When Graham spoke, middle America heard itself." It was just as natural to see Graham and the President on the fairway together as to see Graham on a platform with a Bible in his hands. [my emnphasis]

Larry Eskridge looked at Graham and the Jesus People circa 1970 in "'One Way': Billy Graham, the Jesus Generation, and the Idea of an Evangelical Youth Culture" Church History (March 1998). At that time, there was a big growth in interest in evangelical organizations like Campus Crusade for Christ that focused their evangelizing efforts on young adults. Eskridge points out the demographic element of Baby Boomers producing a bump in the numbers of people in that age cohort, calling it "the 'pig-in-the-python' effect of the Baby Boom."

Schaeffer the Younger draws a harsh judgment on Graham's religious and political legacy at his blog (Billy Graham Is Lying In State. Why? We Are Not Iran. We Are Not A Theocracy. 02/28/2018):
Billy made magical thinking mainstream. He shaped an evangelical movement that then became as political as he was in his Nixon-supporting years and unlike Billy, this movement never repented of trading Jesus for politics. Full circle: Billy Graham sought to forge a movement that was distinct from the Southern racist fundamentalism of his day, yet that is precisely what today’s evangelicalism has become again.

Magical thinking isn’t a very good basis for policy or politics. “I believe Donald Trump is a good man,” Franklin Graham said on CNN, last month. “He did everything wrong as a candidate and he won, and I don’t understand it. Other than I think God put him there.”

Graham’s converts from the 1950s to 1990s (my generation, old, white, and tired) lined up to support not only Trump but Roy Moore. One of their very own, Sarah Huckabee, stands up every day and knowingly lies for Trump, covering for his multitude of sins on everything from racism to his lies about paying off porn stars, to abusing scores of women and denying that the Russians attacked our democracy to help get him elected.

Graham and the neo-evangelicals, as they called themselves, tried to create religious revival in the United States. Fifty years on what they got instead was Trump and Roy Moore, climate change deniers, white nationalism and the NRA’s lock on the party evangelicals uniquely empower.

This is a undated video of Graham from around that period, Billy Graham - young people - Birmingham AL:

He says early in the video:
There's enough spiritual and moral power in this stadium tonight that could change the nation. And change the world. If we begin to march for Jesus Christ. Young people all over the wold are marching for every cause in the world. And tonight I believe the time has come to declare ourselves and stat marching in earnest for Jesus Christ. ...

Well, our hope is not in Communism. Our hope is not even in democracy. Our hope is in Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God. [my emphasis]
1972 was the year that Graham endorsed Richard Nixon for re-election as President.

It doesn't require especially careful listening to tell that in that sermon, he presents the political manifestations of young people becoming engaged as a menacing development, darkly invoking the supposed similarities with the period leading up to the Second World War in which millions of people perished," in which "blood splattered across this planet, as it's never been splattered in history."

He pronounces "fascist" as "fash-e-ist."

When he say that young people of "this generation" are being deceived by Satan, his listeners in 1972 mostly understood that he was not talking about people being deceived by the power of concentrated wealth or by propaganda for an unjust war. In fact, he quotes "the Devil" as saying, "All you need is security from the cradle to the grave and you'll be happy." The welfare state is part of Satan's trickery! And people who aspire to a world in which all being have "security from the cradle to the grave" are promoting a Satanic goal! Wait ... what?!

The evangelical rhetorical context here has to do with evangelicals' attitude toward political issues, which can be remarkably flexible. In the kind of Protestant Christianity Graham represented, proselytizing is seen as a central task of the Christian believer. The task is understood as saving peoples' souls from burning in Hell for eternity, a task of some obvious urgency. So any Good Samaritan type ideas of social solidarity are considered distinctly less important, unless they are embedded in proselytizing or missionary efforts.

So for social or political causes with which the evangelicals reject, they can argue that secular efforts will ultimately be ineffective. Only getting a large enough number of people saved by Jesus, i.e., recruited into that brand of Protestant Christianity, can resolve those problems. Think of it as the "thoughts and prayers" position. This feature of fundamentalism in particular often leads observers to assume that this attitude would result in political withdrawal, or quietism.

But the flexibility reveals itself over social-political causes which the evangelicals support. In those cases, active involvement in lobbying, protest, and various kinds of political activism is seen as very much part of the Christian's mission on earth. This is framed in religious terms by which those kinds of political engagement are an expression of the higher religious values of the believers. So while conservative evangelicals may think "thoughts and prayers" are the best that can be done when it comes to reducing gun proliferation, urgent action is required to get abortion outlawed.

Those positions may look contradictory or hypocritical. And, often enough, they are. But its also a cultural narrative - maybe "culture war" narrative is a better term for it - to identify among themselves which causes are godly and therefore legitimate and which are bad, or evil, or Satanic. Dogmatism and authoritarianism also come into play here and encourage evangelicals to feign respectful listening to people associated with the bad causes only in order to establish credibility with them to convert them from their ungodly beliefs. If saving souls from eternal damnation is a primary mission in life, developing effective sales techniques is essential.

