Over the course of the past several decades, the nature of religion in the United States has changed dramatically. In mid-20th century America, Evangelical preacher Billy Graham was an overwhelmingly popular public figure, subject to little criticism and revered by people around the country. Today, cultural changes have eliminated the potential for an individual to achieve that kind of status in American public life. Dr. Grant Wacker and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat use the life and influence of Billy Graham as a lens to discuss the ways in which American culture has changed in relation to religion. The two experts speak to the historical forces and cultural currents at work, including political polarization, globalization, and the increasingly individualized nature of our culture.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: We’re delighted to have our two speakers with us today and Professor Grant Wacker is an old friend. In fact, Dr. Wacker was one of our speakers at the very first Faith Angle conference that we held in Maine and so he comes with some history.
But not only is he a historian but he is writing a new book to be published by Harvard University Press, Billy Graham and the Shaping of Modern America. I thought the book was finished when I called Dr. Wacker and said, “Grant, I want to help promote your book because all your historian friends, Nathan Hatch, Mark Noll, have all told me how wonderful it is.” And he says, “Well, I haven’t written it yet.” And I said, “Well, then I can’t have you at the conference.” He said, “Oh, no, I’ll come anyway and talk about it.” And apparently what they had read, Grant, were some chapters. I thought the book was out this spring and we were just going to launch it like we’re launching all of these books. But Grant agreed anyway to say that he knows the topic well enough to share with you all.
Dr. Wacker has been a professor of American Church History for many years at Duke University, Divinity School. Before that he taught at University of North Carolina, Department of Religion. His Ph.D. in American Religious History is from Harvard University.
I often told people that if Sarah Palin was not a disaster, that if she had done better we were going to do a session on American Pentecostalism and the best book on American Pentecostalism has been written by Grant Wacker called Heaven Below also published by Harvard.
So Governor Palin failed us, but we came up with another reason to get Grant up here and that is his forthcoming book Billy Graham and the Shaping of Modern America. Thank you, Dr. Wacker, for joining us.
DR. GRANT WACKER: Okay. Well, thank you, Michael. It is a great honor to be here. As Mike said, I was at the first meeting and when was it, 1989 or —
MR. CROMARTIE: No, 1999.
DR. WACKER: I mean, ‘99, yeah. And it was a long time ago and yet it seems like yesterday because there are numbers of people here who were there. Michelle and David. And I remember sending a note to Mike after that meeting that it stood out in my mind because it involved people talking publicly about things that mattered from a variety of perspectives. And we don’t get that in a lot of settings. In one—
MR. CROMARTIE: In the academy?
DR. WACKER: Sometimes there’s actually some posturing that goes on in academic meetings. But I thought that in that first Faith Angle Forum we found this very nice combination of public discussion about things that mattered and from various perspectives in a context of mutual respect. So I thanked you then and I thank you now.
I’m just amazed, though, about something. Like anyone that teaches American religion I get invited places to talk about what’s going on, but I never get invited back. And Michael invited me back for a second try and so that’s a miracle.
Lots of friends here and journalists that I read most avidly. I have to tell you all, I hope I don’t embarrass David that I tell my students, both my divinity students and my doctoral students that David is the best non-Christian Christian theologian in America and—
DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: Thanks.
DR. WACKER: And so they routinely send me the links to his columns. I read the links and then they’ll say, “Yeah, but we want to make sure that you saw and read this one. You know, this one is especially good.” Okay.
But when I look around this room and I’m thinking, well, I’m going to talk about Billy Graham and modern America and see Ross here, it is intimidating. And it does remind me of an event that took place about 20 years ago and that I’ve never forgotten. I was headed off to Pepperdine College in southern California and I had two daughters and the younger daughter was about ten years old at that time. And she didn’t know I was leaving and she saw me going out with a satchel and said “Where are you going?” “Well, I’m going to a meeting in California.” “What are you going to do?” “Well, I’m going to talk at a college.” “How long will you talk?” and I said, “Well, I suppose maybe 40 minutes.” There was a long pause and she said, “Papa, do you know that much?”
So we’re going to give it a try here and if I run out, Ross can take over.
Talk about Billy Graham and the shaping of modern America. Michael said the book is about Billy Graham and the shaping of modern religion and actually my sights are broader: modern America. And that’s one qualification. I tell graduate students, don’t ever start a talk with “qualifications,” but none of my graduate students is here so I’m going to do it anyway.
You have to know that I’m trying to think not about Graham himself. We have some wonderful biographies of Graham already out there and I’m not trying to replay those, but I would like to stand back and ask about why he matters and what his career tells us about American life.
The second thing, quick qualification, is that I’ll speak about him in the past tense just for convenience. He’s nearly 94 and in comparatively good health but his public career clearly is finished and so I’ll just speak about him in the past tense.
And then the final qualification is that this will be about Graham in America. There’s a whole other story about Graham internationally and I’d love to see some younger scholar come along and write that story which is a terribly important one, but I won’t even touch it except incidentally today.
To this group I probably don’t need to say a lot about Graham’s status, about why he is important, but I can just offer a few statistics and sort of lay it out and give us some sense of his magnitude both on the religious landscape and on the cultural landscape. He has talked face to face to more than 200 million people and that probably is more than anyone in history with the possible exception of John Paul II. It’s hard to know with John Paul II, but certainly Graham has talked to more than anyone except him face to face. In 84 countries, on six continents, and electronically he has spoken to hundreds of millions more, some observers say even to billions more. These things are very hard to document but clearly one of the most visible faces of the last sixty years.
He’s established numerous attendance records and I’ll offer only one example. In 1972 he spoke to an outdoor meeting in Seoul, Korea, and we have pretty clear accounts of how many were there because of photographs taken from helicopters and they can count the individuals. And it was something like 1,240,000. So 1.2 million people at one time and at that time, again, probably ranked as the largest gathering of humans at one time in one place in history. Again, it’s possible that John Paul II spoke to more later on, but at that time likely a world record.
If you’ve seen photographs—they’re easy to see—photographs that were taken from behind Graham as he spoke to his crowd in Seoul, they’re simply astonishing to see this one man standing behind his podium and human beings spread out literally as far as the eye could see into the horizon.
Twenty-eight books translated into 50 languages. On the Gallup poll most admired man 55 times. Far more than any other person, the next closest to it is Ronald Reagan and I believe it was 32 times and John Paul II 27 times. He even ranked on a best-dressed list in 1970, which actually may say more about people’s aspirations and imagination than reality since he bought his clothes off the rack at Penney’s often, but it gives you some sense of public image.
I could go on with numerous awards, but one of the ways I like to think about Graham is in terms of, what I may call, cultural snapshots. I think that gives us a better sense of his importance.
Harold Bloom, by no means a fellow evangelical, yet wrote about Graham in an article in Time about the 100 most prominent Americans and the article said, “In America you do not run for public office by deprecating Billy Graham.” That seemed wise enough. Or Woody Allen in the movie Sleeper has a scene in here in which he’s describing Graham to someone else and he said, “he knew God personally…they used to go out on double dates together.” Now, that particular quip if you want to call it a quip is significant because Woody Allen, once again, clearly not in the evangelical camp with Graham yet knew his audience. He knew that the people seeing that movie would understand who he was talking about.
I love the children’s letters and I read hundreds of the children’s letters that came in and they tell us a lot. Two I think are symptomatic. One—usually by children’s letters we’re talking about first, second-graders and, you know, they’re hand scrawled, of course. And one signs off—well, they usually start by saying, “Dear Billy.” They call him Billy and then signs off by saying, “Tell Jesus hi for me.” And it gives you, again, a sense of popular perception.
But what I like even more than children’s letters are the letters that were mailed and you can see a lot of them in the Graham archives or in the Graham Museum in Charlotte. Many of them are illegible except that you can just make out “Billy Graham” and they get there. They were sent mostly to the Minneapolis office and somehow they got there even when there was no other address except “Billy Graham.”
But the two that I especially liked is one that says, “Billy Graham, Somewhere in the World.” Okay. But my all-time favorite is the one that had a complete address, Billy Graham, 145 Harmon Street, Minneapolis, Minnesota complete with a ZIP Code. And then down in the left it said, “In case of rapture, never mind.”
We could do this for a long time but you get the idea. He received voluminous criticism. Some of it was merited, some of it was vitriolic, unmerited, and we can talk about that later. But I think the criticism is important, too, simply as a mark of status. People don’t criticize someone publicly or take the time unless they think the person really is important and really needs the criticism.
Christopher Hitchens, after the very unfortunate event which we’ll discuss later of Graham’s odious remarks about Jews that were made in private—or he thought in private—in 1972 with Richard Nixon and after that became revealed in 2002—Christopher Hitchens described him as a “cheap liar” and an “avid bigot.”
George Will, who I would regard as in general conservative, was appalled when Graham attended a peace conference in the Soviet Union in 1982. He suggested that Graham’s unwarrantedly conciliatory comments in Moscow made him “America’s most embarrassing export.”
When Graham held his crusade in New York in 1957, landmark crusade, Reinhold Niebuhr did have some complimentary things to say, but he also said, “a miracle of regeneration is promised at a painless price by an obviously sincere evangelist. It is a bargain.”
Graham received even more criticism from the far right. Bob Jones of Bob Jones University said that Billy Graham was doing more damage to the cause of Jesus Christ than any human being alive. And, indeed, if you go on to just Google Graham today, the oceans of vitriol will just astound you. And the greater part of it comes from the right.
So two questions. How did Graham achieve and retain that Olympian status? His rise is improbable. He was a farm kid from North Carolina. Went to fundamentalist schools. He had no social connections to speak of. There were missteps, such as I mentioned his comments about Jews in 1972. Yet, as one historian has put it, he became America’s least colorful but most powerful preacher. So how did that happen? That’s the question. The rise was improbable. How did it happen that he achieved and retained that Olympian status?
And then the second question which falls from the first one is: what does his career tell us about America’s career? What does Billy Graham tell us about America? The argument that I would pursue, try out with you and am working on in the book goes like this, is that Graham followed the same approach that all evangelicals or most evangelicals followed and that is, he discerned aspirations in the wider culture and then he drew on trends in the wider culture to meet those aspirations.
The difference between Graham and most evangelicals is that he did it with dramatically greater skill for six decades and with remarkably few missteps. There were missteps but comparatively very few.
So let me put the argument in slightly different terms. He did not create those trends but he discerned trends that were already there and then he appropriated them and shaped them and he applied them for his own purposes.
The results were numerous initiated projects, sometimes he legitimated broad outlooks. Sometimes he shaped public discourse. The key point is that in a lot of ways he was both the product and the producer of the times, both a product of the culture and a shaper of the culture. He registered the times and he molded the times and that’s why I think he’s important.
I am working on a series of case studies that I hope will make this point and I’ll try to do this very briefly. We can outline and we can talk about them in far greater detail. But one case study will involve Graham as heartlander. And herein he appropriated and shaped and applied or deployed the values that we associate with heartland America.
