“The America that emerged from World War II and the Great Depression was exceptionally unified and cohesive, and possessed of an unusual confidence in large institutions,” Yuval Levin wrote in his 2016 book, “The Fractured Republic.”
“But almost immediately after the war, [America] began a long process of unwinding and fragmenting,” Levin wrote.
And so, the fact that American Christianity hasn’t given rise to a leader like Graham over the last two or three decades isn’t just a result of the fracturing of evangelicalism into different factions — the slick prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen, the strident right-wing triumphalism of Graham’s son Franklin and the theologically precise new Calvinists, to name just a few.
It’s also a story about the fragmentation of American life — arguably a reversion to the norm in American history rather than a departure from it.
The culture of mid-20th-century America was unusually cohesive and uniform. The mindset of most Americans was oriented toward joining groups and being part of something bigger. World War II also produced an increase in religiosity in general among Americans. “There was an upsurge of interest in religion in America at just about every level, from healing-oriented tent revivalists to intellectuals,” historian George Marsden said. “Especially in the late 1940s, even some mainstream thinkers talked about whether some sort of Christian renewal might be necessary if Western Civilization were to recover from its recent debacle.”
But as that cultural consensus gave way to the iconoclastic 1960s and 70s, America became more individualistic, less inclined to trust institutions. The Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, even the shock of the gasoline shortages all played a role.
Ward mentions that Evangelicalism — of which Graham was the most important standard-bearer — were theologically conservative low-church Protestants who rejected fundamentalism’s separatist thrust in favor of engagement with public life. This is a point not understood or appreciated by most people outside of Evangelicalism, including other Christians. To expand on Ward’s basic point in the Graham piece, I think it’s enormously important for contemporary Evangelicals to consider whether it is still possible for them to hold on to their theological conservatism while engaging with the fragmented post-Graham world.
The culture that produced Billy Graham and responded to his message was not only more unified, as Ward asserts, but it was also more Christian. The mainstream to which Graham and the Evangelicals of his day spoke to were more reachablebecause they shared a common culture, with a more or less common set of assumptions. Graham’s message echoed in the hearts and minds of Americans who heard it, even if they rejected it. You may not have responded favorably to Graham’s appeal, but you knew what he was talking about.
Today, not so much. Moreover, theological conservatism is highly contested even within Evangelicalism. On the one hand, among many, it has become thoroughly entwined with political conservatism, in a way that makes it toxic to many. Billy Graham avoided the Falwell-Robertson kind of political engagement, and after having been burned by his close association with Richard Nixon, made a special point of staying clear from politics. Today, though, it’s hard to disassociate the Evangelical “brand” from hardcore GOP activism.
On the other hand, theological liberals like Rachel Held Evans are pioneering an Evangelicalism that is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as practiced by angry and emotive liberals. If Falwell Jr. and his followers are the Republican Party’s Aging Religious Auxiliary, then RHE’s people are Woke Low-Church Progressives At Prayer.
I find myself thinking about that meeting of Catholic conservative thinkers and academics at which I was present a few years back — in particular the stark differences between the world that older Catholics see, and younger ones see. The older ones were working from a cultural framework that presumed a certain commonality, and the efficaciousness of rationality within that shared set of assumptions. The younger ones kept pointing out that that world is gone. What (in my view) they were talking about is two very different Catholic churches, though the division isn’t precisely like that of Evangelicals. The Catholic “conservatives” (a more precise term: the orthodox) still believe in the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. The contemporary Catholic progressives believe in the primacy of their own consciences — and in their right to baptize as “Catholic” whatever they happen to believe.
How a church like that holds together, I don’t know. I bring it up here simply to point out that American popular culture strongly catechizes contemporary Americans toward the progressivist way of thinking. If you are going to be a theologically orthodox Catholic, you are going to have to be consciously and forcefully countercultural in all things.
Evangelicalism, like Protestantism in general, has always been fissiparous, but as Ward says, it emerged within a more unified and cohesive American culture. Now that that American culture is gone, and there are no guardrails left, how will they hold it together? Can they? Billy Graham has been retired from public life for some time now, but I believe that his death will be seen as a true milestone in American religious history.
To repeat my question: how will conservative Evangelicals hold on to their theological conservatism in a liberal, post-Christian culture? Whatever the answer, it will depend on jettisoning the categories that made sense in the life and times of Billy Graham.