Evangelicals have been getting themselves in compromising political situations for a long time. Here, Paul Conrad lampoons Billy Graham’s slavish support for Nixon in the waning months of a doomed presidency. The scene is a typical Billy Graham revival, except the seats are empty. It’s time for the altar call. “All those wishing to make a ‘Decision for Nixon’ will please come forward,” Graham says. But the only person in the audience is Nixon himself, looking grim. The joke is on both men—Graham, for politicizing the gospel, Nixon, for having lost the public’s trust. No one is going to answer that altar call.
I’ve written before about Graham’s dalliances with political power and how he came to regret them. When I stumbled across a reference to this cartoon yesterday I wanted to track it down and see it for myself. It’s a humorous and apt reminder of the damage done when Christians become enablers rather than prophets in the public square.
He used his status as the most important American religious figure of the 20th century to help lead American evangelicals into a more robust engagement with the rest of the world. He was also an institution builder who was deeply invested in Christianity as a global faith.
There were other people who taught more missionaries, and some who reached more people on television; there were even those whose preaching events rivaled Graham’s in size. But no one else did as much to turn evangelicalism into an international movement that could stand alongside—and ultimately challenge—both the Vatican and the liberal World Council of Churches for the mantle of global Christian leadership.
Noll: My own sense as a historian trying to look at circumstances is that several things came together to make Graham so effective and influential: his own charisma and his life-long faithfulness to his preaching vocation, but also the fact that he emerged (a) immediately after World War II when audiences were prepared for a fresh gospel message, (b) just as leaders like Carl Henry and Harold John Ockenga were leading a wide portion of northern American fundamentalism toward a broader and more positive evangelical witness, (c) when an audience consisting of the moderates of conservative Protestantism and the conservatives of moderate Protestantism were able to work together, and (d) just as modern means of communication like TV were making possible wide impact by photogenic personalities.
Marsden: During and just after World War II there was an upsurge of interest in religion in America at just about every level, from healing-oriented tent revivalists to intellectuals. Especially in the late 1940s even some mainstream thinkers talked about whether some sort of Christian renewal might be necessary if Western civilization were to recover from its recent debacle. The war and its aftermath also generated popular interest in religion as veterans and others married, moved to the suburbs, and raised families. Youth for Christ already had an effective ministry during the war, and Billy was only one of quite a few effective evangelists of the time. His personal charisma and effective intense preaching style just brought him to the top among these. The combination of a traditional gospel of personal salvation and declarations that the future of civilization was at stake (in the age of anxieties over the bomb and the Cold War and also about the corrupting influence of prosperity and mass culture) helped him speak exactly to the mood of the times for many people.
When Billy Graham stands before the judgment seat of God, he may finally realize how badly he failed his country, and perhaps his God. On civil rights and the environmental crisis, the most important issues of his lifetime, he championed the wrong policies.
Graham was on the wrong side of history.
The world’s most famous evangelist let his apocalyptic anticipation of the coming kingdom of God blind him to the realities of living in this world.
John Turner says Graham took evangelicalism mainstream but also politicized it:
Graham played a major role in dragging much of American fundamentalism into the camp of the “new evangelicalism,” meaning among other things a greater openness toward popular culture and a less combative tone toward theological moderates. Certainly, one should also credit Carl F. H. Henry, Harold Ockenga, and many others, but Graham’s influence dwarfed all others during the internecine fundamentalist battles of the 1950s.
Graham played an important role in the post-WWII politicization of American evangelicalism. His early sermons strongly reflect the anti-communism of the early Cold War, and his relationship with Richard Nixon accelerated the courtship between Republicans and evangelicals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While Graham himself pulled back from more overt forms of political activism after Watergate and signaled a shift toward political moderation, many evangelicals followed the trail he had blazed during Nixon’s first term.
Jonathan Merritt praises Graham for distancing himself from the Christian Right later in his career:
Today, when Mr. Graham passed from this life into the next, we lost perhaps the last true evangelical statesman. Filling the space he vacated is a new crop of religious leaders who would do well to live as Mr. Graham did — resisting the pull of partisanship, standing courageously in the middle; speaking with love and mutual respect for those who claim other parties; clinging to the Gospel, but not in a way that marginalizes listeners based on their political affiliations.