His parents. He wrote autobiographically a lot and he wrote about his parents who were southern Presbyterians, conservative, mainstream and here the important point is they were not snake handlers. They were not dispensationalists, fundamentalists, at least initially, and they present this image of stable, solid southern evangelical mainliners.
“This is not a story of the collapse of religion in America and it’s not even a story of the disappearance of some kind of Christianity in America. It’s just the story of the weakening of the Christian center that [Billy] Graham represented, and that the nation we’re living in now is not becoming a more secular country except in the loosest possible definition of the term. It’s a nation where people are still deeply influenced by Christianity, still deeply religious, but are more likely to express their Christianity through the kind of authors who appear on the Oprah Winfrey show, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle and so on.”
When Graham wrote about himself in his autobiography and in countless interviews—I mean, just a vast number of interviews—he wrote about his youth in terms of being a red-blooded American adolescent male, fast cars, sports, baseball, pretty girls. Presented himself as such a down-home guy, and appealed to those kinds of values. Unbuttoned, neighborly style comes through. Traditional ideas about gender, about manliness. And by “traditional” I mean not extreme to the left, not extreme to the right but just that: traditional views of gender and what it means to be a man. And he also maintained impeccable personal integrity throughout his life in terms of his marital fidelity, in terms of his financial affairs, in terms of truthfulness. And all of this played to Americans’ assumptions of their own heartland values. Bill Martin is the best biographer of Billy Graham and he said that what Americans saw in Billy Graham was their “best selves.” Whether or not they maintained marital fidelity and financial integrity and public truthfulness in their own lives, they yet esteemed someone who did—who did it for them. Billy Graham’s America was Mayberry and in a lot of ways he was Andy Griffith and millions of Americans loved him for it. So that’s the first point: the heartlander.
Second, he was a southerner. He always was proud of his southern roots and he capitalized upon the political cache of those southern roots. This was the age of southern expansionism and there’s a great deal we could say about this, but I’ll throw out just one factoid and numerous ones of you in this room know more about this than I, and I’d love to hear you talk. Except for the senior Bush, every elected president from Lyndon Johnson to Bush II—whether Democrat or Republican—was a southerner. This is an age of southern cultural expansionism if you think about who they were: southern or sun belter, which for these purposes were the same: Nixon, Reagan, Carter, Clinton, Bush.
And think about who lost those elections: Humphrey, McGovern, Ford, Mondale, Dukakis, Kerry. Think about where they came from.
This was also an era in which the south had to some extent lived down its Jim Crow legacy but not yet come to be identified with the Christian right. There was a kind of window in which Graham arose. Well, how was he a southerner? He often talked about his love for the south, his love for southern food, his diction. He spoke very rapidly always, 270 words a minute was common, but it somehow still contained this kind of southern diction.
A New Yorker journalist named Peter Boyer—I’m sure some of you know him;I’d love to meet him someday—called it “Carolina stage English.” Well, I’m not sure what Carolina stage English is, but that must be what Graham was and you can certainly hear the difference between that and, say, most evangelical preachers.
But more important than that is how he presented himself as neither a southern rural hick nor a southern aristocrat, but rather as a middle class genteel southerner whose origins or provenance we might associate with a booster south, the rise of Atlanta and Charlotte, his identification with a rising middle class. All right, so second, southerner.
Third, entrepreneur. Graham appropriated the climate of entrepreneurial agency following the Second World War: the entrepreneurial agency of the media age. And here I’ll speak very briefly of only two features but we can talk about more of his career. One, he was an orchestrator of the evangelical parallel culture. He didn’t start it. It had started long before he came along but he significantly amplified that parallel culture. Some people call it a subculture. I think it’s better called a parallel culture that was driven by parachurch agencies. Just a quick listing: Youth for Christ, Fuller Theological Seminary he didn’t found but he was instrumental, Gordon Conwell Seminary, Young Life, his own Billy Graham Evangelistic Association which in those days was a powerhouse organization; magazines: Decision Magazine was next to the Jehovah’s Witness magazine Awake! as the most widely circulated religious magazine in the world; feature-length movies. And most important of all, I’d argue, was his founding of Christianity Today. He was very clear. Crusades come and go, but the printed word remains.
Architect of evangelical cooperation. He talked about harmony with Roman Catholics long before it was fashionable. He pioneered relationships with evangelicals and Christians on one side and with Jews on the other despite his serious mistake. The mistake was totally out of character and we can discuss the response to it, but on the whole his relationship with the Jewish community was a powerful one. He was friends with Jewish leaders, with rabbis, Golda Meier, Menachem Begin. He was not a Zionist, but he was always pro-Israel.
And I would also say he was a pioneer of religious pluralism. The BGEA, his organization, probably does not agree with me about this, but I don’t think there was any question that he pioneered notions of religious pluralism. He adopted what I would call a principled agnosticism about the fate of the nonbeliever. Recurrently he would effectively say there is a wideness in God’s mercy and it’s simply not my call. And when journalists would ask him, as opposed to what actually got printed—you know what goes on in the printing process—but when journalists would ask him what he would think about, for example, the child in China who never heard, okay, his recurrent response effectively was “I leave that to God. I simply leave that to God. My job solely is to present the gospel.” So he was an entrepreneur pioneering the parallel culture and cooperative relations.
Fourth, he was a pilgrim who advanced the cause of a growing social consciousness about human suffering and discrimination and other forms of injustice.
The story of Graham and race is complicated. Ross has written about it and we can discuss it. Entire books have been written about this and they take different points of view and I could hardly even begin to unpack it in the time available. Suffice it to say, it seems to me that what we see between 1950—actually 1952—when his eyes just begin to open to the problem of racial injustice in America until 1982—in that 30-year span we see a continual process of expansion of his vision. It was zigzag. There were two steps forward, one step back, two steps forward, one step back, but on the whole we have to say it was a progressive move and compared to other southern white evangelicals it was really a very handsome moment.
I’ll offer one historical incident to make the point and then we can talk about it later. In 1953 he preached a crusade in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Until then all of his crusades had been segregated. There were ropes down the middle—well, not down the middle—but there were ropes that separated African-Americans from white Americans when he was in the south and here he was following the pattern of Billy Sunday before him. In 1953 he pulled down the ropes at the Chattanooga crusade. He did it himself over the protests of the local organizers. Now, that’s a story we get all the time. That’s a common story in virtually every Graham biography that before he went to Chattanooga in ‘53 he told those organizers that “I will not come unless those ropes come down” and they were up and so he pulled them down. I’ve looked into this and that’s not quite the way it happened. And the way it happened I think is more interesting and more telling both about Graham and human nature and about America.
The crusade began on March 15th and four days later Cliff Barrows announced that there would be no reserved seats “except for colored persons.” Now, what does that tell you? That almost one week into the meeting blacks and whites are segregated, the ropes are up. The meeting goes on for a total of four weeks. I do not know when the ropes came down. I cannot determine it, but Graham is very clear that this is where he tore the ropes down and so are his associates. In the memories of his associates, he did that at Chattanooga.
Now, my own construction of this is that he went to that meeting in Chattanooga and in the course of those four weeks it started eating on him. He did not go with a plan. He did not go with a theological principle in mind. He wasn’t thinking, oh, Galatians 3:28, we’ve got to put it in practice. Rather, he went and it ate on him and it ate on him and at some point he took it down. I think it probably happened right at the end because if you read the Chattanooga papers there is no mention of it.
The next crusade was in Dallas. The ropes went back up. The next crusade was in Asheville. Apparently the ropes back up. We can’t tell for sure, but we know they went back up in Dallas. After Asheville they came down and they never went up again. For the rest of his life the crusades were integrated.
By 1982 he spoke at the Patriarchal Cathedral in Moscow and he said he had gone through three conversions in my life: conversion to Christ, conversion to a racially just society, and a conversion to the necessity of disarmament and world peace. What I think is significant here is how he articulated these three conversions. It was really very unlike most evangelicals. He placed them in order, in pattern, and where he did it, in Moscow.
In the latter years of his life in the ‘80s and the ‘90s he took a strong stand on nuclear disarmament. Mutual disarmament. He was never a pacifist. And we often think of Billy Graham as a strident, spread-eagle patriot of the 1950s. You know, most public figures were. He certainly was. But over the years he came gradually to distance himself from that spread-eagle patriotism and by 1982 he had made a determination to visit the Soviet Union and over a great deal of opposition including opposition from members of his own organization, he went to the Soviet Union as part of an effort to bring about an association of the Christian message with disarmament and the threat of nuclear annihilation. So I would say that on the whole I see Graham as opening to the increasing awareness of the threat of injustice and pain and suffering in this world.
My last example is Graham as counselor. I’ll say this very briefly. To me, in some ways the most important part of Graham’s whole story, what tells us the most about his relation to America, are the letters. The vast majority have been destroyed, but we know that millions came in to the office in Minneapolis. Only a few thousand have remained and it’s not exactly clear why these few thousand were not destroyed. They came in by the thousands during his crusades. Sometimes they came in at the rate of 10,000 per day.
I have read a lot and I have no idea exactly how many, but all I can do is summarize it. What these letters are about is a litany of brokenness and addiction and despair. They are virtually never about politics. They are almost never about theology. They are almost always about broken lives. And if you’ll forgive an anecdote, a personal autobiographical piece, my wife went with me a few years ago and I asked her if she would read some of these letters and take notes. And she was sitting down at the end of the table and after a while tears were coming down. She said, “I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t do this.” And so I started reading the sample of the cache, the folders that she had. It’s heartbreaking to see how much pain there was out there. And the way I would phrase this is, is that Graham became a public vehicle for private pain. People saw him, in some way by expressing their pain they found some relief.
There are analogs. Bob Orsi has written about the letters to St. Jude. Kathryn Lofton has written about the letters to Oprah. It’s not exclusively Graham, but certain figures serve as analogues.
I will close by saying that I have some negative comments about his legacy. It wasn’t all positive. Clearly, I think it was on the whole positive, but there are certainly things that I would criticize about Graham. He talked too much. He made careless comments. He made offhand comments about things he knew little about. There were grievous mistakes, such as his comments that he made to Richard Nixon about the way that liberal Jews controlled the American media. He was unself-critical about his legitimating power.
MR. CROMARTIE: David had a comment on it.
MR. BROOKS: Seems fair to me.
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: We just had a meeting on this.
DR. WACKER: I’m going to leave that actually at the moment.
He was unself-critical about his legitimating power. He never caught on that simply showing up at some events legitimated it. And most seriously he was always in the declarative mode—excuse me—he was often in the declarative mode until late in his life. I was struck this morning by I think it was Rich saying that too often evangelicals have told others what they believe rather than asking, “what do you believe?”
I could elaborate on my criticisms but my positive thoughts about his legacy go quickly like this as a bio. One, I’ve already intimated that he represented America’s best selves. Image of marital fidelity, financial accountability, quickness to forgive, humility, his humor.
