Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
Even at a Funeral, Seeing the Past | Righting America

by Matthew Sutton with William Trollinger

In Charlotte today 2,000 people gathered in a white tent outside the Billy Graham Library for the funeral of the famed evangelist. It is estimated that Graham, who died February 21 at the age of 99, preached to 215 million people in his lifetime.

Most of the responses to Graham’s death have been predictably eulogistic. More critical pieces, including Laurie Goodstein’s recent New York Times article, have focused on Graham’s highly partisan Trump-loving son, Franklin, who has claimed that the current president “has supported the Christian faith more than any president . . . in my lifetime.”

But Matthew Avery Sutton, Edward R. Meyer professor of history at Washington State University and author of American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Harvard University Press, 2017) has had a different response. In a recent Guardian article that appeared on the day Graham died, Sutton offered a searingly trenchant critique of Graham’s message and his legacy. As the article concludes:

Graham had good intentions, as his work desegregating his crusades demonstrated. But when his influence really would have counted, when he could have effected real change, real social transformation, he was too locked into last-days fearmongering to recognize the potential of the state to do good. . . A different kind of last days may soon be upon us. Racial tensions are rising, the earth is warming, and evangelicals are doing little to help. That may be Graham’s most significant, and saddest, legacy.

Not your normal obituary! In response, rightingamerica posed a couple of questions to Sutton, who graciously replied:   

RightingAmerica: Why do you think journalists and academics are so loathe to connect Billy Graham with the emergence and development of the contemporary Christian Right?

Sutton: I think in most cases people have been too quick to take Graham at his word rather than to explore his actions. He claimed over and over again that he was not interested in politics, and yet his actions and many of his sermons and publications screamed otherwise. Because he was generally not as shrill as some of the leaders of the Religious Right, scholars have been basically willing to look past the very conservative politics that he preached and championed, and to let his own self-representation stand.

RightingAmerica: Can you imagine a scenario in the near future whereby evangelicalism becomes a force for good when it comes to politics and the environment?

Sutton: Although I study the history of evangelical prophecy, I try not to do too much forecasting. I don’t see a lot of hope at the moment. I think the bigger issue for now is going to be the fight to decide who gets to define and shape evangelicalism. Until we can decide what ‘evangelical’ means in the age of Trump, we can’t know what its future is.

Thanks Matt! And here’s a link to the full article: “Billy Graham was on the wrong side of history”