Trinity visitor discusses Graham's legacy


HARTFORD – There will never be another Billy Graham.

There’s something about the 91-year-old evangelist that has captured America’s heart and Grant Wacker, professor of Christian history at Duke Divinity School, can’t stop writing about it.

He spent this past week at Trinity College sharing his research with students and faculty as the 2010 Greenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow. Harvard University Press will publish his upcoming book, tentatively called “Billy Graham’s America,” in 2012.

Mark Silk, director of the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, said the center welcomes a distinguished guest to campus each spring who is working on a concentrated academic research project.

Wacker, a practicing Methodist, said Graham has been a part of his studies for decades but it wasn’t until the past few years he started to take a closer look at the preacher.

“I’m focusing on him, and more broadly, on his impact or his legacy in understanding modern America. That’s not to say he himself is not important, but for me, he is instrumental to something else,” he said.

Wacker said no other evangelical leader in history is as historically important as Graham.

Maybe it’s Graham’s charisma. Maybe it’s his sincerity. Maybe it’s his honesty.

“Twenty years from now historians and journalists will find that (T.D) Jakes and Pat Robertson and all the rest of them, they’re just footnotes in there. They’re sidebars to the story. But they’re still going to be writing about the legacy of Billy Graham,” he said.

In the recent years the media has had a mounting interest in America’s evangelical leaders. Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, and of course Pat Robertson, have made countless headlines. Wacker said the sudden interest in evangelicalism is partly because of Graham’s age, and partly because of Sarah Palin.Grant Wacker speaks about Billy Graham/Tracy Simmons - Creedible

“I think what we are seeing on the part of the press is a sense that an era is closing and so we need to take stock in it,” he said. “And beyond Graham, the politically activist side of evangelicalism is showing no signs of waning.”

Palin, who has a Pentecostal background, has reminded America that the religious right is still strong.

“My own sense is that the religious right is by no means dead,” Wacker said. “Evangelicals vote and as long as they vote, reporter will notice them, historians will notice them.”

During his visit to Trinity, Wacker spoke about Graham for the first time in liberal New England. Some students he met, had never heard of Graham before.

“This is not the evangelical heartland and so it’s pretty much like someone coming to North Carolina and talking about Pope Benedict,” Wacker said.

But his trip, he said, was prolific. A black notebook he keeps in his pocket is full of notes and ideas from the students and professors he met while on campus. The notes are jumping off points for further research.

“There are things that Graham has said and done that I don’t like, but on the whole I like the man a great deal,” he said. “I wouldn’t be studying him if I didn’t like him. I admire him greatly and that’s why I have devoted a couple of years, and will devote a couple more years of my life to it.”

To hear an audio clip of Wacker’s research, visit Faith & Leadership online magazine here.


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