The second is his handling of mistakes and we go to the episode about Jews as symptomatic. What I find in the career was a willingness to apologize, to face the mistakes and apologize for them straight out. So in this instance, as soon as they ascertained that these were his words he issued a written apology. It was published in many newspapers. And then he got on an airplane and he flew to Cincinnati and he spoke to the rabbis and he faced them and he said, “The things I said that day were unforgivable. I ask you to forgive me.” And as I read the journalist response it seems to me that the great majority of Americans including Jews did. They accepted a straightforward apology.
His remorse about his partisanship after Nixon repeatedly he apologized, repented for what he had done, how he had gotten tangled in power and his personal regrets. So I think his handling of mistakes have been symptomatic of what Americans are looking for.
Third, on the whole with some qualifications but on the whole I see a record of increasing progressiveness in his views of social suffering. Doesn’t mean that in all cases he aligned his views with the Democratic party but it means that on the whole he sought to bring about alleviation.
Fourth, he represented the evangelical movement at its best: expansive, entrepreneurial. Ironically in many ways he created the public space that made possible the rise of the Christian right, but he himself was very careful to distance himself from the Christian right, but nonetheless evangelical at its best.
And lastly, I would say that what took place after 9/11—actually, it was on 9/14—was in many ways Billy Graham’s national moment when he spoke at the National Cathedral with a rabbi, with a priest, and with an imam. And what is significant for me is that of all the scores of millions of Protestants who could have been chosen, of course, they chose Graham. But more than that, he stood shoulder to shoulder with people of multiple faiths in that moment of national suffering and I think it says something about both him and Americans since, in times of extraordinary suffering, they were shoulder to shoulder.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you. Thank you, Grant.
Well, our next speaker as many of you know is the youngest regular op-ed writer in the history of The New York Times. You’ve heard this a few times. Ross has been on a book tour you all may know and his new book is Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. He was even on Bill Maher two weeks ago and comported himself well. And anyway, you all know Ross and we’re delighted that in the midst of a busy, busy book tour that we somehow got him to commit to be here with us. I think Ross considers this part of his book tour and so, again, the book is called Bad Religion. Ross, we’re looking forward to hearing your comments on the same subject.
MR. ROSS DOUTHAT: Thank you, Mike. I’ve been telling Mike that actually the reason I’m here is that he is personally responsible for at least 40 percent of my book sales around the country—particularly, I’d say, in the evangelical community—so I owe him a debt of gratitude that no author can possibly repay.
I’m delighted to be here and to have this chance to respond to Professor Wacker because I think in many ways some of the themes that I elaborate on in the book fit quite well with the portrait that he’s just painted with far more scholarly rigor obviously than I can hope to muster. But I thought I’d begin by talking (hopefully relatively briefly) about why there are no Billy Grahams today, because I think that that’s a question that’s raised at least implicitly by the portrait that’s just been sketched.
I tell people that any book has multiple points when the author starts thinking about it for the first time. But one of the moments when I started thinking about some of the ideas in my own book was at some point in the midpoint of the Bush presidency, when there was a succession of pieces—the most prominent I remember was by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.—basically saying, “Where is Reinhold Niebuhr? What happened to the Reinhold Niebuhrs of yesteryear? Why is American religion so polarized and populist and anti-intellectual and so on?” And part of the argument I make in the book is about exactly this question, why there aren’t as many Reinhold Niebuhr type figures today. But I think that argument applies to Billy Graham-type figure as well, even though of course Niebuhr was famously critical of Graham and they obviously had very different theological and intellectual approaches to American Christianity. They were both figures who emerged in a period that was a period in between culture wars in American life, you might say. It was a period after the culture wars of the 1920s and ‘30s, which on the one hand could pit Protestants against Catholics (you saw expressions of nativism and you had a brief return of the Ku Klux Klan to prominence) and on the other hand pitted Protestants against Protestants, in the famous modernist fundamentalist wars that everybody who’s had to read Inherit the Wind in high school remembers all too well.
So it was this period in between those wars on the one hand, and then obviously the culture wars that started in the 1960s that we’re all still living with today. Obviously religious and cultural conflict didn’t disappear in the 1940s and 1950s by any stretch, but a couple of things did happen I think in that era that made it distinctive.
One thing that happened was that the experience of the great depression and the Second World War and the lived reality of totalitarianism both on the right and the left, both fascist and communist, created a kind of moment of almost intellectual reassessment, you might say, that made people and intellectuals especially—but I think westerners in general—more interested in traditional religious faith and particularly traditional Christian faith than they had been 20 or 30 years earlier. I think that there had been a sense, particularly in the early 1930s, that secular ideologies were the coming thing and that more traditional forms of communal life, religious belief and so on, would be less relevant in the brave new world that was being built in Moscow or in 1930s Berlin, depending on your ideological perspective.
But the experience of what then happened in the late ‘30s and 1940s and the level of worldwide horror that those secular ideologies created a moment that, when we think about it in the case of Niebuhr, we think about it in terms of a new highbrow interest in Christian realism. A return to older intellectual ideas about human sinfulness and so on.
But it also created I think a space for a kind of popular expression of that same impulse as well, one that had both Protestant and Catholic forms but found a very powerful expression in the ministry of a figure like Graham.
At the same time, I think you had this moment of Christian convergence in the United States. And, again, I want to be at pains to emphasize that I don’t think this Christian convergence meant that all Protestant and Catholic differences disappeared. Obviously in the 1950s there were still famous anti-Catholic polemics being written by Protestants, there was still incredible tension between evangelical and mainline Protestants and so on. All the tensions of the 1920s and ‘30s were still there in some form.
But at the same time—and, again, you can see this I think most clearly in Graham’s own career—you had this convergence where it was possible for Graham, the leading evangelical sort of popular figure at that point to go to a Catholic city like Boston and organize a crusade and have the Catholic cardinal of Boston write an op-ed basically saying, “Bully for you, Billy Graham.” This is not something you would have expected to happen in 1927 or so.
I could go on with examples like that but I think if you look in the book I take four figures—I take Graham, I take Niebuhr, I take Fulton Sheen, the famous Catholic bishop and broadcaster at that point, and I take Martin Luther King. And I argue that in spite of all their obviously enormous differences there was a greater sort of theological and then to some extent as well political commonality than you’ve seen from any group of prominent figures in that vein in the decades since.
I think in Graham in particular you have a figure who is on the one hand confidently and unabashedly Christian and Christian in a very traditional Protestant evangelical sense. For all the development that Professor Wacker talks about in his views, Graham does not emerge on the American scene as someone making obvious compromises with liberal modernity. He’s someone who’s preaching a very stark Christian message. He’s making an altar call. He’s boiling down religious questions to a yes-or-no for Jesus Christ.
Yet unlike so many Christian figures today, he is not a focus for intense polarization. The idea that “no politician got elected by criticizing Billy Graham,” – well, it’s hard to imagine anyone saying that about a similar sort of preacher-like figure today. Maybe a figure like Rick Warren sort of has some Graham-like qualities, but I don’t think he has anything like the kind of bipartisan credibility that Graham enjoyed really throughout his career—and that he enjoyed in spite of moments like his too close identification with the Nixon White House, and in spite of moments like his more left-wing, you could say, interventions in the disarmament debates of the 1980s.
So he’s a resolutely Christian figure who doesn’t become a focus for polarization. Then he’s also a figure who is identified, again, in spite of his real theological conservatism with personal conversion rather than with culture war. He’s more identified with people sending him letters and having life-changing experiences that are personal experiences of Jesus Christ than he is with the kind of battles that subsequent figures on the Christian right are associated with.
When Jerry Falwell died, for instance, a number of pieces were written by his friends and associates and others about all the kind of work that Falwell did as a pastor and his charitable works, his works in personal conversion and so on. All of that was real, but I think it’s completely fair to say that Billy Graham’s public ministry was just completely different from Jerry Falwell’s public ministry and that difference tells us something about the shift in American society from the mid-century era to our own. And so very quickly I just want to run through what has changed that has made it harder for figures, whether they’re an evangelical preacher or a Catholic bishop who wanted to do a nightly broadcast or a Protestant theologian, to be identified, I suppose you could say, as a Christian first and as a combatant in our political and cultural dispute second—which I think is what was distinctive about Graham and what’s rarer today.
I think four big things changed starting in the 1960s. The first was just a phenomenon that all political journalists write about all the time and so it’s well known to everyone in this room: The influence of political polarization and the ideological sorting of the two major parties that really gets underway after Goldwater’s race in 1964 and has continued pretty steadily down to the present day.
What I think that polarization has done – I think it happened first on the religious left in the 1960s and ‘70s and then happened on the religious right in the 1990s and especially in the Bush presidency – is create an intense identification of Christian faith with one or the other partisan cause. This in turn creates a sense that happened first I think for liberal mainline Protestants in the late 1960s and 1970s—that they were just the Democratic party at prayer. Then I think something similar happened with Christian conservatives over the last 20 years or so. You actually see Americans who had previously identified as Methodists or Presbyterians or Catholics or something distancing themselves from organized Christianity as a kind of political statement against the religious right, which is a phenomenon that we’ve seen over the last 15 years that we hadn’t seen before.
To understand the impact of that polarization, the example I like to use is to contrast the public ministries of Graham and Martin Luther King with two figures who were in a sense plausible successor figures in the 1980s: Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson. Both Graham and King – and at various moments especially King later in his career – were clearly political figures. No one would hesitate to describe Martin Luther King but a political figure. But imagine how the history of mid-century America would have been different if Billy Graham had decided that the best way to witness to Christian faith in American life was to run for the Republican nomination for president. (I believe that there were people who at one point urged him to do so in the ‘50s.) But imagine the difference. Imagine the difference if Martin Luther King had been a Jesse Jackson figure who ran two unsuccessful campaigns for the Democratic nomination in the 1960s. I think in that shift in how both the religious left and the religious right related to political coalitions, you can see a shift that had momentous consequences for American Christianity as a whole and made it, again, for subsequent figures harder and harder to have an identity where you weren’t defining yourself as a conservative Christian first and then a Christian second—or a liberal Christian first and then a Christian second.
So you have polarization. You have the sexual revolution which is obviously I think the shift that everybody is aware of, everybody talks about, and again, is working itself out down to the present day in our debates over gay marriage. But it obviously really starts with issues having to do with heterosexuality and straight life and the divorce revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s and everything that followed from the development of the birth control pill in the early ‘60s.
I think, again, it’s telling Graham comes of age before those debates are front and center., Graham has traditional Christian positions on sex before marriage. You know, I believe he just came out and endorsed a ballot marriage in North Carolina, I believe, on—
But let’s say that it’s safe to assume that in general Billy Graham has held fairly traditional Christian views on issues related to sex, abortion and so forth.
But because he came of age before those issues were such huge flashpoints in American life, his public persona was not, I think, defined by them the way, again, the public persona of figures involved in religious and political debates since the ‘60s and ‘70s have been. Overall, the sexual revolution created a challenge for Christian sexual ethics that no church, Protestant or Catholic, has found a completely successful way to address. There have been both liberal and conservative responses to all of these issue, but none of them have at least to this date come to a kind of resolution that has made those issues be anything less than a sort of persistent flashpoint, a persistent reason for people to leave Christian churches, a persistent source of cultural polarization and so on.
