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The topic below was originally posted on my blog, the Intrepid Liberal Journal.
In the age of Barack Obama, both the Republican Party as well as the South appear marginalized and out of step with the rest of America. Yet it wasn’t so long ago that the South represented the foundation of America’s conservative hegemony. Starting with Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, the Republican Party prevailed in nine out of the next fourteen presidential elections with a reliable Southern base.
Specifically, the Republican Party exploited white Southern resentment against the cause of civil rights and integration. The “Southern strategy” as it was later called, enabled Republicans to end the Democratic Party’s previous domination of the South following the Civil War. A key figure in that realignment was the renowned evangelist Billy Graham.
Historian, Steven P. Miller, first explored Billy Graham’s role in this realignment with his doctorate thesis entitled, “The Politics of Decency: Billy Graham, Evangelicalism, and the End of the Solid South, 1950-1980.” Miller later converted that thesis into his current book, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, recently published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Miller’s book delineates how Graham allowed his iconic celebrity to be used by national politicians so they could make inroads into the South. His book also details how Graham capitalized on his leverage as a regional heavyweight to influence presidents and policy.
With President Dwight Eisenhower, Graham had an ideological soul mate as both valued “moderation” between segregationists and those who championed integration. Graham believed that racism could not be overcome through legislation and the heavy hand of federal power. Instead, he advocated changing the hearts and minds of people “one soul at a time” through his integrated “crusades” where he preached his love thy neighbor gospel.
Under the presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, Graham straddled the fence between promoting racial tolerance and preserving local southern autonomy or “states rights.” In that regard, Graham was an intimate part of Richard Nixon’s inner circle after he became president in 1968. Graham’s defenders argue that he helped the South transition from its shameful past while preserving stability. His critics claim that Graham was a cowardly apologist for white privilege who didn’t do nearly enough to advance the cause of civil rights. Personally, like many liberals, I’m partial to the latter argument.
Ross Douthat writes in his April 19th review of Miller’s book in the New York Times that,
“Neither story is the whole truth, but both are true. And it’s a credit to Steven P. Miller that his `Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South,’ a study of the evangelist’s relationship to the cause of civil rights on the one hand and the cause of conservatism on the other, does justice to the tensions and complexities involved — for Graham, for the South and for the country. In Miller’s account, one of 20th-century America’s most important religious leaders emerges as a representative political actor as well, whose example is worth pondering less because he was courageous than because he often wasn’t.
The story of the civil rights era is usually told as a collision between heroes and villains: the marchers on one side and the K.K.K. on the other; the Martin Luther Kings and Lyndon Johnsons making the way straight for justice, and the George Wallaces and Bull Connors standing sneering in their way. But the movement’s successes and failures were ultimately determined by the choices of more unheroic men — men like Billy Graham.”
Miller, who earned a PH.D degree in history from Vanderbilt University and has taught at numerous institutions, including Washington University, Webster University and Goshen College, agreed to a telephone podcast interview with me about his book and our conversation was just under thirty-six minutes.
Among the topics covered is the difference between hard core fundamentalism and evangelicalism, Graham’s role in facilitating Republican inroads into the previously reliable Democratic South, whether his middle ground on civil rights was courageous or cowardly, Graham’s alliance with Eisenhower, his friendship with Lyndon Johnson, the intimate collaboration with Richard Nixon and the legacy he left behind.
This interview can also be at accessed at no cost via the Itunes Store by searching for either the “Intrepid Liberal Journal” or “Robert Ellman.”