DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Today and tomorrow, the public has a last chance to see the late evangelical leader Billy Graham. His casket will lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. Reverend Graham was known as America's pastor in large part because he unified evangelical Christians. Christian leaders say that would really be impossible today. And I asked Ed Stetzer why that is. He directs the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, one of the country's leading Christian colleges.
ED STETZER: I mean, evangelicals are always - Christian Smith at Notre Dame talked about them being embattled and thriving. The challenge has been how evangelicals engage the public arena. And Billy Graham was a wonderful face and spokesperson for that. But oftentimes now people ask, is there a next Billy Graham? And I don't really think there is a next Billy Graham. But the movement he shaped will continue to have conversations, sometimes conflict. Some will engage culture in ways that others of us don't like. And some will engage culture in other - in ways that they don't like. And so there's always that ongoing struggle within evangelicalism.
GREENE: Well, in a way, could you say that his success in broadening the movement and making the tent bigger is what has caused it to fracture today? I mean, I think about the '50s and '60s. You know, African-Americans, women did not have a voice. I mean, he opened the door to bringing African-Americans in. It's a more welcoming movement in some ways. But more people having a voice, does that explain why there's fracturing among Christians?
STETZER: You know, I think so. But then I think what's happened is yes, you're right. So for example, African-Americans identify with evangelical beliefs higher than any other group statistically when you do research. Yet they don't identify with the label of evangelical. They're actually the lowest to identify with the label of evangelical. So I think what's happened is the movement has now got different visions of how to engage culture. But my hope is that just like Billy Graham was famous for talking about someone else, that evangelicals, though we might differ on how to engage culture, might ultimately focus on, well, talking about someone else - making much of Jesus and what he's doing in our hearts and in our lives to engage and serve our communities.
GREENE: A lot of people now consider evangelical Christianity to be aligned with the Republican Party. Does it bother you when you hear this movement being so closely associated with one side of the political aisle?
STETZER: I think it - there are parts of it that does. And I recognize that the Republican Party has, in many ways, sought to, you know, hold and advocate positions that many evangelicals align with. Issues of life are very, very important to evangelicals. Issues of religious liberty and more are pertinent of evangelicals. So the Republican Party has aligned there. So what's happened is is a significant number have kind of moved that direction. What I would say - of course, that's not true among evangelicals of color. That number is often white evangelicals.
My concern is that, as an evangelical and as a Christian, I want us to speak prophetically, in other words to speak honestly and forthrightly to both parties, to all traditions and to say - and not to be captured in a cultural captivity to one political party that has religious overtones that sort of takes captive the witness of that group.
GREENE: I just listened to you and your vision. And then I think about Billy Graham's own son Franklin Graham embracing a much more political-leaning Christianity. I mean, he's embraced President Trump. He defended him after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, also defending Trump's crackdowns on immigration. I mean, what would Billy Graham think about his son right now?
STETZER: I do think that people across evangelicalism have different views on how to engage culture. And Franklin and Jerry Falwell Jr. and Eric Metaxas and others have sort of advocated one view. And the place and space where I focus on is - and where others are - we're more about engaging our neighbor. We do think it's important to speak into the political realities. But people within evangelicalism have different voices. And I might differ with someone in my family about how they communicate something. I think the best way to do that is to show and share the love of Jesus in the midst of a broken and hurting world. That's what I'm going to focus on. And many other evangelicals will as well.
GREENE: Do you think they will as well? Or do you think there's a risk that you're past that point and that evangelical...
STETZER: No, no, no. No.
GREENE: ...And the movement has become too involved in sort of partisan wars and the culture wars?
STETZER: I've heard we've kind of passed the point of no return lots of times. And so I think it's easy for us to get caught up in the news cycle of the moment. But I think, ultimately, the good news is that which evangelicals seek to do and, I think, have been doing. And I think in some ways, when we just cover the loudest moments and controversies, we miss the quiet work of people who have been changed by the power of the gospel and seek to sow the love of Jesus in their communities.
GREENE: Professor Stetzer, thanks a lot.
STETZER: Thank you.
GREENE: That was Ed Stetzer. He's director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.