(RNS) — Politicians have a “last hurrah.” Athletes take a “victory lap.” For Billy Graham, who announced that his 2005 New York crusade would be his final one in that city, it was a “last hallelujah.”
Graham, who died at age 99 on Wednesday (Feb. 21), was the nation’s most prominent religious leader for more than 50 years. He suffered from prostate cancer, fluid on the brain, deafness in one ear and a broken hip requiring the use of a walker. Yet, he pressed on with his evangelistic message.
Like another religious icon, St. John Paul II, Graham preached sermons of faith and hope despite physical pain and an awareness that death could be near. Like Karol Wojtyla, Billy Graham was a “Lion in Winter” who did not easily surrender to the inevitable.
I attended his Manhattan news conference prior to the 2005 crusade, and it was clear Graham still commanded attention. There were 21 television cameras and the familiar whirl of still cameras clicking and flashing. Graham remained big news in America’s media capital.
He had stopped commenting on political issues as he once did. “I went too far” in becoming entangled with political leaders and public policy, he said.
He surely “went too far” in his 1972 secretly taped White House conversation with President Nixon.
Graham’s anti-Jewish remarks represent the low point of his career when he told the president Jews control the American media: “This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.” Incredibly, Graham agreed with Nixon’s previous bigoted words about Jews and their alleged influence in the United States.
“You believe that?” Nixon asked Graham after the “stranglehold” comment.
“Yes, sir,” was the reply.
“Oh, boy,” said the president. “So do I. I can’t ever say that but I believe it.”
In the same conversation, Graham mentioned he had Jewish friends in the media who “swarm around me and are friendly to me.” But, he told Nixon, “they don’t know how I really feel about what they’re doing to this country.”
Tragically, Graham failed to stand up to Nixon by rejecting the president’s obscene remarks. We expect great religious leaders to speak truth to power. Instead, Graham agreed with Nixon and added his own hostile remarks. Since the tapes were released in 2002, Graham has begged the Jewish community’s forgiveness for his mistake and offered personal repentance “on my hands and knees.”
So it was not surprising his first comments at the news conference were warm words of friendship and appreciation for the Jewish community. His remarks set me thinking about Graham’s long, often unknown, positive relationship with Jews, Judaism and the state of Israel.
I first met Graham in 1977 in Atlanta when the American Jewish Committee presented him an award for his interfaith work. Many Christians were surprised by my organization’s action, and some Jews were critical. After all, Graham’s single message always was the gospel. But Graham deserved the AJC award.
In those years he worked effectively behind the scenes at “the highest levels” in Washington and elsewhere in support of Soviet Jewry. The Jews in the former Soviet Union were not free to immigrate to Israel and other lands of freedom, and the repressive communist regime curtailed Jewish religious life and freedom of conscience.
At the same time, Graham produced the film “His Land,” a glowing cinematic tribute to modern Israel and its people. The movie attracted critical acclaim and large audiences of both Christians and Jews.
In 1973, Graham publicly criticized the excesses of some Christian missionaries. Citing New Testament verses from the Book of Romans, he declared:
“I believe God has always had a special relationship with the Jewish people. … In my evangelistic efforts, I have never felt called to single out Jews as Jews. … Just as Judaism frowns on proselytizing that is coercive, or that seeks to commit men against their will, so do I.”
In 1996, he was again critical when the Southern Baptist Convention, Graham’s denomination, adopted a resolution to actively single out Jews for conversion.
I met Graham in 1991 during an earlier crusade in New York City. He was very sensitive to the Jewish community and made clear he never targets any specific group for conversion.
No one knows how history will ultimately treat Billy Graham. But I am certain we shall never see his like again. That’s the way it always is with a true “original.”
(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of “The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us.” The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)