And as with sex, I think you also have to look at the influence of wealth and money on the United States over the last 40 or 50 years. If you look at the original New Testament message there is a fairly strong emphasis on personal chastity that obviously becomes somewhat difficult to make in the post-sexual revolution era. But there’s also obviously a very strong emphasis on a suspicion of great wealth, a suspicion of money and its corrupting influence that resonates less, I would argue, among Americans who came of age in what was by historical standards the kind of cornucopian abundance of the post-World War II landscape, as opposed to Americans who had come of age in the great depression and who had a very different experience of their material circumstances, their relationship to money and so forth. I think this has had a general impact and we can talk about it more. I think it explains sort of the shift from Billy Graham as a central figure in religious life in the United States to someone like Joel Osteen as a sort of Graham-esque figure whose message is very clearly accommodated to a landscape of greater wealth than the more hard-scrabble landscape in which Graham came of age.
The other narrower in some sense but I think very important example I like to cite is just the impact of America’s wealth on the ministry, on the kind of people and the number of people who choose to become ministers, pastors, Catholic priests and so on. You don’t have to ascribe bad faith or bad motives to my parents’ generation and my own to see that the kind of money available to people from professions like the law and medicine and investment banking and so on made the ministry less appealing. The difference between the money available in non-clerical professions and clerical professions was always large. But the gap—you know, you can compare a minister’s salary to a lawyer’s salary in 1950 and a minister’s salary to a lawyer’s salary today and it explains a lot about why, for instance, fewer people who made Phi Beta Kappa would even consider going to divinity school in 2005 than considered going to divinity school in 1945. And this, I think, in turn has a huge impact on personnel, human capital, the manpower available to America’s churches and their ability to sort of make the Christian message seem appealing and relevant in the contemporary landscape.
Then the final trend that I talk about in the book that I think changed things is the impact of globalization and de-colonization and the extent to which those forces were suddenly beamed into Americans’ living rooms by the television revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s and obviously by cable TV and the internet and everything since. I’m thinking, in particular, of the extent to which they made the idea that one religious tradition had an exclusive truth claim seem much less credible than it had seemed before. This was already happening in the ‘50s and you can see it in Graham’s career and his own adaptations that Professor Wacker was discussing—where he speaks differently about the possibility of salvation than an earlier generation of evangelical preachers had often done. He says he has a different answer, let’s say, to the question about the baby in China perhaps than a Graham figure in 1922 would have had.
But even those adaptations I think were insufficient to the magnitude of globalization, and the fact that it overlapped with de-colonization, which meant that because Christianity is a western religion, it was perceived as tainted by the sins of European empires and so on. And I think that combination of factors goes a long way to explaining why theological relativism seems more plausible in 1985 than it did in 1955.
Now, what’s fascinating is that over the same period in the areas that were experiencing de-colonization themselves, Christianity becomes more appealing because it’s no longer associated with imperial administration and it’s no longer perceived as just a white man’s religion. And this is why I think the other book about Billy Graham’s influence that you mentioned would be fascinating because in a way, you could argue that Graham has his biggest influence on America in this period of mid-century convergence and then has his biggest influence on the world over the following 30 years as Christianity goes into crisis in the U.S. but suddenly seems fresher and newer and more relevant in Africa or Korea, and then eventually behind the Berlin wall.
So that’s sort of the sketch that I offer in the book of the trends that have just made it harder and harder (1) for institutional Christian churches to thrive in the current landscape; (2) for a traditional Christian message more broadly defined to reach a wide audience; and (3) for figures like Graham to play a role in our society that transcends political divisions. And, again, the closest I think we’ve come to a Graham-style figure of the temporary emergence of Rick Warren in the last election cycle as, someone who President Obama kind of paid court to and invited to give the blessing at his inauguration and so on. But I think even Warren is seen frequently through a sort of culture war lens as a spokesman for you know, the nice conservative evangelical, as opposed to the obnoxious conservative evangelicals. I don’t think he has the kind of credibility of Graham had and I don’t think he will have the kind of non-partisan staying power that Graham enjoyed over so many decades.
So I know we should get into the Q and A. I’ll just say in closing that it’s very telling that you mentioned letters to Oprah and so on, because I think the second half of this story is not a story of the collapse of religion in America and it’s not even a story of the disappearance of some kind of Christianity in America. It’s just the story of the weakening of the kind of Christian center that Graham represented, and that the world we’re living in now, the nation we’re living in now is not becoming a more secular country except in the loosest possible definition of the term “secular.” It’s a nation where people are still deeply influenced by Christianity, still deeply religious, but are more likely to express their Christianity through the kind of authors who appear on the Oprah Winfrey show, the Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle and so on—or through a figure like a Joel Osteen who has in some ways a Christian message but it’s clearly directed towards a more affluent, more relativistic society—or through explicitly political figures. This is the phenomenon that political journalists are used to writing about: The influence of partisanship, the fact that we are still this deeply religious nation, we have all this religious energy, but because we’re more partisan than ever before and our religious institutions are weaker than ever before, it’s easier than ever before to pour those religious energies into Sarah Palin’s “Fundamental Restoration of America” or Barack Obama’s “Hope and change; yes, we can,” celebrities keening on YouTube videos campaign of 2008. And obviously I think that this has had some negative consequences for our national life but we can just get into that in the Q and A.
MR. CROMARTIE: Absolutely.
MR. DOUTHAT: Thank you, guys, very much.
MR. CROMARTIE: We’ve already got hands going up and Kirsten Powers raised her hand five minutes into Professor Wacker’s talk and people who have been here before know how to get in the queue. Sally is after Kirsten and Paul and, yes, everyone else.
KIRSTEN POWERS, Fox News: I have a question for each of you. For the professor, when you were talking about how Bob Jones had said that Billy Graham would cause more damage to Jesus than anybody else. I don’t know that much about Billy Graham so I was interested to know why he would say that and why the right was so critical of him.
And for Ross I guess, is the bottom line that there’s just sort of no hope? Is that what your book is saying? I mean, how will anyone ever rise above this? Will there ever be another Niebuhr?
MR. DOUTHAT: Grant, help me out.
DR. WACKER: Okay.
MR. DOUTHAT: Give me a minute.
DR. WACKER: The immediate context for Bob Jones’s comment was Graham’s crusade in New York in 1957 in which he made a point to cooperate with everyone who would cooperate with him. I mean, there were some that didn’t—I think he said something about Unitarians. He drew some lines but within very broad limits he would cooperate with anyone who would cooperate with him as long as they did not ask him to change his message.
And then as the inquirers came forward he never called them “converts” but as inquirers came forward and then they were counseled, they were counseled to go back to the churches they had come from or if they didn’t have a church they were counseled to churches, but they honored whatever tradition they came from. And it’s hard to document. I’m working on this but there are indications that when people who self-identified as Jewish they were counseled to go back to their synagogues, and certainly Roman Catholics. And so this is what inspired Bob Jones. I mean, he would have said this is bad religion. This is really bad religion because we’ve let down our standards.
MR. DOUTHAT: So no, there’s no hope.
No. I mean, this is a book about American Christianity, but obviously the trends that I’m—
MR. CROMARTIE: Your last chapter—
MR. DOUTHAT: Is my last chapter hopeful? Well, the trends that I’m talking about are bigger than religion, too. The 1950s, ‘40s were a period of American confidence and stronger institutions more generally and a period of political consensus of a sort more generally and it was a period of consensus and cohesion and so on. So in certain ways it’s unfair to compare our era to that one, because some aspects of what’s changed is a return to American norm and the mid-century period is the sort of slightly unusual period. I don’t know if that’s hopeful but it’s something to keep in mind.
But look, no, I mean, the trends that I’m describing are trends that continue to unfold and that are manifest not only in our religious life but in the Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone phenomenon that everyone is familiar with. They’re obvious in sort of general attitudes of disillusionment towards institutions of all kinds. So that’s the case for pessimism, in a sense that we do seem to be becoming a more atomized society more generally, a more polarized society more generally and so it’s not obvious that it will be easier to be a Billy Graham in 2020 than it was in 2005.
That being said, the reason that I begin the book in the mid-century era is also because the world of Graham and Niebuhr and so on was not an inherited world; it was a world that was built. And I do think that people have agency, agency that is affected by deep tectonic forces but is real nonetheless and I do think it should be possible for religious people in American life to sort of self-present in ways that do more honor to Christianity than Republican or Democratic partisanship or to gospels of self-help and self-love and all the rest.
I don’t have a five-point plan, but I do cite examples like Timothy Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian who many of you are familiar with, as examples of people who are making the case for Christianity in ways that are not just sort of easily slotted into the, “Oh, here’s another Republican preacher” kind of mode. I think it is possible, too, that the experience of the great recession and an age potentially of diminishing expectations and so on, while it may increase polarization and may accelerate some of the trends I’m writing about, there are, I think, just as there were after the depression and world wars, opportunities for broader cultural reassessment that I think would be good for, again, American culture as a whole and not just American religious culture. But I can’t say that there are five obvious examples of how this is happening and we should all be excited.
MR. CROMARTIE: Sally, you’re next and then David and Paul.
SALLY QUINN, The Washington Post: I have a question for each of you.
Grant, I wanted to know what you thought about Franklin Graham who is actively a bigot and clearly is not following in his father’s footsteps. And I don’t know whether you know how his father feels about him. I know his daughter has problems with her brother and with his message and his evangelicalism, if you want to call it that. So I’m curious to know what you think of Franklin.
And, Ross, I want to know what you think actually is bad religion and why. I mean, we talked earlier about Joel Osteen. You mentioned Elizabeth Gilbert and Deepak Chopra and Oprah and Eckhart Tolle, but it seems to me that, you know, the institutions are, as you say, failing people and that people are going off to find what everybody is looking for in life which is meaning and that people are finding meaning from these people.
MR. DOUTHAT: Absolutely.
MS. QUINN: I mean, we talked about how I interviewed Joel Osteen last week. It was 42,000 people, two weeks booked in advance, standing room only. The guy has a message that’s giving people hope. Is that bad religion? Is it religion? And if it is, why?
MR. CROMARTIE: Who wants to go first?
DR. WACKER: Ross does.
MR. DOUTHAT: Okay. I’ll make two arguments. One is theological and the other is practical. The theological argument I make in the book—and this actually dovetails I think very well with some of the discussions in the first session today—is that one of the strengths of traditional Christian doctrine—and I’m using “traditional” in a very broad way to encompass both Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox as well—has been its comfort with paradox. I won’t use the word “mystery” maybe because that was getting a bad rap earlier, but the idea that it’s important for religious tradition to be able to say “both/and” rather than “either/or.” I think you can see this most clearly obviously in what Christians have traditionally tried to do with the doctrine of the Trinity, with the question of Jesus—you know, who is Jesus Christ, is He God, is He man, how does that fit together?—but I think it also shows up in Christian attitudes towards the moral life, towards our common life together and these endless debates about is it divine grace versus is it works, how are people saved and how do we fit those two things together. I think the willingness to not just be a logic chopper, you might say, and not say—well, take the question of salvation. You can say, “Well, it has to be grace and because it has to be grace we don’t need to worry about works,” and so on. Well, if you say that where does it get you? Well, maybe it gets you where the Oneida community ended up or something where it doesn’t matter who sleeps with who because God forgives all and we won’t have bodies in the next life anyway.
