The Politics of Decency: Billy Graham, Evangelicalism, and the End of the Solid South, 1950-1980
Miller, Steven P.
The familiarity of the evangelist Billy Graham has led historians to overlook his contribution to the creation of the post-civil rights era South. This project considers Graham’s influence on the American South by focusing on his behavior and rhetoric regarding race and politics (along with religion, the most salient subjects for analyzing change in the South) between 1950 and 1980, a period when the North Carolinian maintained a visible and controversial presence in the region. Alternately a desegregating crusader in Alabama, Sunbelt booster in Atlanta, southern apologist in the press, and southern strategist in the Nixon administration, Graham functioned as a type of regional leader—a product of his times and a player in them, a symbol and an actor. Graham represents an illuminating window through which to consider the relationship between evangelical Christianity and socio-political change in the South. He reveals how American revivalism and evangelical public theology, while embracing traditional forms of belief, can also sanction new expressions of those same values. In his simultaneously influential and circumscribed roles as evangelist, peer of politicians, and regional spokesperson, Graham was both a nexus for, and driver of, many developments central to the post-civil rights era South. He supplied an acceptable path upon which white southern moderates could back away from Jim Crow, and his post-segregation rhetoric portended the rise of “color blindness” within popular conservatism. While not a culture warrior, he influenced the 1970s turn from racial toward gender-based social issues. Through his work in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and his deep social ties in the South, Graham created space for the decades-long process of political realignment. Graham contributed to the end of the “Solid South” in both its racial and political senses. His social ethic of evangelical universalism and its secular corollary, the politics of decency, mediated the emergence of a South that was nominally desegregated and more amenable to Republican politics. Graham suggests the peculiarly evangelical nature of the South’s rapprochement with modernity.