America’s preacher has left us, and we need him now more than ever.
Jesus said “a prophet hath no honor in his own country.” Prophets take adversarial stances toward their times, as did the 20th century’s two greatest religious leaders, Martin Luther King and Pope John Paul II. Graham did not. Partly for that reason, his country showered him with honors.
Billy Graham was easily the most influential evangelical Christian of the 20th century — a man at home in the historical company of George Whitefield and John Wesley.
But this would be hard to tell from reading his sermons, which even close associates described as ordinary. His books are hardly more memorable. So what was it that compelled hundreds of millions of people to attend and watch his evangelistic “crusades” and to find personal transformation in his words?
Graham’s global ministry was the triumph of complete sincerity, expressed with a universally accessible simplicity. “There is no magic, no manipulation,” said publicist Gavin Reid. “The man just obviously believes what he says.” Graham could display charisma in meetings with presidents and queens. In the pulpit — the place of his calling from an early age — he was nearly transparent, allowing a light behind him to shine through him. He had the power of a man utterly confident in some other, greater power.
In my fundamentalist childhood, I remember Graham being variously an object of suspicion (for his ecumenism) and admiration (for his commitment to preaching the gospel). Encountering him as an adult, a Christian, and a historian is a different and complicated experience. His flaws are apparent, but I can’t judge him harshly. He grew toward goodness. On many days, that’s more than I can say for myself.
Billy Graham has died. There is much to criticize in Graham’s long career, but much to learn from as well. What stands out to me about Graham’s life is growth. Like other great historical figures, he was not static. As Graham’s influence expanded, so too did his moral vision. We’re all flawed. Only some of us become better as we age. Only rarely do powerful people become more compassionate as their power grows. But that’s what Billy Graham did.
He came from a provincial southern fundamentalism. Graham was so unsophisticated that even Wheaton College was a new world for him. As a young man he had a taste for fancy clothes and finer things, perhaps an early hint of how in his worst moments he would become blinded by his proximity to power. But Graham’s meteoric ascent also revealed a growing maturity.
In 1956 Look Magazine asked Graham if he was a fundamentalist. Graham replied,
If by fundamentalism you mean ‘narrow’, ‘bigoted’, ‘prejudiced’, ‘extremist’, ‘emotional’, ‘snakehandler’ without social conscience – then I am not a fundamentalist. However, if by fundamentalist you mean a person who accepts the authority of the scriptures, the virgin birth of Christ, his bodily resurrection, his second coming and personal salvation by grace through faith, then I am a fundamentalist. However, I much prefer being called ‘Christian’.
The cynic’s take is that this was nothing more than rebranding on the part of Graham and a cadre of elite white neo-evangelicals. It certainly was that. But that’s not all it was. Graham’s desire to simply be known as a Christian indicated a broadening of his vision. As he aged, Graham would become increasingly ecumenical and respectful of other traditions. For that he earned the contempt of fundamentalists.
Graham’s failures were many. At times he preached a vague civil religion, a Cold War religious nationalism that had little to do with following Jesus. He struggled to see beyond his investments in American nationalism and American whiteness. He could have struck a major blow for the civil rights movement, but instead his faith in individual conversion made him a useful avatar for colorblind reactionary politics. He conflated Christianity and Republicanism. Indeed, it is fair to ask if Billy Graham was the first court evangelical.
But if he was the first court evangelical, it’s a role he came to regret. Graham’s post-watergate career was not without problems, but the direction of his movement was clear. While a newly visible Christian Right would embrace the politics of fear and hatred, Graham tried to keep his distance. He seemed to stand for something more simple and more winsome: we’re all sinners, Jesus loves us, turn to him.
As we mark Graham’s passing it is easy to dwell on his failures. But I hope we will also appreciate how he grew over time and became a figure of comfort and inspiration to millions. In an age when many Christian voices promote hatred, Graham’s sermons offer a different message: God loves you. Tragically, Graham struggled to instill this message in his own children. Franklin Graham’s current behavior is not just a slander against the name of Jesus, it is a profound repudiation of the arc of his father’s life. Billy Graham was willing to learn and change. We need more people like that in public life.
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.