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

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

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 advisers approach the job.

When news broke on Wednesday (Feb. 21) that Billy Graham died at age 99, social media was awash with warm reflections on his legacy from evangelical leaders as well as prominent politicians — including Barack Obama and Donald Trump.


RELATED: Billy Graham, America’s pre-eminent evangelist, dies at 99


Few mentioned Graham's political affiliations (he was a registered Democrat who often supported Republicans), and National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson championed how he "transcended political and religious differences to faithfully proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.” But when Graham 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.

Billy Graham, left, talks with President Kennedy during a call at the the White House in Washington on Dec. 12, 1961.  (AP Photo, File)

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 215 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 such as 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 news 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."

Evangelist Billy Graham begins his sermon in Atlanta's Georgia Dome on Oct 26, 1994. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)


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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 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.

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Franklin Graham in particular has joined Jerry Falwell Jr., Falwell Sr.’s son, and other evangelical leaders as a critic of President Obama and frequent public defender of Trump. Franklin Graham backed the business mogul’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering the United States (he said it was “not a Bible issue”), deflected criticism of Trump following race-related violence in Charlottesville, Va. (Graham shamed politicians for trying to “blame” the president), and dismissed accusations about the president’s alleged extramarital affair (Graham called Trump a “changed person”).

Franklin Graham's political involvement stands in stark contrast with his father’s more hands-off approach.

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


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"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 Graham's 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. He 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."

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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.

Billy Graham, center, is flanked by GOP presidential candidate Richard Nixon, right, and Gov. Spiro T. Agnew, the vice presidential candidate, left, as the evangelist delivers the benediction at the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach in 1968.  Graham prayed for the unity and welfare of the nation. RNS file photo

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.

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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. (Franklin Graham’s hard-line stance on homosexuality and Islam was cited by lawmakers in the United Kingdom who called for him to be banned from their country for "hate speech.")

In 2012, in a prayer letter released by his ministry, Billy 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 in 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.”

(A version of this story ran on Billy Graham's 99th birthday.)

Comments

  1. but buT bUT BUT?

    “Billy Graham … kept the faith and (mostly) dropped the politics … [BUT] in the heart of the Cold War, everyone knew where he stood on politics. … [BUT] in the political arena, Graham deliberately withdrew from it, at least in public [so as to have his] focus was on the gospel, not politics … [BUT] Graham cautioned religious leaders not to align too closely with any political program. … [BUT] Graham gained White House access in his 30s and advised Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon on politics. … [BUT] he used the access to offer political advice that belied a professed desire to avoid taking sides … [BUT] he was more partisan than he let out … He did keep politics out of his public messages, BUT he wanted to take a part in public life … BUT more recently, Graham’s messages on social issues waded into the political fray, leading some observers to speculate that his outspoken son [Franklin] played a role in his father’s political participation. … [BUT] in 2012 … Billy Graham … took a more prominent role in partisan politics”!

    With all the BUT’s this article sure is highly politicized, isn’t it? Whatever for.

    For this, maybe?

    According to Will Graham, in Michelle A. Vu, “Billy Graham Dies at 99”, Christian Post, February 21, 2018:

    “My grandfather … today … had the opportunity to realize that hope himself, kneeling before his Savior and hearing the words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.'”

    but buT bUT BUT?

  2. Any possible political differences aside, I think Rev. Graham was a person of deep Christian faith. May he rest in peace.

  3. Lesson learned from Cecil Bothwell, “Billy Graham: An Old Soldier Fades Away”, Consortium News, February 21, 2018:

    For the record, my born-again Christian brother Billy Graham:

    (1) “Was the spiritual father of today’s right-wing religious leaders … endorsed castration as punishment for rapists … approved of warriors and war, weapons of mass destruction … and covert operations … [and] befriended oil men and arms manufacturers”!

    (2) “Publicly supported every war or intervention waged by the United States from Korea forward … [with] 1950 … June 25 … [being] the first time Graham encouraged a president to go to war”!

