Sixty years after his epic crusade in New York City established Billy Graham as America’s leading Christian evangelical preacher, a U.S. Senate election in Alabama could make Roy Moore its leading evangelical politician.
The contrast between Graham then — “America’s pastor’’ — and Moore now —“the Ten Commandments judge’’ — illustrates the changes in the political fortunes of their common constituency, and helps explain its powerful nostalgia.
On Oct. 27, 1957, before a crowd of 40,000 at the Polo Grounds, Graham concluded a crusade that began in May and filled Madison Square Garden night after night until Labor Day.
This year, on Sept. 26, Moore, even though he was vastly outspent and even though the president and vice president campaigned for his opponent, won a Republican primary runoff for the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions. Now, supported by Donald Trump, he’s favored to beat Democrat Doug Jones on Dec. 12.
That would complete Moore’s comeback from not one but two ousters from the Alabama Supreme Court, the first for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument he’d installed in a courthouse. And it would solidify his status as a national evangelical folk hero.
Moore is a Southern Baptist. So is Graham, now 98 and long retired. The similarities stop just about there.
Where Graham was relaxed, inclusive and generally non-partisan, Moore is abrasive, divisive and happily partisan. He reflects the temper of the times, and one of its paradoxes: Despite their crucial role in electing Trump, evangelicals feel under siege.
Robert Jones, CEO of the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute, says these conservative white Protestants worry about a future that appears to be against them.
Gay marriage, opposed by six in 10 evangelicals, has been ruled legal. Roe v. Wade, another evangelical bete noir, remains the law on abortion. Church attendance is flat or declining, even among white evangelicals.
Jesse Brown, a retired Athens State University political science professor, speaks to groups around the state: “Talk to someone who’s 80 and someone who’s 30 from the same church, and it’s different worlds. For younger people, whatever they think of gay marriage, it isn’t a big dot on their radar screen.’’
Graham reached out in the 1950s secure in Protestant Christianity’s national primacy. But Moore, facing a culture increasingly inhospitable to his creed, is in a defensive crouch.
“Graham got attention because he spoke for and to the nation,’’ says Jones, author of The End of White Christian America. “Moore gets attention because he’s so out of step with the nation.‘’
The evangelical moment
When Billy Graham agreed to bring one of his crusades in New York City in 1957, he broke definitively with the “Separatist’’ strain of evangelicalism, which sought to isolate itself from a sinful world rather than convert it.
In the Separatist view, New York was Sodom and Gomorrah. Worse, it was a bastion of “papist’’ Roman Catholicism and mainline Protestant denominations (Episcopalians, Presbyterians, etc.) that often viewed evangelicals as backwoods snake charmers.
At 38, Graham was already a phenomenon: handsome, sincere, confident, eloquent. He’d just begun what’s been a 60-year run on Gallup’s list of men most admired by Americans. He was close to President Eisenhower, and would be to many of Ike’s successors.
“God’s Ambassador’’ reached beyond the old evangelical audience. He integrated his Southern crusades in 1952, three years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, where he met and befriended Martin Luther King.
Graham admitted to approaching New York (to quote the Apostle Paul) in “fear and trembling’’ and also in hope: That he could start a religious awakening that would “sweep this country like a prairie fire.’’
He lit a spark. The first night crowd at the Garden was 18,000. The next day The New York Times devoted two pages to the event, and printed the text of Graham’s sermon. ABC televised the Saturday night services nationally.
The crusade, originally scheduled for six weeks, was extended. On July 20, Graham drew a record crowd of 100,000 at Yankee Stadium; thousands were turned away. The crusade was extended into August. A Labor Day rally filled Times Square and the streets leading into it with a crowd estimated at 125,000.
Graham thundered: “Let us tell all the world we are united and ready to march under the banner of Almighty God, taking as our slogan that which is stamped on our coins: ‘In God We Trust!’’’ (Which had been made the nation’s motto the previous year.)
Graham’s sermon at the Polo Grounds finale struck a more somber note, one that’s relevant today.
War with the Soviet Union seemed “more possible now than at any time in the past 10 years,’’ he said; a congressman told him “there is a strong element within the Kremlin that believes that Russia should attack the United States within the next two years.’’
Graham called on President Eisenhower, who he said had “the confidence of the American people,’’ to reassure the nation and “tell the American people exactly where we stand. … The American people are not children. They want the facts straight from the shoulder.’’
At a time when presidential utterances sometimes increase rather than allay war fears, Graham’s appeal seems quaint. In fact, Jones says, “I don’t think Billy Graham could be successful today. He wouldn’t be political enough.’’
The political pulpit
Last month, Roy Moore strode onto stage at a pre-primary runoff election rally in Fairhope, Ala., wearing a cowboy hat and vest, and nursing a resentment: opposition ads that questioned his support for the Second Amendment.
With that, he pulled a pistol from his pocket, held it up for all to see, and said, “I support the Second Amendment!’’
The flamboyance was vintage Moore, who on Election Day rides his horse to the polls and who hung a plaque with the Ten Commandments over the four-poster bed he shares with his wife in their home about 50 miles northeast of Birmingham.
Over the years, he has delighted supporters and outraged critics: Islam is a “false religion.’’ Homosexuality, akin to bestiality, is immoral and should be illegal.
Moore, a West Point graduate and Vietnam vet, lost two local races in Alabama in the 1980s before his appointment in 1992 to fill a judicial vacancy. When he began saying a prayer to open court and posted a copy of the commandments in his courtroom, the ACLU objected — and Moore was on his way. By 1996, a poll found 90% of Alabamans agreed with him.
This notoriety helped elect him chief judge of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2000. He promptly commissioned a 2.5 ton granite monument with the commandments and installed it in the state judicial building.
The ACLU sued. Moore argued that since God is the foundation of American law, His commandments belong in a courthouse. He refused to remove the monument when a federal court ruled against him, and was himself removed from the bench in 2003.
This burnished Moore’s legend in Alabama, which is heavily Baptist — it’s the second least religiously diverse state — and has resented federal authority since the Civil Rights Movement (not to mention the Civil War).
Moore failed to win the GOP nomination for governor in 2006 and 2010. But in 2012 voters returned him to the high court. Four years later, after he told lower court judges to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, he was suspended for the balance of his term. He resigned and announced his Senate candidacy.
Although Moore has expanded his political palate to include issues like immigration and gun rights, his primary focus is ‘‘religious liberty’’ — freedom from government interference with, say, a florist’s refusal to handle a gay wedding. But Moore actually seeks to insert Christian symbols and ideas into government places and policies.
"If we don't recognize that this nation was founded upon God,’’ he said at a rally this month, “then we're going to lose our country."
Among his admirers is Franklin Graham, Billy’s son and successor, who says Moore has guts: "He's one of the few willing to stand firm for truth and against the erosion of biblical principles." When Moore won the runoff, Graham tweeted congratulations.
No prairie fire
Evangelicals today, given their tenuous place in an increasingly secular society, might idealize Graham’s success 60 years ago and wonder what went wrong.
In all, about 60,000 of those who attended the crusade signed cards making a “decision for Christ.’’ But there’d been no prairie fire of faith. “We have only touched the surface of this city,’’ Graham said at the Polo Grounds.
Two years later he again cast doubt on what had seemed his finest hour. The New York crusade, he said, “was like a flea crawling on an elephant.’’
Turning back the clock was too much, even for America’s Pastor. But the Ten Commandments Judge, who’d be a 70-year-old freshman in a Senate primarily concerned with other matters, is willing to take up the cross.