Billy Graham Legacy News

Billy Graham at 99: He kept the faith and (mostly) dropped the politics

RNS GRAHAM: Knoxville, Tenn. -- President Richard M. Nixon (right) and Billy Graham bow their heads in prayer during the President's visit to the Billy Graham East Tennessee Crusade at Knoxville, Tenn. Religion News Service file photo, 1970

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Conservative Christian leaders have President Trump’s ear, but they are certainly not the first evangelicals to counsel the leader of the free world. The most famous evangelist of the 20th century, Billy Graham, advised many an American president, though differently than Trump’s faith advisors approach the job.

As Graham celebrates his 99th birthday on Tuesday (Nov. 7), in what his son Franklin described as “stable” health, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is kicking off a yearlong celebration of the preacher’s past. Franklin Graham, who heads the association, said it will highlight the elder Graham’s “impact on worldwide evangelism and personal testimonies of people whose lives were forever changed at one of my father’s crusades.” 

It’s safe to say that Billy Graham’s politics won’t be a central focus of the commemoration. But when he was an up-and-coming preacher wearing hand-painted ties, and later, when he was America’s leading Christian evangelist in the heart of the Cold War, everyone knew where he stood on politics.

President Richard M. Nixon (right) and Billy Graham bow their heads in prayer during the President's visit to the Billy Graham East Tennessee Crusade at Knoxville, Tenn.

President Richard M. Nixon (right) and Billy Graham bow their heads in prayer during the President’s visit to the Billy Graham East Tennessee Crusade at Knoxville, Tenn. Religion News Service file photo

Graham railed against communism and anti-war demonstrators. He helped presidential candidates and gave them advice once they made it to the White House.

Over the years, Graham spoke to an estimated 84 million people at his crusades around the world, his wide reach increasing to 210 million when it includes live audiences that watched him via satellite. His success, religious historians say, was a precursor to the political rise of evangelicals and set the stage for recent faith-based public discourse on abortion, gay marriage and other issues.

As other conservative religious figures like the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and others gained sway in the political arena, Graham, deliberately withdrew from it, at least in public. His focus was on the gospel, not politics, when he visited Flushing Meadows Corona Park in June 2005. “If I get up and talk about some political issue, it divides the audience,” Graham said at a press conference preceding the New York crusade. “What I want is a united audience to hear only the gospel. Many times (in the past) … I went too far in (dividing people on) such issues, and I think this time I want to stick only to the gospel.”

The Rev. Billy Graham enters the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center with the aid of a walker before a New York City press conference to talk about his upcoming crusade in Queens.

Evangelist Billy Graham enters the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center with the aid of a walker before a New York City press conference to talk about his upcoming crusade in Queens. Photo by Michael McWeeney

The substance of Graham’s crusades changed little, aside from the addition of Christian rock and hip-hop music, said William Martin, author of “A Prophet With Honor,” a biography of Graham. They still involved singing by George Beverly Shea, who became part of Graham’s inner circle in the 1940s, and ended with Graham speaking for 20 to 30 minutes and asking people to respond to his “invitation” to convert. (Shea died in 2013 at the age of 104.)

Graham’s son Franklin has spoken publicly against Islam in recent years, garnering the type of publicity his father studiously avoided since the 1970s after his association with President Richard Nixon hurt his reputation. Since then, as evangelicals have increasingly linked themselves to the Republican Party, Graham cautioned religious leaders not to align too closely with any political program.

President George W. Bush shakes the hand of evangelist Billy Graham.

President George W. Bush shakes the hand of evangelist Billy Graham. Photo by Donovan Marks/Washington National Cathedral

“Billy Graham … has been unwilling to draw lines that would alienate other people or rule them out of his circle,” Martin said. “Many of the other conservative Christians who are involved in politics are not only willing to do that; they seem bent on doing that.” Graham gained White House access in his 30s and advised Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon on politics.

After his stature grew in the 1940s and 1950s with well-publicized crusades in Los Angeles, Washington, New York and Britain, presidents found it in their interest to meet and be seen with him. Graham used the access to offer political advice that belied a professed desire to avoid taking sides, Martin wrote in his book.

While Graham rarely endorsed candidates, from the 1950s to the 1970s “he was more partisan than he let out,” said Mark Noll, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “He did keep politics out of his public messages, but he wanted to take a part in public life, and the engines of publicity were there for somebody who was charismatic and could keep out of scandal like Graham.”

The Rev. Billy Graham holds a New York City press conference at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center to talk about his upcoming crusade. He says it will be his last in New York City.

Evangelist Billy Graham holds a New York City press conference at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center to talk about his upcoming crusade. He says it will be his last in New York City.

Graham had a close association with Nixon, and the president’s downfall shocked Graham in many ways, not the least of which was the profanity that Oval Office tapes showed Nixon freely used, according to Martin. The release of other tapes almost 30 years later dealt an embarrassing blow because they showed Graham speaking with Nixon negatively about Jewish news media figures in ways many Jews found offensive. Graham apologized repeatedly for the comments about Jews and for becoming too close to power.

His humility earned praise for his character, said Leo Sandon, professor emeritus of religion and American studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

“At times when Billy Graham, I thought, was showing the worst judgment, which in my opinion would be … with Nixon, even then, no one ever doubted his integrity, his honesty,” Sandon said. “His greatest problem was a lot of celebrity and publicity. He loved to be in that White House.”

It helped Graham’s recovery, Martin said, that he had since led global conferences — including two in the Netherlands in the 1980s — to bring Christians of various denominations together and help ministers preach. Graham’s willingness to associate with liberal mainline Protestants led to a break with Christian fundamentalists.

