There is a story we tell about America ― one that twists together the conflicting narratives of patriotism, guns and God. We tell this story every time we hold our hands over our hearts, intoning, “one nation under God,” or whenever we stand teary-eyed in a stadium honoring our troops, Blue Angels flying overhead, while someone sings “God Bless America.”
It’s there in our trucks, in the before-dinner prayers at tables in the heartland, penetrating our politics until faith and the White House become one in a nation founded on the principles of separation of church and state.
This wasn’t always the story of America.
World-famous evangelist Billy Graham died on Feb. 21, 2018. In the wake of his passing, there will be a grappling with and a whitewashing of his legacy ― his spiritual advisement to every president from Eisenhower to Obama and his loathsome attitudes toward LGBTQ people, for instance. But it’s also worth noting that the toxic brand of evangelicalism that has kneecapped American politics, the full merging of patriotism and Christianity, would not have been possible without Graham’s relentless pursuit of civil religion.
Graham’s rise came hand-in-hand with the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Both men had one mission: get people into pews. For Eisenhower, it was pragmatic. America was now at war with communism, which was perpetuated by atheists. Americans could differentiate themselves from the godless hordes by exercising their freedom of religion. In a speech given after the testing of the first H-bomb, Eisenhower exhorted Americans, “If there is no religious faith whatsoever, then there is little defense you can make of a free system.” Right before taking office, Eisenhower declared, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded deeply in religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Eisenhower’s dictum was taken up by Graham, and soon going to church was more than just something for the religious, it was part of being a good American.
On Labor Day, 1957, Graham preached to a crowd in Times Square that stretched up Broadway, “Let us tell the whole world tonight that we Americans believe in God … that we are morally and spiritually strong as well as militarily and economically.”
His sermons often blended the military might of America with its spiritual strength. And in Graham, political power and spiritual power became one. He prayed with presidents and advised them. Graham encouraged Lyndon B. Johnson to pick Hubert Humphrey as a running mate. He was so devoted to Nixon that he once famously and wrongly insisted, “[Nixon’s] moral and ethical principles wouldn’t allow him to do anything illegal.” Graham was in the White House on Jan. 19, 1991, the night America launched an attack on Iraq.
America has always been a land run rampant with the fervency of faith. But prior to the 1950s, church and state were strictly divided in the lives and minds of Americans. Graham’s words and actions wove together Christian faith with economics and politics, creating in effect a civil religion, which became less about actual faith and more about defining “American values.”
In 1955, he preached to an American Legion, “Recognition of a Supreme Being is the first and most basic expression of Americanism.”
And because Graham learned early on that speaking on current events would draw a bigger crowd, his sermons were rife with political commentary. He filled stadiums wherever he preached, wrote a weekly newspaper column and had a weekly radio message. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association estimates that throughout his lifetime, Graham had preached the gospel to more than 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories — even more when including video and film recordings. During these sermons, Graham was relentlessly political. He called Truman “cowardly.” In 1952 he told a crowd that the Korean War had been fought because Alger Hiss had never been East. He complimented the McCarthy committee, noting, “I thank God for the men and women who, in the face of public denouncement and ridicule, go loyally on in their work of exposing the pinks, the lavenders and the reds who have sought refuges beneath the wings of the American eagle.”
It’s not hard to see why politicians loved him. Graham’s brand of Christianity kept Americans hardworking and preoccupied with values. In her book, The Evangelicals, Frances Fitzgerald recounts the words of the Earl of Shaftesbury, an evangelical Tory, who in the mid-19th century noted that to deprive “‘the masses’ of ‘the checks and restraints of religion’ would be to invite Communism, anarchy, and mob rule.”
Those same words spoken by Shaftesbury about religion in the mid-19th century were echoed by Graham in the 20th. Faith wasn’t about souls or good works, it was about patriotism and politics. And the result was that American Christianity became just as American as apple pie. In the middle of the country, church became the primary social outlet for farm wives and their children. Schools didn’t hold activities on Wednesday nights, reserving that for midweek services and youth groups. Churches were the center for softball leagues and Saturday night dances. Church attendance soared, peaking in the 1960s at 75 percent.
This is significant, because while many Americans were religious, the stories of America being founded as a Christian nation have been largely oversold. The truth is that the early settlers hardly fit the image of the pious family bootstrapping it on the prairie. Rather they were men with few family attachments, hewing out a living in a strange land in order to escape jail time, debts and abusive families. In their book The Churching of America, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark argue that in 1850, religious adherence on the frontier was weak at best. Iowa had the lowest rates with 138 religious adherents per 1,000 inhabitants. Maryland, Indiana and Ohio were the highest with respectively 422, 420, and 416 adherents per 1,000.
Additionally, before Graham, Christianity ― specifically white Christian fundamentalism ― had been fractured. Fitzgerald argues that under Graham’s charisma and popularity, he was able to “bring the great variety of conservative white Protestants, North and South, into his capacious revival tent under the name ‘evangelicals.’” In sum, creating the very voting bloc that overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump. That plus his penchant for political power meant that Graham tied a slipknot of faith and politics that is now strangling American society.
When we look at the legacy of Billy Graham, we need to see it for what it was ― the very beginnings of a capitalist, conservative Christianity, less concerned with the soul than the voting booth.
In conflating faith with patriotism, Graham created a perniciously political civil religion that is more about virtue-signaling than any actual service to God or country.
Lyz Lenz is the managing editor of The Rumpus and the author of the forthcoming book God Land from Indiana University Press.