Rice University

Events at Rice

Thesis Defense

Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies

Speaker: Elliot Berger
Doctoral Candidate

Billy Graham and the Age of Anxiety

Wednesday, February 1, 2017
2:00 PM  to 5:00 PM

226  Humanities Building

Billy Graham is one of the most popular and influential religious figures of the American 20th century. This dissertation will examine the reasons for this popularity by considering the relationship between key aspects of Graham’s message and the cultural anxieties that were present in America in the 1950s and 1960s. Focusing on the theme of Graham’s conversion narratives and using theories derived from the social sciences, I will argue that Graham’s success stemmed from his ability to tap into prevailing anxieties and provide a therapeutic response to them. My project will outline a genealogy of both the history of conversion narratives in the United States and the development of social scientific theories to understand those narratives. I will then give an account of Graham’s third conversion narrative, the Forest Home story, and demonstrate the ways in which the story encapsulates Graham’s fundamental message: certainty in the face of doubt. I will next examine Graham’s teachings on gender and sex, and link his message to the anxiety over shifting gender roles in post-War America. Lastly, I will stray from the theme of conversion to examine Graham’s eschatology and how it informed his views on race, politics, and civil religion. On the broadest level, this dissertation contributes to the discussion of the relationship between religious leaders and their culture - more specifically, the ways that religious leaders embody, address, and attempt to defuse cultural anxiety. The narrower objective of the dissertation is to bring to light the ways Graham addressed the anxieties of the 1950s and 60s to obtain fame and power.

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