    (3) “Supported [General Douglas MacArthur]’s plan to invade China”!

    (4) “Praised Senator Joseph McCarthy and supported his assault on Constitutional rights”!

    (5) “Supported South American despots … [and] was a political operative, reporting to [President John F.] Kennedy on purported communist insurgencies in Latin America … and networking with the CIA in South America … [and] abetted genocide in oil-rich Ecuador and surrounds”!

    (6) “Urge[d President Richard] Nixon to bomb dikes in Vietnam – knowing that it would kill upward of a million civilians … [and] was a political operative … networking with the CIA in … Vietnam”!

    (7) “Supported police repression of Vietnam war protesters and civil rights marchers … [and] opposed Martin Luther King’s tactic of civil disobedience”!

    (8) “When tapes were aired that exposed the foul-mouthed President as a schemer and plotter … [along with] Graham’s denigration of Jews … claimed ignorance of the hour-and-a-half long conversation in which he led the anti-Semitic attack”!

    (9) “Lobbied for arms sales to Saudi Arabia during the Reagan years”!

    (10) “Compared … President [G.H.W. Bush] to a messiah destined to save the world … called Saddam [Hussein, Iraq’s President] the Antichrist … [and] suggested it was [Bush’s] historical mission to destroy Saddam”!

    (11) “Conveyed foreign threats and entreaties for [President Bill] Clinton … [and] lent … imprimatur to G.W. Bush as he declared war on terrorism from the pulpit of the National Cathedral”!

  4. How “DEEP”, though, is brother Billy Graham’s “DEEP Christian faith” – and what sort of “DEPTH” should we born-again Christians be talking about – in light of what Cecil Bothwell exposes in “Billy Graham: An Old Soldier Fades Away”, Consortium News, February 21, 2018?

    “DEEP” as in “DEEP [state]”, more like. But most certainly, not the “DEPTH” that apostle Paul alludes to in Ephesians 3:14-19:

    “I bow my knees before the Father … that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and DEPTH, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.”

  5. We disagree, but — as a Catholic — I do appreciate your scriptural quote that undoubtedly describes Billy Graham.

  6. Unlike you, however, a true “Catholic” wouldn’t read that Ephesians 3 passage about DEPTH in your terms so as to pontificate and canonize Billy Graham the Protestant – but strictly according to the following Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    “2565 … Prayer is Christian insofar as it is communion with Christ and extends throughout the Church, which is his Body. Its dimensions [breadth and length and height and DEPTH] are those of Christ’s love. 23 [23 Cf. Eph 3:18-21.] … 2714 Contemplative prayer is also the pre-eminently intense time of prayer. In it the Father strengthens our inner being with power through his Spirit ‘that Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith’ and we may be ‘grounded in love.’ 24 [24 Eph 3:16-17.]”

  7. It’s quite apparent you cannot apply official Catholic teaching, etc. in your opinion of Rev. Graham. No one is canonizing this Protestant preacher (who, after all, would want to join the ranks of “Saint” John Paul the Great Enabler of clerical wrongdoing, episcopal malfeasance, and papal indifference to all the aforementioned?). If you’re going to cite the CCC, please, for your sake, demonstrate some minimal knowledge of its application.

  8. I know this doesn’t say much but, for over 3 years I partook discussions with your fellow Catholics where I am and we look into The Catechism of the Catholic Church. Which proves you’re wrong: It’s the Catholics who don’t know their Catechism of the Catholic Church.

    A lot of them going, “It said that? Really?”

    And when I showed them all the scriptures footnoted to each Catechism (willfully ignoring the Oral Tradition sayings of the Early Church Wolves I mean Fathers) and we studied the cited passages, they go, “It said that? Really?”

    (At least they said that, unlike your dismissive know-it-all words of folly.)

    Then, and only then, they all decided to kick me out for lack of, as you put it, ever so politically and gingerly, “some minimal knowledge of its application.”

    LOL.

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