A nation under Graham (?) | Jesus’ Creed
A nation under Graham
America, much like many countries shaped by biblical religion – from Israel to Ireland, has a history of politicians and preachers using apocalyptic rhetoric extensively. Over a decade ago, Charles Mathewes and Christopher McKnight (no relation) assembled a series of outstanding essays on various periods in American history illustrating this abundance. Their book, with a strangely misspelled title, is called Prophecies of Godlessness (which is a noun in their handwriting – it’s a verb with that “s” – whatever). It should be read by anyone who studies political rhetoric using the apocalyptic, which unfortunately a recent book failed to do.
The book that didn’t is by Jonathan D. Redding, titled A Nation Under Graham: Apocalyptic Rhetoric and American Exceptionalism. Redding’s book is a slice of American history. The Slice is Billy Graham in several ways: his apocalyptic rhetoric, which is as American and Graham as it gets; its American exceptionalism if not its patriotic nationalism; its anti-communism; his relationship with presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, George HW Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and Trump); and in particular Graham’s plea for “under God” added in 1954 (under Eisenhower) to the oath of allegiance. The decisive sermon was that of George Docherty, but it rooted his sermon and style at the time in the anti-communist American exceptionalism of Billy Graham who could only reject communism if Americans were born again, accorded with God. and pledged to be a Christian Nation that honors God.
Scot McKnight is the author of a recent book titled “All hearts are open to you,”A book on learning to pray with the church.
What to say?
First, many have said that an “evangelical is someone who loves Billy Graham”. There is something in there, or at least there was. Billy Graham’s subsequent modification of his previous political advocacy does not dampen the power of his earlier visions or excessive politics. Being someone who loves Billy Graham must always mean his conservative politics. It doesn’t help Billy Graham that his son, Franklin, lacks Billy’s nuance, grace, and social skills. Which doesn’t mean Billy wasn’t tough. And I don’t know how much Billy changed his approach to meeting with presidents, but I’m sure he remained a staunch conservative (capitalism, military defense, moral debates, etc.). Franklin’s policy, it seems to me, is not so far removed from his father’s. I could be wrong.
I want this to be underlined because it is not said often enough. Billy Graham’s luster and attractiveness from his days in Los Angeles was created in a pot of national concern, political activism and political hope. The older he grew, the more he wanted to influence the White House.
Second, Graham was very apocalyptic and never gave up. He has adapted his apocalyptism over the decades to the current fears and anxieties of Americans, but his early evangelization was deeply shaped by anti-communism, anti-socialism, anti-Stalin. The book of Redding examines how the apocalyptic material of Daniel, particularly chapter seven, and the visions of Revelation were read in the church, how they were fertile for continuous adjustments, and how Graham received the dispensational diagrams that were constantly alarmists. Billy has stated several times during his career that Armageddon is near, and so he nurtured similar apocalyptisms of Eisenhower and Reagan, to name just two.
Third, Redding’s installment concerns the addition “under God” to the Covenant. Billy’s apocalyptic theology was so behind it that Redding in many cases thinks after its insertion that you can’t say it without hearing a bit of the apocalyptic. This is where Redding’s book needed more nuance, although the slice he writes about has more than a few wonderful moments. What I found missing in this “under God” slice of American religious and theopolitical history is how important Church-State themes have been in American history. Philippe Gorski’s book, American pact, is only an exceptional study which would have given Redding more perspective on “under God”. That is, he gives him too much apocalyptic fervor. We must not doubt this apocalyptism to admit a much broader angle.
Fourth, American apocalyptic rhetoric has been, is, and will continue to be rooted in American exceptionalism with more than one or two roots deep in the waters of Christian nationalism. Redding draws this theme from his ability to find so many (varied) uses for “under God”. America’s role in divine plans for these doomsday writers is shaped by predictive readings both from Daniel but above all from the Apocalypse. It is not only their theopolitical readings that give power to the approach; claims that prophecies have been fulfilled or are about to be fulfilled take it to a higher level of intensity. Graham has read the Bible this way throughout his career. So dispensationalism gets a lot of attention in Redding’s book and I think he has a good grasp of the history of dispensationalism.
Redding: “America-centered apocalypticism based on interpretations of Daniel and Revelation was a major part of Graham’s rhetorical toolbox” (83).
If you want your reading of Daniel or Revelation to grab attention and create intense angst, make sure it is predictive and tied to the fate of America (and Israel). His sketch of Graham’s sermons and speeches on this theme repeatedly reveals a Graham caught in prediction, imminence, and nationalism. I read this chapter with more than one recollection of the sermons and talks.
Billy Graham’s vision then functioned like this: the problem was communism (or an international social evil), his rhetoric of choice was apocalyptic, the solution was almost only being reborn, and the benefits of this theopolitical message were not. not only salvation and heaven, but also capitalism and American leadership in the world.