January 25, 2012
By William McKenzie
On Monday, we paused to honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He arguably had the greatest influence of any religious figure on American politics and culture. And his contributions have been appropriately chronicled. Because of his work, many aspects of American life have changed since the 1960s.
But beyond Dr. King, which religious figure has had a major impact on American politics or culture through their preaching, ideas or actions?
Perhaps the person you have in mind is obscure, but don't worry about that. I'd like to hear from you which religious figure(s) have had an impact on our society, even if they are not well known....
MATTHEW WILSON, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University
Since I am Catholic, you might expect me to give the name of a Catholic figure, and there have indeed been Catholic figures who have significantly influenced American cultural and political life. The person who most stands out to me in this regard, however, is the Reverend Billy Graham.
Graham was tremendously influential in bringing Evangelical Protestantism into the American cultural mainstream, and was at the center of the evangelical movement over a multi-decade period during which evangelicalism become the predominant manifestation of protestant religious life in America.
Graham's "crusades" became phenomena in and of themselves, filling huge arenas all over the country and taking advantage of emerging broadcast technologies to further their reach. Graham also presented a face of evangelicalism that was more joyful and less narrowly sectarian than some others, while still remaining faithful to the Gospel message.
These attributes, I believe, were crucial in winning so many souls and in helping to transform the American religious landscape. Moreover, they made Graham a trusted companion and adviser to presidents -- even those (like Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush) who did not share his evangelical orientation.
None of this is to say that Billy Graham is perfect. He was largely on the sidelines during the civil rights era, when he could have been a powerful voice for justice. As a Catholic, I certainly have disagreements with some points of his Evangelical Protestant theology. Nonetheless, no figure in the American religious landscape over the last fifty years, with the exception of Dr. King, has been more influential than Billy Graham....