Explaining the realignment of American Southern politics is often a favorite area of study among historians and scholars. A region that was once dominated by yellow dog Democrats, has for the most part continued to expand as a loyal region for the Grand Old Party. Among the earliest and most common narrative among liberal historians and writers is the belief that the realignment in the South had to do with a backlash against desegregation. Steven P. Miller in his new book Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South puts considerable emphasis on Graham’s role in desegregation, public evangelicalism, and Graham as a spiritual and political adviser to presidents. Miller argues that Graham played a formidable role in reshaping the political climate of the South.
Early on Miller describes some of the dynamics of Graham’s insistence on holding desegregated crusades in the South, and his relationship with many fellow Southern Baptist ministers who supported segregation. Miller labels Graham a “racial moderate” largely by comparing him to Dr. Martin Luther King. Graham also at various times called for Civil Rights protesters to obey federal court orders and was quick to defend the South as having better racial relations than many places north of Dixie. With quips like, “prejudice is not just a sectional problem,” and, labeling criticism of the South “one of the most popular indoor sports of some Northerners these days,” Graham became an endearing figure to many fellow Southerners. It also allowed him to take fairly progressive positions on race without losing a large part of his Southern audience. Miller notes:
By appealing to law and order but also to such seemingly nonpartisan qualities as neighborly love and spiritual piety, Graham supplied a path upon which moderates could back away from segregationism in a manner acceptable to regional mores.
Graham linked racism as a problem directly related to the absence of God that pointed to the need of regeneration for the individual. True racial reconciliation and integration would require regeneration in the life of an individual. It was a reasoning that also made political sense when Graham would make pronouncements for more gradualism when it came to integrating the Deep South. He understood there were limits to solving segregation through legislation alone. Miller also notes Graham’s forward thinking when he addressed how much segregation stained America’s image abroad in relation to Cold War dynamics.
Another large portion of the book covers Graham’s relationship with political figures and presidents. Graham, a lifelong Democrat, is well known for his close relationship to President Richard Nixon and how his regional leadership in the American South helped Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” Graham also had a very good relationship with President Lyndon Johnson and even lent his endorsement to his War on Poverty programs, citing Scripture as a basis for support. While Graham supported many of Johnson’s big government initiatives and his Vietnam policies, he also had harsh criticism for other areas of 1960s liberalism, especially related to judicial activism as it related to school prayer and criminal rights.
Nixon’s political comeback made Graham a serious player within that administration. Graham was criticized by the left for being a court prophet to Nixon, and his reputation would suffer again decades later through the release of tapes where Graham was heard agreeing with Nixon as he railed against all the Jews in the media. Defenses of Nixon late into Watergate proved to be an issue as well, as Graham often called the scandal further proof of a larger national problem that called for personal and national repentance.
An overarching point of Miller’s theme is that Graham gave considerable cover for Southerners to distance themselves from their segregated past. An evangelical understanding of the sins of racism allowed many to declare themselves healed and absolved from past guilt. Graham then criticized forced busing as a desegregation tactic, he further lauded law and order policies, and continually criticized the secularizing of America through the courts. Miller also argues that his close association to Nixon and his vocal pronouncements on many conservative positions, especially social positions and the moral breakdown in society further made the region ripe for change. His public pronouncements and leadership according to Miller, would also help spawn the religious right as a force in American politics.
All of these dynamics helped further fuel the political transition of the Sun Belt South Graham so celebrated through out his life. Miller also appropriately observes a statement about Jimmy Carter by Graham:
‘I would rather have a man in office who is highly qualified to be president who didn’t make much of a religious profession than to have a man who had no qualifications but who made a religious profession.’ The statement, which probably derived in part from a suspicion that Carter’s theology was in reality more liberal than evangelical, emphasized the primary vulnerability of the candidate (inexperience) at the expense of his perceived advantage (spirituality).
The epilogue substantially deals with some of the complexity of Graham’s positions, as he distanced himself from many religious conservatives by separating himself from campaigns in the pro-life movement and by taking no stance on the Equal Rights Amendment. “Now, in the pages of Sojourners, Graham called for “Salt X,” by which he meant ‘total destruction of nuclear arms,’” says Miller. Most conservative evangelicals had already lined up behind Ronald Reagan’s administration who called for more aggressive measures against the Soviets. Graham’s involvement in antinuclear activism didn’t cloud his strong relationship with Reagan however. Reagan, who had a tremendous personal interest in Christian eschatology, often spoke to the evangelist about his views on the topic. Another area of interest in the epilogue is Graham’s close relationship with the Bush family, and President George W. Bush in particular. Graham of course played a significant role in Bush’s conversion narrative. Miller discusses Bush’s repackaging of Graham’s critique on liberalism, through policies called “compassionate conservatism”, and Graham while not openly endorsing Bush in 2000, would drop many clear hints of support for the then Texas Governor.
This book provides a lot background on Graham’s career as an evangelist and as a force in 20th Century American politics. Its academic style makes it less popular for the casual reader. But readers of Civil Rights history, those interested in Graham, and those interested in the topic of faith and politics will find value in this publication. I wish Miller would have provided some more balance by discussing the importance of upward trending incomes in the South and other economic indicators directly related to the rise of the GOP in the region. Miller appropriately concludes though by noting that “Graham’s central theme never altered; the evangelist preached Christ crucified and resurrected, with salvation available through Him available to all who would invite Him into their hearts.” Far beyond any political statements, it is what Graham is known for and will especially be known for when he is called home.