Eskridge describes Graham's marketing approach to young potential converts this way:
,,, his larger approach to the youth problem in his national ministry, [involved providing] a tolerant, openhanded response that was at variance with much of the hard-line rhetoric that secular and religious conservatives used in denouncing the younger generation in general, and the counterculture in particular. Indeed, Graham saw in the Jesus Movement a cadre of young prodigals who - rejecting the counterculture - had metaphorically come home to their parents' America via the bridge of an old American tradition: evangelical religion. [my emphasis]
Eskridge also declares somewhat grandiloquently of this outreach to long-haired and disaffected youth, "In supporting this uniquely evangelical spin on youth culture, Graham and the BGEA's [Billy Graham Evangelical Association's] efforts to legitimate the Jesus Movement were yet another example of evangelicalism's uncanny ability to harness popular forces and movements for the furtherance of its mission."

This is part of what the late Billy Graham had a moderate image, despite the conservative nature of his theological conceptions, his politics, and social attitudes.

Megachurch pastor Rick Warren spent a few years in the early 2000s trying to cultivate a similarly moderate image. Maybe he wasn't as skilled at doing it as Billy Graham. That ploy ended with Warren pretty abruptly dropping it with his hosting of a joint appearance at his Saddleback church with Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain in August 2008. Just after the event, he trashed Obama for not having been sufficiently anti-abortion. (Michelle Vu , Rick Warren: Obama's Abortion Answer Not Clear Enough Christian Post R08/19/2008) He didn't endorse either candidate. And Obama generously invited Warren to give a public prayer at his first Inaugural. But that was pretty much the end of Warren's posture as a moderate, based on his concern for issues like gay rights and environmental "stewardship."

In fact, Warren's position on abortion was largely indistinguishable from that of the most hardline fundamentalists. Even including the fanatical label of abortion rights as perpetrating a "holocaust," a label that validates the most violent antiabortion fanaticism while tossing in anti-Semitic dog-whistling in the mix. (Nia-Malika Henderson, Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren on abortion, sexuality and Obama Politico 11/29/2009)
On abortion, which has become central to the health care debate, Warren takes on Obama's idea that abortions should be rare, suggesting that stance essentially supports that life begins at conception.

"We've had 46 million Americans who aren't here. Those who could be here since Roe v. Wade, who are not voting. I think that innocence is a holocaust. I really do," Warren said. "Now, I think that we have to get beyond the name calling and find common ground to work on these issues. Now, I don't understand the idea of it should be rare and less. Well, either you believe it's life or you don't....why would you believe it should be rare?....If a baby, a fetus is not a life, then why restrict it?"
In 2012, Warren was echoing the phony Christian Right complaint about the Mean Libruls violating the religious freedom of good Christian white folks who think it's God's will that they discriminate against gays, loose women, black people and other categories of sinners. (Jaweed Kaleem, Rick Warren, Saddleback Pastor: Obama Has ‘Infringed’ Upon Religious Liberties Huffpost 12/28/2012)

Similarly the "Jesus movement" of the early 1970 left few distinctive "countercultural" elements in evengelical culture. Though it has been observed fundamentalist and Christian Right networks do form a kind of subculture that sees itself in a "culture war' with the mainstream American culture.

Eskridge seems to think the main surviving contribution of the movement to present-day evangelicalism was a musical style:
For the long term, in countenancing the union of evangelical youth with the popular style of the Jesus People, Graham gave his blessing to a manner of coping with American youth culture that became characteristic of evangelicalism in the late twentieth century. By the 1990s, evangelical youth cultures that paralleled "the world" were an assumed part of the subculture's landscape and proliferated in as many guises as their secular counterparts. While still not accepted by some sectors of the evangelical community, the strategy took hold, backed by a continually growing "Contemporary Christian Music" industry and marketing infrastructure. The groundwork for this change was laid in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the success of the Jesus Movement. The Jesus People did disappear as a movement, but they were not killed off by a lack of interest. It is more accurate to say that they were gradually replaced as a new cohort of young people, infatuated by the evolution of new musical styles and affected by the ever-increasing segmentation of the youth market and the subcultures and group identifications that accompanied these trends, took their place. [my emphasis]
And the quality of the contemporary Christian music is itself questionable. I know better than to make a blanket criticism of a whole musical genre like that. But ... There are good Christian contemporary songs. The brilliant folksinger and songwriter Kate Campbell, for instance, has a number of songs that could count as Christian contemporary. But much of fits into what is called 7-11 music: seven words repeated eleven times. Traditional hymns feature more complex music and more sophisticated lyrics. And it generally doesn't come close in quality of emotional intensity to the African-American spirituals.

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