But take something like Alcoholics Anonymous, right? And this is where I guess I’ll try to make a bridge from the theological to the practical. Alcoholics Anonymous is, in a sense, a Christian ministry that’s all about letting go and letting God and recognizing the necessity of grace, the necessity of recognizing a higher power, a higher authority and so on in order to deal with your addiction. Which I think is a sort of useful stand-in for the broader Christian attitude towards sin, something that is inside you that you cannot escape from and need to recognize a higher authority in order to confront.
At the same time, Alcoholics Anonymous is an institution that succeeds by asking real effort of people. It’s not something that says, well, you let go, you let God, and then we don’t care if you come to meetings. No, they care if you come to meetings. And you have a sponsor and you are morally accountable. So I think in that microcosm you can see how that both/and can fit together and also how it can fit together in ways that can have very positive practical moral consequences for people’s lives. I don’t think Alcoholics Anonymous would be as successful as it had been if it did not combine both of those elements in a way, a strong emphasis on grace and a strong emphasis on works. I don’t think you have to believe in the Christian God in order to see the efficacy of that combination.
So what I define as bad religion in a sense is approaches to religion that want to pursue one idea to its logical conclusion to the exclusion of others. In the case of Joel Osteen, for instance , Joel Osteen has a very powerful, very appealing message and that message is God loves you and wants you to be happy. That’s part of the Christian message. It’s a big part of the Christian message, but there’s also another part of the Christian message and it’s related to the cross, right. God loves you and wants you to be happy but, oh, by the way, sometimes you have to take up your cross and follow me and sometimes God’s love expresses itself through what seems like terribly unjust forms of suffering. Sometimes you’re Mother Teresa and you experience a “dark night of the soul” where you don’t feel God’s presence for decades and decades on end.
You don’t get that from Osteen. And what I think is bad about that is—and we’ll get very practical now – you read Osteen’s books and he’s not like an over-the-top prosperity preacher, he’s not like, “God wants you to have five million dollars and drive around in a Rolls Royce.” But I don’t think it’s hard at all to make the leap from what Joel Osteen says about your finances to the decisions that millions of Americans made about their homes and their loans and everything else over the past ten years. Obviously there were a lot of factors at work in our financial bubble and nobody was reading Joel Osteen in the corner office of Lehman Brothers, I imagine. Hanna Rosen wrote a very good piece in The Atlantic about four or five years ago and it had a sort of over-the-top title, “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” Well, no, Christianity didn’t cause the crash. But what she did was go, not to Joel Osteen, but to a sort of semi-Pentecostal church that caters to recent Hispanic immigrants in a sort of—I forget exactly. It might have been Virginia but it was a suburb—it was Charlottesville, Virginia, and listen to the preaching and listen to how the preacher there talks about wealth and talks about real estate and talks about what God wants for your life. And, again, the message, it’s not wrong. Right? It’s not wrong to say God loves you and wants you to be happy. But when that is so easily translated into “just think in the supernatural and put one percent down on the house and God will bless you,” I think, yeah, I think that’s bad religion, so—and here endeth the sermon.
MR. CROMARTIE: And I’m sure it will come up again. Franklin Graham.
DR. WACKER: So we go from bad religion to Franklin Graham. Okay.
Let me put this briefly. I think that Franklin Graham is a culture warrior and Billy is not and that’s the shorthand version of it. I’ll try to be concise about this. There’s no question that Graham identified with political figures and with presidents increasingly explicitly from ‘52 till ‘74. It was a slow evolution and it wasn’t exactly partisan because he was very close to Lyndon Johnson. I think I can make a case that his closest friend ever was Lyndon Johnson, but he became increasingly identified with presidents and publicly with their agendas, although in some cases he resisted that identification with particular agendas but on the whole this is what happened.
Then he got burned very badly with Nixon and, as one of his associates said, Billy never had any idea how badly Nixon snookered him. And he was bitterly disillusioned and it was I think primarily because—well, what happened was Nixon showed Graham the fallibility of his own judgment. He trusted people, he was very good at hiring associates many of whom stayed with him for more than 50 years, and then Nixon disappointed him so deeply.
So from ‘74 on we see him strenuously moving away from partisan politics. And I can hardly count the number of times that he said in print that he regretted his identification with Nixon, with partisanship and he urged younger Christians, especially evangelists, not to follow his path.
So that was part of it. Now, he did fall off the wagon a couple of times in a couple of ways and that’s part of the naivety that I’d talked about earlier. He showed up at breakfast with George W. Bush on the morning of the election in 2000 and reporters were there snapping pictures and someone said, “Well, you said you’re not partisan.” He said, “Well, I was just having breakfast with him.” And he didn’t really have a sense of the power of his own presence as a legitimating force, but I mean that’s a matter of falling off the wagon. This was not the usual pattern.
He explicitly distanced himself from Falwell and from Pat Robertson. He said, “I admire many of the things they stand for but,” he said, “I don’t like the way they get involved in partisanship” and he also told Laurie Goodstein, he said, “You don’t hear much from them about poverty and hunger in the rest of the world.”
But there’s more to it, Sally, in that his whole style which really came to the fore after the ‘70s was a deep conviction that the way you get things done is by talking with people than coercing them. So he was often criticized for what seemed to be his reluctance to endorse legislation. It depends on what the particular issue was. It changed from one issue to another. But the more fundamental issue is that he was fundamentally convinced that you get things accomplished by persuading people with a word in the ear.
And finally, I would say when he was criticized as he often was even in the latter part of his life for not challenging presidents publicly his response was, “If you do that, you don’t get invited back to the White House.” Now, you can be cynical about it and say, well, he was looking for a free bed in the White House, but his point was, you don’t have any audience at all if you alienate and if you publicly disparage people then you’ll have no way to make any changes. So that was his style.
Franklin. He’s a culture warrior and his words after 9/11 and Billy’s words are highly symptomatic. After 9/11 we all know what Franklin said about Islam, it’s a terrible religion. And then again Laurie Goodstein interviewed the senior Graham and said, “What do you think of your son’s words?” and Billy said, “Well, on some issues Franklin and I disagree.” Well, actually the way he put it, he said, “Franklin has his opinion and I have my opinion. On some issues we disagree.” And I think he disagrees substantively but it was also a question of a style of working with people rather than bludgeoning them.
Now, having said that, I will also have to give Franklin credit on his work with Samaritan’s Purse which seems to me to be one of the major, major philanthropic endeavors around the world and that’s a whole another story and this is part of the complexity of Franklin Graham is the work that Samaritan’s Purse does without regard to whether they’re a Muslim country or Christian country.
MR. CROMARTIE: Right. Okay. David Brooks.
MR. BROOKS: It’s a little off point now. Well, it goes back to what other people were saying. You mentioned, Grant, that Graham was a public vehicle for private pain and I wanted to ask you what his message was, what the sort of the moral tenor of his message was in response to those cries of pain. I was hoping you could frame it along the continuum of moral realists over here, the Niebuhrs and such, and then maybe the positive thinking people over here, Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, maybe Joel Osteen. Where was Graham on this continuum and do you think there’s been a shift in American Christianity along this continuum over the last 30 years.
DR. WACKER: Yeah.
MR. BROOKS: And that’s for both of you.
DR. WACKER: Yeah, that’s a great one.
MR. BROOKS: Professor Douthat as well as Grant.
DR. WACKER: The letters that came in, every letter that came in received a response and obviously not a personal response. People had to know that if letters were coming in at the rate of 10,000 a day he’s not going to be able to read and respond to them and yet you get these personal comments like “Please do not show this letter to Cliff Barrows.” What’s wrong with Cliff Barrows? He’s a song leader. So many of them have a sense that he is personally reading it but I think probably the majority know better. But the responses that went out were often just evangelical boilerplate, that the Bible teaches this and here’s what you need to do. But I would say and I haven’t yet tabulated this, David, but it’s something I am going to do very carefully. A remarkable number of the responses—and my sense is that probably a majority of them were just strikingly common sense. And one of the phrases that often appears in the responses was “You cannot unscramble eggs” and this would come when people who talked about marriages that had gotten messed up and what do we do. I see this as so American, I mean, it’s just so practical, so American to take the reality where it is and now we’re going to deal with it. And dealing with it involved conversion, faith, affiliation with a congregation, devotion, prayer and so forth. But, again, just take the reality as it is. And then there are just a lot of practical solutions: talk to your children; talk to your teenagers; straighten out your own life.
So I haven’t seen the Oprah responses so I don’t know, but I have read Bob Orsi on the letters that were written to Saint Jude. And not as great a number but still a tremendous number and it does strike me that there is more of a traditionalist theological component along with that common sense component and does not get into the kind of therapeutic culture that we see so much later on.
MR. DOUTHAT: Yes. Just briefly, Professor Brooks.
MR. BROOKS: That’s Herr Professor Brooks to you.
MR. DOUTHAT: Our office dynamics are fascinating. My sense of what has changed over the last 50 years is less that—I think this is an important distinction that maybe I don’t emphasize adequately—but it is less that we have more therapeutic voices and more that we have fewer nontherapeutic voices. So you mentioned Norman Vincent Peale. I think if you go back to mid-century religion, you have plenty of people making the kind of arguments in different forms that an Osteen might make today, that a Deepak Chopra might make today and so on. The current in American religion Sydney Alstrom, the historian of American religion calls it the “harmonial element in American faith”—where the idea is that the most important thing is to just sort of harmonize yourself with the universe and then issues of whether it’s theological detail on the one hand or sort of specific moral guidelines on the other are less important than your orientation towards God and the universe—that has always been a huge part of American religion.
What I think is striking over the last few decades is the extent to which counterweights to that have weakened as institutions that help provide those counterweights have declined. And this goes back in a way to Sally’s question, too, because when I talk about Christian orthodoxy and so on, I don’t want to make the case that it would be a great thing to live in a world where there were only institutional expressions of religion, only sort of, very rigorous and traditionalist Christian orthodoxy of a Protestant or Catholic stripe. I think the genius of American religion has always been this sort of creative tension between these different forces: institutional faith on the one hand, religious freelancers on the other hand; the kingdom of the cults versus the Protestant mainline, you might say, and so on. When I’m talking critically about our current religious moment the argument isn’t that all we need is religious orthodoxy. It’s that just that just as orthodoxy without room for heresy is dangerous, so too heresy that doesn’t have orthodoxy to push off against and be tested by and so on is dangerous as well.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. Paul Edwards and then Bill Galston and then Claire. But, Paul, you’re up.
