“Billy Graham’s America,” Grant Wacker’s presidential address at the just concluded annual meeting of the American Society of Church History, not only provided a brilliant summation of Graham’s significance in 20th-century American culture but also suggested a way to understand the current debate over the future of evangelicalism. That’s because evangelical leaders like Rick Warren are, after a generation dominated by the religious right, simply finding their way down a path long since trod by the preeminent “cooperative evangelical” of our age. The oddity is that Graham has come to be seen as so sui generis that observers are hardly aware of it.
Here, for example, is a little paean to Warren over on Religion in American History by Phillip Luke Sinitiere, who with Shayne Lee has written a forthcoming book about contemporary evangelical leaders entitled Holy Mavericks:
Consider these snapshots from his recent activities: not many other preachers are friends with the president of Rwanda, write a monthly column for Ladies Home Journal, and receive a standing ovation after speaking at Harvard University. Not many other conservative pastors possess the flexibility to be pro-life and pro-poor, the ingenuity to lead a preaching seminar for rabbis at the University of Judaism, or the versatility to work and dine with homosexual activists while maintaining a firm stance against same-sex marriage. Not many spiritual leaders mentor prominent businesspersons like Rupert Murdock and Jack Welch, or can claim that after three decades of ministry, they have never been alone in a room with a woman other than their wife. Few evangelical pastors are friends with both President George W. Bush and Democratic president-elect Barack Obama, a notable participant at Warren’s 2006 Global Summit on AIDS and the recent Presidential Forum, both at Saddleback Church. And Warren’s latest book, The Purpose of Christmas, adds further insight into the complexity of this holy maverick’s cosmopolitan outlook. It continues to articulate the readable simplicity of the purpose-driven message and hit the major points of conservative evangelical theology (e.g., centrality of Jesus, authority of Bible, etc.). Yet with a closing chapter on Warren’s P.E.A.C.E. plan, it registers as decidedly cosmopolitan in outlook and activist in tone.
The thing is, changing a few names and titles, everything here fits Billy to a T. Yes, Warren built his church into a kind of mini-denomination rather than preaching the Gospel to crowds around the world. Other than that, all that makes him mavericky is that, among those of his generation, he’s emulating Graham rather than, say, Jerry Falwell. And that goes for the Africa stuff as well. As Wacker presented it, Graham’s last great accomplishment, beginning two decades ago, was his embrace of “global justice”–an expansion of the evangelical social vision to include the material needs of Christians in the Third World. One might say that the so-called new evangelical agenda is simply the latter-day Graham agenda.
Graham got to where he got because, over his six decades in American public life, he became more adept at slipping punches than Muhammad Ali in his prime. Many were thrown, from left, right, and center, but Billy danced away from most to become the best known Protestant evangelist and the most iconic American religious leader of all time. How did he do it? In part by force of personality, in part by having perfect pitch for what appealed to his vast middle-class, moderately conservative white Protestant followers, in part by sticking to his message of getting people to decide for Christ, in part by a shrewd determination never to let himself get boxed into an ideological corner.
By comparison with Graham, Warren is a softie—too eager to be loved, too willing to let his opponents spook him. And he’s paying a price for it. On Proposition 8, he was so much a non-presence among the pro-initiative forces that AP reporters planned a “Where’s Rick?” story. But then, at the 11th hour (on a Friday, to his flock), he allowed himself to publicly support the thing. For his pains, he’s been pilloried on the left as just another Dobson. Graham, it’s safe to say, would never have succumbed. Just as he never presumed to speculate on the final fate of the earnest non-Christian. Always, he kept his eye on the main chance. By contrast, Warren wants to have his cake and eat it too.