Through the years, his views became less conservative on many issues social conservatives care about most. According to “A Prophet With Honor,” Graham remained generally conservative but believed administration of the death penalty is biased against poor people. He regarded homosexuality as sinful “but no more so than adultery,” and said, “There are worse sins.”

At a time when many conservative Christian leaders were trying to focus public concern on secularism and gay marriage, Graham stressed poverty as the most pressing social issue.

But more recently, Graham’s messages on social issues waded into the political fray, leading some observers to speculate that his outspoken son played a role in his father’s political participation.

In 2012, in a prayer letter released by his ministry, Graham decried abortion and “a lack of shame over sin,” and took a more prominent role in partisan politics, after years of public avoidance.

That same year, as voters on North Carolina considered an amendment to the state constitution stipulating that marriage was between a man and a woman, a full-page ad taken out in several papers quoted Billy Graham saying:

“At 93, I never thought we would have to debate the definition of marriage. The Bible is clear — God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman. I want to urge my fellow North Carolinians to vote for the marriage amendment.”

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  • BG is guilty of the modern merger of reactionary politics and religion. This is the first & foremost way he should be remembered. Messenger for the Prince of Peace, not hardly. More like disciple of Mars, the god of war.

  • Billy Graham has moved toward uniting people while his son and daughter seek to divide them. Franklin and his sister are political animals while Billy has ministered – not always wisely but as best he can. As he looks at the end of his life, I don’t need he has to fear the accounting.

  • A few things we should not forget about Billybob Graham:

    1. He’s on tape agreeing vociferously with Nixon’s anti-Semitic ravings; he only apologized when he was “outed” some years later.

    2. He gave lukewarm support, at best, to the efforts of Martin Luther King. This is pointed out by none other than that raving liberal Ralph Reed in the forward he wrote some years ago to a book by ???.

    3. He seems to have raised a son–FranklinBob–who calls himself a Christian, but whose knowledge of Christianity is mostly perverted hatreds.

    4. BillyBob made lots of idiotic statements back in the ‘sixties which he never repudiated. I wish I could recall some of them. That was the era when we were afraid of the evil atheistic Commies. .

  • Graham said he didn’t want to divide people by talking about politics yet he spent his entire life dividing people by talking about religion which goes to show just because a person can speak doen’t mean they can think. When the train of reason departed Graham, like all religious and political leaders, got left at the station. https://thelastwhy.ca/poems/2013/1/25/religion.html

  • His preaching should be mourned before his death, since, as inventor of the “little salvation prayer,” he created a false doctrine that eternal salvation is a thing easily, and instantly, wrangled out of God by a meaningless set of words, something Jesus explicitly warns against. Millions today are being led by pastors influenced by this horrific false doctrine. Shameful legacy.

  • As for politics…If memory from research awhile back, Rev. B. Graham, his Presbyterian and racist father in law, Dr. L. Nelson Bell, and the extremist Presbyterian oil magnate and John Birch Society enthusiast, J. Howard Pew, were the founders of “Christianity Today.”

    Dr. Bell was the first executive editor and a columnist. He had also founded the Southern Presbyterian Journal where he developed his mad and immoral scheme called “voluntary segregation.”

    With one notable exception in editor Frank E. Gaebelein, who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., CT was passive/aggressive hostile towards the Civil Rights Movement in general and Dr. King in particular.

    Mr. Gaebelein was probably the object of an editorial that scolded the few Evangelicals who had marched with Dr. King, and I think likely found himself being censored after that.

    I remember an article where FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called Dr. King a liar.

    As you can predict, Christianity Today has recycled old racist arguments and political tactics against LGBT people. CT even once used the notorious Scott Lively, he of “alleged” for legal reasons crimes against humanity in Uganda, as a respectable source.

    Rev. B. Graham had desegregated his “Crusades,” but nevertheless belonged to a then segregated church, the “prestigious” First Baptist Church of Dallas. When his pastor, W. A. “Cheegro” Criswell, made national news for a fiery segregationist, anti Supreme Court speech that encouraged racists no end, Rev. Graham did offer up a mild, distancing rebuke: ” “My Pastor and I have never seen eye to
    eye on the race question.”

    A good while later, after everyone in the public eye had finally decided that being a public racist was not good for business and reputation, Pastor Criswell repented, so that he could become a President of the Southern Baptist Association, though rumor had it that he still taught a racist reading of the “Curse of Ham.” But then, legitimating bigotry and unearned privilege is apparently what biblical inerrancy is mostly about.

    As you can also predict, the current pastor of that church is the ever more notorious and shrill bigot, Pastor Robert Jeffress, he of the 130 million dollar remodeling edifice complex, though not notably a racist one, I guess. Progress! Pastor Jeffress is one of Pres. Trump’s “court evangelicals,” as the historian John Fea has labeled them.

    Rev. B. Graham had once tacitly endorsed the infamous “call me a bigot” Jessie Helms, who was in a very close race with Harvey Gantt, by very publicly inviting Sen. Helms for a visit at his home. If ancient memory serves on that, it was reported in Christianity Today itself by an Hispanic journalist.

    While he never set a date for the end of the world, he often talked about this old world soon ending to Rev. B. Graham used nuclear apocalyptic language as an unalterable and inescapable near future certainty to emotionally manipulate people into conforming to his cheap and calloused theology designed to wash away the sin of cognitive dissonance about white privilege and American exceptionalism. I mean…I remember when someone scared my mother and how they did it.

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