PAUL EDWARDS, Deseret News: Grant, I was interested in your description of Graham as an orchestrator of this parallel evangelical culture. And you mentioned a number of the different cultural organs that he puts together so there is campus ministries, and there’s filmmaking, and there’s journalism. And I’m just wondering are there any strategic lessons to be learned from that? I mean, my guess is much of this was somewhat intuitive the way he put it together but is there any sort of optimal mix or some way in which they are mutually reinforcing as a way of helping to develop this kind of culture. And I’m going to toss this over to Ross as well. I mean, in thinking a bit about what you say about the disintegration of the Christian consensus. But, you know, were there certain things that needed to be in place first before you move to another step and any strategic lessons to be learned from what Graham did?
DR. WACKER: That’s a great question. Well, as I intimated, he was clear that he thought that his founding of Christianity Today was very important. And he talked about his crusades and also “Millions come to the crusades and hear me,” but he said, “Words are evanescent. Words are forgotten unless they are printed,” and so they put a lot of money into both Decision Magazine, which he saw as a devotional version of Christianity Today and to other publications. But that one publication which flourishes now and once had a circulation of close to 200,000. It’s one of the major voices of modern American Christianity. Okay. That’s one point.
The second is that he was attentive and listened to businesspeople. His board was stocked with people who were successful, had been extremely successful in the business world and he took them seriously. That’s part of the untold story of the Billy Graham ministry is the role of businessmen including Mormons. Marriott. J. Willard Marriott. We’re talking about Graham’s ecumenism. He reached out to and incorporated Mormons along with Catholics and to a lesser extent with Jews, but he took very seriously the wisdom that came from the businesspeople and he listened to his board with the businessmen there and their savvy.
So I would say those are the two main things. And then he was just on the cutting edge., with satellite technology, land relays, everything that came along in the realm of electronic communications, they were on the cutting edge.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. Ross?
MR. DOUTHAT: I actually weirdly have very strong views on that question, because I think one of the interesting things about the current moment is that American evangelicalism learned the lessons of Billy Graham’s career a little bit too well. Everything that Graham did, the emphasis on para-church ministries rather than specific denominations, the quest to found institutions like Christianity Today, like Fuller Theological Seminary and so on helped to provide a kind of a new beginning for American evangelicals after this endless sectarian feuding of the fundamentalist wilderness years. All of that was hugely important to the success of evangelicalism mid- century and afterward – and to the extent to which the evangelical churches were the only part of American Christianity that didn’t experience this huge crisis in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
The problem is that I think on all of those fronts, what was necessary in 1950 might be problematic in 2000 or 2010. And when I look around the evangelical landscape today I see a community that is in need of churches more than para-churches, and of stronger confessional groups that are clearer on what they believe. I think you can see this in the mega church phenomenon, which for a long time has been a sign of the robust health of American evangelicalism. But it’s also problematic because it makes your religion dependent on super-star pastors, on particular charisms and ministries and so on that can burn out very quickly once the pastor himself burns out.
So what Graham supplied to evangelicals was what evangelicals desperately needed in 1947 and 1957. But today in terms of figuring out, well, okay, how do we take American evangelicalism and equip it for more enduring survival? I have a line in the book that’s sort of silly but I say, Campus Crusade for Christ is incredibly successful. It’s an evangelical group that’s been ministering on campuses that I believe started in the same period as these other groups. But you can’t raise a family as members of Campus Crusade for Christ. (Or I mean, you can … but it would be a little weird.) Or similarly a group like Promise Keepers that was big ten years ago and Promise Keepers was hugely successful … but you can’t raise your daughter as a Promise Keeper. (Again, you can but it’s a little weird.)
So I think this is the big challenge faced by evangelicalism today is it’s had 40 years of nondenominational success but maybe what it needs now is a little more denominationalism and a little more confessionalism than what Graham supplied to it.
MR. CROMARTIE: Before we go to Bill Galston, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary has a short intervention.
RICHARD MOUW, Fuller Theological Semiary: Just an observation.
MR. DOUTHAT: This is like that Woody Allen moment where Marshall McLuhan is literally in the movie line.
DR. MOUW: I think one thing that gets lost in that, Ross, is the whole business of how people get credentialed for the magisterium and evangelicalism as opposed to other—I mean, you get Chuck Colson. You get Phil Yancey. You get the editors of Christianity Today. No one knows what churches they belong to. In fact, a lot of people don’t know what church Billy Graham—a lot of people don’t know that Pat Robertson was Southern Baptist. And, you know, we think of them as Pentecostal but his ordination was in the Southern Baptist Church. You know, we’re seeing a little shift in that with Rick Warren and with Willow Creek but even those don’t have denominations. And I’m just wondering if you look at what’s happened to denominational leadership why would you wish that on us, you know?
“I think the genius of American religion has always been this creative tension between these different forces: institutional faith on the one hand, religious freelancers on the other hand, the kingdom of the cults versus the Protestant mainline.”
MR. DOUTHAT: This may be my Catholic biases showing through, which is always possible, but when I look at the landscape, two things show up. One is that I think a lot of conservative evangelicals have reason and good reason to be skeptical of the theological directions that some of the younger, again, sort of self-credentialed evangelical mega-church pastors are taking. And here I’m thinking of, say, a figure like Rob Bell, the author of the best-selling book Love Wins, which was a critique of the traditional Christian doctrine of hell. I think there is a danger that if you don’t have some sort of confessional grounding – and with the Graham generation, yes, people didn’t know necessarily what denomination they belonged to and that was very helpful to their ministry, but they did come of age in a more denominational context so you had more of a confessional grounding than the generation that comes of age after them and the generation after that. And the further you get from a confessional grounding the easier it becomes to just recreate in the evangelical world what I think already—I mean, I think one of the reasons that mainline denominational Christianity collapsed was not because it was too denominational and confessional; quite the reverse. It was because in the ‘60s and ‘70s those churches decided that denominational identity was a barrier to Christian unity and, what was the line, creeds divide, deeds unite or something like that and—
DR. MOUW: Doctrine divides and—
MR. DOUTHAT: Right. But that ended up being disastrous for the mainline. And I think you can imagine something similar happening in the evangelical world absent at least some purchase in something other than sort of purely personality-based form of ministry.
The other thing is just it’s exhausting as a Christian body to have to recreate yourself completely in every generation. And as many disadvantages and corruptions as are associated with sort of confessions and institutions and all the rest there is also an advantage in, over generations, over decades and centuries and so on. I think the story of the last 2,000 years suggest that institutional churches play a very important role is making Christianity something other than just a temporary enthusiasm.
The Methodist church, for instance, begins in enthusiasm but it endures—and maybe it won’t endure forever, but it endures as an institution and I think that there are lessons in that story for evangelicals today.
MR. CROMARTIE: I imagine the historian of American evangelicalism might have a comment or two on this. Grant?
DR. WACKER: Well, my colleague Stanley Hauerwas likes to say that long after Christianity is dead and gone, the United Methodist Church will still be going.
MR. DOUTHAT: A fair point.
MR. CROMARTIE: Bill Galston, give us your comments on this theological complexity.
DR. WILLIAM GALSTON, The Brookings Institution: I can’t help you there. I have versions of the same question for Grant, for Ross. I can state my question to Grant very simply. You know, Ross has offered a narrative. I won’t go so far as to say that it’s a classic decline and fall narrative, but it certainly is a narrative of decline and he’s given his particular story as to why that happened.
And so my question to you would be to what extent you agree with that narrative and where you might disagree. To help you out, I’ll now turn to Ross and say that as I heard you, religion was in one condition at maybe 1940s, 1950s. Take it as a point of departure. Then four big things happened. You listed them. And as a result of that, there’s now a lot more bad religion than there used to be and it’s having pernicious consequences. That’s the narrative that I heard. You can correct me if I’m wrong.
And the four things that you listed were polarization and the sexual revolution and the growth of wealth and therefore temptation, you know, not to adopt a religious vocation and finally globalization, de-colonization, white man’s guilt, and all of that.
Now, if I’d been telling the story I certainly would have included those items but if what is to be explained is bad religion as you defined it in your book at length, I’m sure, and then more briefly in your response to Sally, I would have put some other things on the table, too, so just let me do it.
First of all, I think you’ve underplayed the growth of the therapeutic mentality. In my judgment, the single most prophetic book of the past 60 years was Phillip Reiff’s book The Triumph of the Therapeutic.
MR. CROMARTIE: It’s in the book.
DR. GALSTON: Yeah. Well, I’m sorry. Since I haven’t yet read the book but I really think it’s not that the therapeutic has remained stable but the bad stuff has—I think there’s a lot more therapeutically-infused religion than there was 50 years ago and that cannot be good for religion.
Secondly, I think there’s a broad cultural phenomenon that you underplay and that is the fracturing of culture into high and low, the disappearance of the middle ground of culture. And if you want to conduct a very interesting experiment pick an issue of Time magazine at random from 1955 and compare it to the Time magazine of today and see what you see. In other words, there’s been a real collapse of middle and high cult has immigrated into the academy and low cult has taken over the popular organs and the middle is conspicuous by its absence and that middle is where a lot of not-so-bad religion dwelled.
Third point, the growth of individualism necessarily comes at the expense of institutions and the hyper-individualization of American society all by itself could have done a lot to undermine these institutions.
And then finally, four and five, there has been a huge growth of the spirit of non-judgmentalism in American society. About the worst thing you can say about anybody or any institution is that it’s judgmental.
Well, religion that doesn’t make judgments is not much of a religion. And I’ve seen this up close in my own synagogue when the rabbi even very delicately tries to apply some classic Jewish principles to the conduct of the community, he’s basically told to get lost and if he persists in his error perhaps to get lost for good. And there is no appetite or tolerance left for moral leadership in religion defined as criticism of the religious community.
And finally I think I’ve been around long enough to say this. I have never seen on all points of the political spectrum such hostility to elites and anyone who claims a position of any kind of authority including intellectual or moral authority. Well, how the hell can you have a viable religious institution if it is dominated by contempt for anything that could be represented as elitism? So it seems to me that in addition to these four tectonic changes that you listed that there are all those huge changes in American culture that have contributed at least as much to the growth of bad religion—
MR. CROMARTIE: You were too optimistic, Ross.
MR. DOUTHAT: Once again, I’m guilty. Let me just say something—
MR. CROMARTIE: Look, everything—a lot of what Bill just said is in here.
MR. DOUTHAT: Yes. No, I was going to say that.
MR. CROMARTIE: I wanted to say it for you.
MR. DOUTHAT: Okay. I appreciate it. This is why 41 percent of my sales—
MR. CROMARTIE: We have a copy of the book for you.
MR. DOUTHAT:—are now attributed to Mike.
MR. CROMARTIE: It’s in there.
MR. DOUTHAT: It is in there and I agree with probably 97 percent of what you just said and I guess I didn’t want to be—I mean, you can only be so pessimistic in one book and I’ll have to write another book in order to add on the layers of pessimism to your account.
I will say one thing I tried to do in the book to avoid what I think is a temptation for people of my general religio-political orientation is to avoid blaming—and I’m sure I did some of this, but to avoid blaming the trends that I’m decrying on specific noxious individuals who were the snakes in the garden of mid-century religion. So for instance, I don’t spend a lot of time talking about how Kinsey and Gloria Steinem and Erica Jong came along and seduced America away from good middle-class values or something.
