In the Spring of 1970, President Nixon felt embattled as the growing anti-war movement shut down college campuses and rallied thousands of people just outside the White House. The secret war in Cambodia had come to light, galvanizing protests. The National Guard shootings at Kent State and Jackson State in May added to the sense of crisis.
As Nixon searched for ways to mobilize his “silent majority” of patriotic Americans who believed in the war effort and old-fashioned American values, Billy Graham came to the rescue.
Graham was a lot of things to Nixon: friend, confidant, spiritual and political advisor. But most of all, Graham was someone Nixon could use to sacralize his politics. Just weeks after the shootings at Kent and Jackson, Graham invited Nixon to speak at his Knoxville Crusade. In such a heated atmosphere, Nixon’s appearance was inherently political, and Graham’s words at the rally made it more so. While Nixon sat on stage, Graham reminded his audience that the Bible commanded obedience to authority. When some protestors heckled Graham, he said, “All Americans may not agree with the decisions a president makes, but he is our president.” ¹
And Graham had bigger plans to support his president. Nixon aide Bob Haldeman wrote that Nixon wanted to “try to implement Billy Graham’s idea about a big pro-America rally, maybe on 4th of July.” In June, Graham and conservative comedian Bob Hope duly announced an “Honor America Day” celebration to be held on the national mall on the fourth of July. The event was a great success, but its meaning was in the eye of the beholder. To supporters of Graham and Nixon, the festivities were a wholesome celebration of God and country. To critics, the event was transparently political and cheapened true religion.²
Here’s a clip from Graham’s Honor America Day sermon at the Lincoln Memorial:
Graham isn’t offering evangelical Christianity here. Instead, he promotes a vaguely religious nationalism in which the American Dream is assumed to be sacred. The sermon culminates not in a call to repentance or invitation to follow Jesus, but in a stirring appeal to “pursue the vision, reach toward the goal, fulfill the American Dream.”
Graham would deeply regret his close association with Nixon. He had stuck with him even as the Watergate scandal consumed the administration. Perhaps Graham was naive, or blinded by power and celebrity. Perhaps there is a more generous explanation. In any case, he catastrophically misjudged Nixon’s character, and when Nixon’s true nature could no longer be denied, Graham felt betrayed.³
Later, when the Nixon tapes revealed anti-semitic conversations between Graham and Nixon, the damage to Graham’s reputation was severe. Graham came to believe that his close identification with partisan politics was one of the great mistakes of his career. From then on he tried, with varying success, to distance himself from partisan politics.
Graham had his time at the King’s court. And he realized that the cost—his credibility as a minister of the Gospel—could not be justified. Graham’s mistakes caused many Americans to write him off. But his trajectory in subsequent decades—toward greater inclusion and openness, toward more good news and less partisanship—make him a beloved figure to millions of people in the U.S. and around the world. Say what you will about Billy Graham, but he grew and changed over time, for the better.
Billy Graham’s history makes the present-day activities of his son Franklin and the other Court Evangelicals that much more remarkable. It seems the children have not learned from the sins of the father. Witness Franklin Graham’s prayer at Trump’s Phoenix rally this week:
Graham prays against a variety of evils without seeming to realize that President Trump embodies those very things. He appears, in short, either incredibly foolish or willfully dishonest.
Franklin Graham’s behavior puzzles me. Surely he knows of his father’s regrets. Does he believe Billy took the wrong lesson from being burned by Nixon? His trajectory is the opposite of his father’s, but he seems to want to trade on his father’s name. Does anyone know if Franklin has publicly commented on this?
Franklin ought to already know, but he is likely to learn soon enough: when Christians support a wicked ruler, the end can only be a bitter harvest.
¹ This account relies on Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God (New York: Basic Books, 2015). It’s a fascinating book. You should read it! For the Knoxville Crusade and Graham’s words, see Kruse, 260-263.
³See Grant Wacker’s sympathetic treatment of this and other aspects of Graham’s career in America’s Pastor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).
*As always, credit to John Fea for the “court evangelical” term.