So on the question of something like therapeutic religion—I have an entire chapter on therapeutic religion, but it is in the second half of the book, because that is a case where I’m talking about the particular people more than tectonic trends. What I try and do in the book is use those four factors—and I agree with you that there are many more—to explain why therapeutic religion became more powerful, more influential, why did what Rieff saw coming turn out to be exactly right. It’s really amazing to go back and read the Triumph of the Therapeutic, because he’s basically predicting the rise of reality television at one point, where he’s talking about how modern civilization will mount psycho dramas the way we used to mount miracle plays and so on.
So I completely agree with you but I think that I tried—maybe not always successfully—to sort of separate really structural forces from the theological trends that arose from the forces. So similarly something like nonjudgementalism—when I talk about globalization, de-colonization, the sense of theological relativism that comes out of those experiences I’m trying to explain where today’s spirit of nonjudgmentalism comes from in a way. And I think that that experience of the loss of Western credibility, the way Christianity was deservedly associated with those experiences does go some distance towards explaining why people are so nervous about being too judgmental today. But anyway, obviously it’s all a much bigger story even than the probably too-big-for-one-book story that I try to tell.
MR. CROMARTIE: All right. And then the question for Grant. Do you remember it?
MR. DOUTHAT: Yes. Why am I wrong? What did you—what do you think I get wrong? Wasn’t that the question or what—or why am I right about everything?
DR. GALSTON: What’s your view of what Ross said?
DR. WACKER: Well, let me go that circuitously. I’m puzzled about a lot of things about the grand phenomenon and what it says about America and begin by acknowledging that Graham was not a theologian. He was the first to say so and if you listen to his sermons you’ll find that ratified.
And yet the word that keeps coming back to me or words, the kind of words that keep coming back to me were savvy, canny. One of my students wrote in a paper “he knew where the bodies lay.” I think the heart of Bill’s question is he had a sense for how to combine—and I’ll mix metaphors here—both exclusion and inclusion. Sermons always included the judgmental part. There always is God’s judgment and either explicitly stated or between the lines God is not a God to be toyed with and sin is sin. All right.
But then as soon as he had said that, then he moved to this inclusive call. God’s love and the new life in Christ, the transformation of life and everlasting hope. All right. And what I think is just remarkable as I listen to these sermons, either the old tape-recordings or just read them, but especially in the tape-recording because the tonality of the language it comes through is this combination. And it was never always one or the other. It was never all hell fire. It was never all inclusion, but keeping it together.
Now, as the years went on the balance shifted and it became increasingly an emphasis upon the inclusive character, but the judgmental never evaporates. I didn’t think he put it together this way but as I see it as an analyst of what was going on in his American life I think that was the genius of it. The combination of judgment with the inclusion. And what we see in Osteen is there’s no longer a combination. It’s entirely inclusion and uplift.
And I’d like to comment on a couple of other aspects of Bill’s question and then I want to ask Ross a question myself in that you spoke of middle cult and you referred to Time magazine. And, again, what’s important in my story is the role of the press. And if you had to isolate any one person who is responsible for Graham’s rise it’d be Henry Luce. And they weren’t close friends but he met Luce. Luce liked him. He liked Luce and Time boosted him. And it was the message of Graham as mediated in Time magazine and other magazines of that what you’re calling middle-cult character. That was the key. And I could replicate this with a lot of other examples.
But my question on to Ross is this. It maybe goes back—I can’t remember if it was Sally or Bill had asked this, where is Ross wrong. As I look at the whole story of religion in the last half of the 20th Century it strikes me that three of the most influential figures are Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, and John Paul II and they’re the ones that endure generation after generation. In all sorts of discussions. And what has puzzled me is how it happens that in this—what do we call it—both secular age and therapeutic age that we still keep going back to these three people as pole stars in many ways. And you write about Fulton Sheen but he doesn’t have quite the luster I think of those other three which, that luster is not dimmed. Even up to today.
MR. DOUTHAT: Yes. And that may go to Kirsten’s question in a sense. For people who are interested in the future of a more theologically serious or at least just morally serious approach to religious faith in general and Christianity in particular, that may be reason for hope, right—that even in an era of institutional weakness and sort of therapeutic religious culture and so on, the examples of something different, something at least somewhat better still have the power to command attention and respect.
The only thing I’d say that probably roots my pessimism a little is the particular experience of my own Catholic Church. I became a Catholic when I was 17 so I’m in the unusual position of being neither a cradle Catholic nor a true adult convert, but I came into the Catholic church at sort of the high point of John Paul II’s luster. It was the period after the fall of Communism but a period when there was I think increasing attention being played to the role that he had played in that story. It was sort of a period when at least for conservative Catholics—and I was in obviously a circle of pretty conservative Catholics—there was a sense that the pope’s talk about sort of a new springtime for Catholicism and for Christianity and so on in the 21st Century was really going to bear real fruit.
And then came the sex abuse crisis. And I do think the sex abuse crisis dimmed John Paul’s luster and in fact, I think it may not have dimmed it as much as it should have. This is a place where I and George Weigel, who’s been at these events before, somewhat differ. But I think that that experience and some of the underlying weaknesses—I side with John Paul II broadly in the big sort of intra-Catholic debates of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, but I think it’s also clear that whatever Roman Catholicism in the United States needs over the next 100 years, what John Paul II accomplished was insufficient to achieve that future. And I’m not sure what will achieve that future but that is—I agree with you, in the case of the last pope in particular I think the experience of the last ten years, sex abuse and the broader sense of institutional disillusion in the post-John Paul American church has made me a little more pessimistic than I would have been as a college-age conservative Catholic.
MR. CROMARTIE: Tom, you’re up and then Dan.
TOM KRATTENMAKER, USA Today: I want to ask about the Q conference. If I’m correct, you shared the stage there just a couple of weeks ago.
MR. CROMARTIE: Indeed, we did.
MR. KRATTENMAKER: I would like to hear your impressions of Q but then more important maybe a comment on the larger movement that it represents. Would you term it something meaningful or maybe temporary enthusiasm?
MR. DOUTHAT: So the Q conference for those of you who don’t know, I don’t know if it explicitly bills itself as the evangelical answer to the TED conference, but it is the evangelical answer to the TED conference, right. Is that fair? It is sort of a—
MR. CROMARTIE: Yeah.
MR. DOUTHAT: Why don’t you—can you just give it a better description?
MR. CROMARTIE: No, no. That’s a good one. It’s called Q Ideas.
MR. DOUTHAT: Right. But it’s people, mostly evangelicals, presenting sort of their particular ideas. It’s a lot of short talks. People talking about different ministries and so on and I’m by no means an expert on [that]. I had never heard of the Q conference, I should say, before I was kindly invited to talk there, but it does seem like one of the fullest expressions that I’ve seen of a sort of post-Robertson, Falwell, younger generation evangelical approach to Christianity that someone like Mike Gerson has spent a lot of time writing about over the last decade or so, but very focused on issues related to the third world, to poverty, to sustainability, the environment and so on.
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: Ross, isn’t it experiencing an affluent, upscale W hotel—
MR. DOUTHAT: Yes. It is not a Franciscan Mendicant poverty. I said it was the evangelical answer to the TED—
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: A lot of good food and—
MR. DOUTHAT: I mean, would say it’s a mix of—yeah. I mean, it is obviously mostly affluent people but it’s often—
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: Tickets to TED cost $6,000.
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: Yeah, it’s not like that.
MR. DOUTHAT: It’s not like $6,000 to—
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: It’s not that far over.
MR. DOUTHAT: Right.
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: You have a lot of people speaking there who are in ministry.
MR. DOUTHAT: Right. It seemed like a lot of people that probably come from upper middle-class background. They’re hip, right. It’s not an evangelical answer to Davos. Let me put it that way.
So this is an evangelicalism that is sort of clearly theologically conservative in some ways and socially conservative in some ways but is much more apolitical than the previous generation, undoubtedly if you polled people there on gay marriage, for instance, you would undoubtedly find a more moderate to left wing [composition]. At least part of the attendees would have those views, right?
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: 60/40. He had a poll in the beginning.
MR. DOUTHAT: Oh, he did? What was the breakdown?
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: It was like 60 Republican, 40 Democratic. It was pretty—
MR. DOUTHAT: Right. So it’s a—yes. And so that’s sort of one of the areas of excitement and interest in American young evangelicalism today.
MR. CROMARTIE: There were about 800 people there in this big auditorium in D.C. and this is the fifth time they’ve done it.
MR. DOUTHAT: I think the question for that approach is that the story of liberal Christianity, liberal, especially Protestant but also Catholic Christianity in the ‘60s and ‘70s is in part a story of high hopes for a Christianity focused on transforming the world that could move beyond faded institutions and have a lot of house churches and sort of reconnect with the original enthusiasm of the gospels. Liberal Christianity starts with those hopes and it ends up with a lot of disappointment, and I think it ended up with a lot of disappointment because in the process of trying to adapt itself to this new landscape it sort of adapted itself too far away from core Christian claims And I think the trends that you see at work among younger evangelicals at a place like Q are in a way tremendously hopeful for the future of an evangelical witness that can do I think what Grant was describing and marry an inclusive and nonpartisan vision to an authentically religious message.
MR. CROMARTIE: Dr. Mouw would be impressed that at every table there was a book of readings by Abraham Kuyper and that the favorite pastor of Q people is really Tim Keller.
DR. MOUW: Yeah.
MR. CROMARTIE: So that may well give the hedges to it not being theologically loose.
MR. DOUTHAT: Right. But the danger is just that in adaptation, any tradition has to adapt. But the question is, when does adaptation shade into adapting yourself out of existence. So when I look at that movement that’s what I wonder about and I wonder [similarly whether] it overlaps probably to some extent with the emergent church or maybe it—
MR. CROMARTIE: No, it doesn’t.
MR. DOUTHAT: It doesn’t. Okay. Well, when I look at the emergent church movement in evangelicalism which has at least a somewhat similar approach in certain ways that’s what I wonder about. Are you creating a successful new approach or are you just going to end up where the Episcopal Church ended up by 1985 when its membership collapsed and—
MR. CROMARTIE: When we meet here again in 30 years we’re going to bring up the question of what happened to Q and all of you will be invited. Dan Harris is up next.
DAN HARRIS, ABC News: Actually, Sally asked my question but I was interested in hearing you guys riff on Joel Osteen. If you have further thoughts on that—actually, you didn’t weigh in on it but I’m particularly interested in him and if there’s anything new you had to say. I’d be interested to hear it. If not, I defer to others.
DR. WACKER: Not on Joel Osteen, per se, but here I’ll rely on the work of a former doctoral student and now my new colleague, a woman named Catherine Bowler who has written a wonderful dissertation, a book coming out that is very helpful to me. And she studied Osteen and the Osteen community as well as Kenneth Hagin and many of the other prosperity evangelists.
MR. CROMARTIE: When does the book come out?
DR. WACKER: In the fall. It’s being published by Oxford and it has just a one-word title and it is Blessed. And her argument is that the prosperity gospel is on the whole not about financial prosperity; what it’s on the whole about is spiritual prosperity and even more healing, families, the formation of communities of support, and resources for one another. And it’s a very compelling story particularly as she looks at prosperity preachers on the ground. And even with the ones who I would have a lot of difficulty with, such as Benny Hinn and the men and women who affiliate with him, again, with her interviews—it’s a deeply ethnographic book—with her interviews what keeps coming through is that money is more or less incidental to the family, to the healing. I don’t mean family in the sense that the LDS might think of it, but to the kind of creation of a family feeling of mutual support for one another.
So that’s my only comment about Osteen and my feeling is that probably both evangelical and mainline theologians are too quick to dismiss the entire prosperity gospel because we get sidetracked on the explicit message without gaining a sense of the tensile strength of what happens within the constituency.
MR. HARRIS: And she’s talking more about the message as it’s received as—
DR. WACKER: Exactly, exactly. The message as it is received and lived and internalized and—
MR. HARRIS: Well, if you listen to Creflo Dollar—
MR. DOUTHAT: Well, Creflo—
MR. HARRIS: He’s really explicit, especially in the early days. I mean—
MR. DOUTHAT: But this is why Osteen is such an interesting figure because he’s doing multiple different things and he isn’t just standing up and saying, you know, God wants you to be rich and here’s my Rolls Royce that proves it. Sally, you probably have more to say about this because you’ve interviewed him but I would say that in the book I’ve written I’m obviously very critical of figures like Osteen. But I completely agree. Actually it is a much more I think theologically subtle and theologically appealing message than both secular liberals and more traditional Christians give it credit for and it wouldn’t have the appeal it does if it didn’t contain real subtleties as well.
DR. WACKER: Well, Dan used the word “received” and I would use a similar word, as it’s experienced—
MR. DOUTHAT: Right.
DR. WACKER:—at the grass roots levels. I mean, that’s the story that needs to be told that Kate has—she goes by Kate—and Kate is beginning to tell that and I think that’s the step that historians and sociologists and anthropologists of religions now need to take.
MS. QUINN: Can I just respond to the Osteen?
MR. CROMARTIE: Quickly, quickly, Sally.
MS. QUINN: Yes. I specifically asked him last week about the prosperity gospel and it was the one time I’ve ever seen him get upset. And he said, “I’m not out there saying if you believe in Jesus Christ you’re going to get rich. That is so not what we’re talking about here.” He’s talking about what you say that Bowler is saying about which is that you’ll be spiritually rich. There are others out there who preach what they call prosperity gospel, which is if you believe in Jesus Christ, you’ll get rich. I mean, that is an actual thing that is going on, but I don’t think that Osteen is—it’s not part of his message.
MR. DOUTHAT: But I would just say that I was more sympathetic towards him when I only had read the books that he wrote in the mid-2000s and then when I read his book that came out as a direct response to the recession I felt that this sort of prosperity side of the message was much balder and to me more offensive and that made me less favorably disposed than I had been five or seven years ago.
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: If you look at it he’s becoming more of a prosperity—
MR. DOUTHAT: I mean, he’s—
MS. QUINN: No, he backed off that.
MR. DOUTHAT: He’s backed off. But at least in his initial reaction to the setbacks he was—and again, it’s why the message has appeal, right? It’s like at the moment when people are most worried about their finances it makes sense that you would want to say something that directly addresses their finances. But the way that he addressed it in that, I think it was the book that came out in ‘09 or something that kicked off his last tour was I think much balder in saying, “You’re down now but you just need to think in the supernatural and God will give you increase,” and so on.
MR. CROMARTIE: Okay. We’ve got Cullen Murphy and Reihan and then Rich Mouw and we’re done.
CULLEN MURPHY, Vanity Fair: I thought somebody by now was going to ask you for all the off-the-record bits, but I’m not going to. But there was something else you said, Grant, that I wanted to ask about. When you were talking about the responses from Billy Graham to all the letters that he gets and I think what you said was, I see this as so American when you were describing the kind of advice that was given.
And, you know, there’s a tendency of all religions to become imbedded, I mean, because they are imbedded, in the cultures that they inhabit and to take on some of those characteristics. And I think it was Alan Wolfe who talked about the tendency of all American denominations to become over time kind of congregational. And so when I look at American religion today and also at the country that it’s imbedded in, it doesn’t surprise me, for instance, that my own religion, Catholicism, and many evangelical denominations don’t seem all that humble because the country that they’re in has a tendency towards a kind of can-do optimistic, not very humble attitude.
And someone like me kind of counts on religion for humility as one of the great things it brings to the table. And I wonder if there’s a way out of this box in a sense or perhaps it’s not a problem but I’d be interested in knowing what you think.
DR. WACKER: Oh, send you a check, a thank you. I’m not going to, but I ought to do because it’s an incredibly important point in trying to understand the phenomenon of Graham in American life. I could still figure out a way to get into this title but this is a religion of a second chance and I mean, so deeply imbedded in all these letters is a kind of desperate cry for a second chance. And this is what comes back in the responses is that there’s another chance. And I said it’s so American because, I mean, this is what William Jennings Bryan was about. There’s a second chance in the political realm. And following up on the two most prominent evangelists at least within a Protestant sphere before Graham were Aimee Simple McPherson and Billy Sunday. And, again, these are religious messages of a second chance but far more so with Graham. And so there’s a possibility of rebuilding one’s life. And so in one sense we get this entrepreneurial thrust as you’re suggesting, Cullen, which is expansive and it’s broad-shouldered and muscular and all this gender language we could use but at the same time there is a humility that has to be built in or that is built in that we’ve run amok. Our lives have run against the shoals. They’re on the rocks and things have to be rebuilt and part of that rebuilding is the humility of asking and acknowledging who we are and what’s happened in our lives in order to rebuild.
Now, that’s all one cluster of issues, but at a more personal level with Graham I think it’s just overwhelming when you look at his personal comments and reports of journalists that go to visit him is they come back with reports of a humility.
Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, who I’ve never met and I’m sure some of you have from Time, introduced their book by saying, “When you go to visit Graham the sincerity is like paint stripper,” and said, “you just come away just with this sense of this person of this extraordinary humility,” which they inter-use humility and sincerity interchangeably.
Now, why I think that’s important in a broader sense is the press reports on it then whatever the personal characteristic is, it’s amplified and so it seems to me that that’s a feeling that the broader population also understands and esteems as important.
MR. CROMARTIE: Reihan, you’re up.
REIHAN SALAM, The Daily: Rod Dreher a few years ago contrasted Alistair McIntyre’s Benedict option against what he called the Benedict temptation, you know, the Benedict option being the idea that one should retreat from a kind of debased culture to form more robust Christian communities on the fringe of that debased culture. And the idea of the Benedict temptation is that, no, in fact, that idea is very dangerous. We should be in dialogue with a broader culture, et cetera. And I get the impression that your book, your work is much more in that latter vein, the idea that actually there’s some slender reed of hope for some kind of revival of a robust Christian culture and that’s what we should look towards and that’s what we should hope for, et cetera.
But I wonder given a lot of the pessimism that you’ve encountered today and some that actually kind of lives inside your own brain, I wonder if you’ve thought about some institutions that have actually been living the Benedict option, some projects that you feel have really been kind of successful in your view or rather been more successful than others? Have you seen manifestations of a kind of Christian culture that really does reject the mainstream and is trying to build some kind of alternative that you find promising that makes you doubt the idea that actually it’s more temptation than real option?
MR. DOUTHAT: Well, we did spend our morning talking about the Mormons, as I recall, and one of the fascinating things about the Mormon Church is that for all of certainly my own vast theological differences with LDS doctrine and practice, the Mormons have been the only major religious body in the United States to maintain a robust influential, successful sort of parallel culture that has seemed to resist some of the trends that I’ve described. For instance, we have these endless debates in my line of work where if you’re writing about sex and the culture wars and abortion and so on, liberals will say, “Well, look, blue states have lower rates of out-of-wedlock births,” and conservatives will say, “Oh, but they have higher abortion rates, too, right?” And you have these kinds of debates. You’re like, “Well, is there anywhere in the United States that has low abortion rates and low out-of-wedlock birth rates?” Well, there is one state and it’s the state of Utah.
But the downside of that is the one that my colleague Professor Brooks brought up this morning which is the extent to which to many outsiders to Mormon culture, it does seem like Mormons are stuck in the ‘50s. That the reason they’ve been so resilient is that they’ve just sort of walled themselves off from these trends and they still seem like the Cleavers or Donny and Marie and that Mormonism’s resilience is only resilient because it’s still a relatively small body, and so it hasn’t been large enough to go through the kind of convulsions that Catholicism went through in the ‘70s and ‘80s. That’s why I’m interested in some of the issues I raised about archeology and history and Mormonism’s ability to sort of confront the secular academy over the next 100 years because I think those will actually be crucial to its future.
But my broader sense is I don’t know if there is a more Catholic or Protestant version of the Mormon approach that is completely possible. Mormons obviously have a very distinctive history and a very distinctive geographical position and so on. I don’t believe in sort of a model of withdrawal and I think my fundamental reason for that is suggested by the subtitle of the book which in a way is obviously very critical. I’m calling people heretics and so on. But when you call people heretics you’re basically saying, “You’re Christians, too,” in some sense. Even if you don’t acknowledge how Christian you are you’re still Christian too and we’re all as American still somehow operating under—we can call it a Judeo-Christian paradigm if you want—but I don’t think of America as a sort of genuinely post-Christian culture. I certainly don’t think it is a secular or a pagan culture. And as long as that’s the case I think, with people who have my own beliefs, you can’t withdraw from a culture with which you still have so much in common. And so that is I think the case for whether you’re a conservative Christian or a liberal Christian. For all the trends that Bill was talking about towards atomization, we have a lot in common as Americans and we can still have these arguments and they’re worth having. And that’s a reason for saying let’s have them and let’s not just move to North Dakota, home school our kids, and grow organic vegetables. But in 20 years I’ll be on a farm and I’ll see you there.
MR. CROMARTIE: Hold it, hold it, hold it. Grant Wacker gets to have the final words here.
DR. WACKER: Well, there’s no way I could top that.
This is not elegant by any means, but it’s a very quick comment. Half of my life is teaching in a divinity school and so I stay in touch a lot with my divinity students who have come back after five years, ten years. And I am recurrently impressed by the strength of the rural church and the stories that they come back with about the rural church. And I think that part of our focus and certainly mine is, stuff I’m working on has mostly been about, urban situations, the cosmopolitan situation, the kinds of stories that big city dailies would write about. And the life of the rural church or the parish and, there’ll be far fewer rural synagogues, but still, I mean, often flies under the radar screen of those of us who are professionally involved looking at it.
So I don’t know what the larger implications are but there certainly is great resilience in certain segments of the population. And if we could isolate, where that resilience—the components of that resilience—and how to extend it into the rest of the population, we’d be better off.
MR. CROMARTIE: Ladies and gentlemen, join me in thanking our speakers.