Column: How Will History Remember Billy Graham?

  • Rev. Billy Graham prays during a service memorial in Baltimore on June 10, 1981. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Lucian Perkins The Washington Post — Lucian Perkins

  • FILE - In this June 12, 2003 file photo, the Rev. Billy Graham preaches in Oklahoma City, Okla. Graham, who died Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, at his home in North Carolina's mountains at age 99, reached hundreds of millions of listeners around the world with his rallies and his pioneering use of television. Graham's body will be brought to his hometown of Charlotte on Saturday, Feb. 24, as part of a procession expected to draw crowds of well-wishers. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File) Sue Ograocki

  • Rev. Billy Graham prays during a service memorial in Baltimore on June 10, 1981. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Lucian Perkins

For the Valley News
Published: 3/3/2018 10:30:15 PM
Modified: 3/3/2018 10:30:16 PM

In October 1992, I interviewed Billy Graham, the final piece for a PBS documentary called Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham. I asked him about civil rights and about various public figures he had known throughout his career. Everyone was “his friend” or his “good friend” — John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon Johnson — and he reserved special praise for Richard Nixon, “one of the great men” he had known.

My final question had to do with his legacy: How, I asked, did he want to be remembered by history?

Graham’s response was vintage Graham, a three-part (trinitarian, I suppose) reply. His initial instinct was to adopt the Carolina aw-shucks persona: “I’ve never thought about that,” and, “I’m not sure anyone will remember me.” Second, he nodded toward the camera and allowed as how, well, perhaps people might remember him if they saw television productions like the one we were filming. Then what struck me was the rapidity with which he pivoted to his answer. The response itself was fairly predictable and, I have little doubt, sincere: He wanted to be remembered as someone who had been faithful in preaching the gospel. But what was utterly clear to me was that, despite his initial protestations, he had thought about it and had done so at some length.

Musing about one’s mortality, or immortality, is a very human trait, and Graham’s patent honesty, albeit an honesty reckoned in his demeanor more than his words, made me like him more. But the question that prompted Graham’s response is worth raising again two days after the evangelist’s funeral.

The evangelical world of my childhood could be divided into two camps: those who liked Billy Graham and those who didn’t. My family was firmly in the Graham camp, and we regarded his detractors — Carl McIntire, the Bob Joneses, Bob Shuler, Jack Wyrtzen — as marginal cranks.

With Graham, what was not to like? My family didn’t have television until 1963, but once we switched it on, there he was in black and white — preaching the gospel to the masses and then, during the altar call, pivoting insouciantly toward the camera (below him, stage left) to address the audience at home, informing us that we too could “make a decision for Christ.”

We’d already done so, of course, but how could we not be impressed with how smooth this man was? Like the young Bill Clinton, I too sent some of my allowance money to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

A second element of Graham’s legacy was his very public friendships with world leaders, and especially with a succession of American presidents. For evangelicals hunkered into our subculture in the middle decades of the 20th century, Graham provided us with vicarious satisfaction. Maybe we were not quite so marginal as we knew we really were if the president of the United States spent time with Billy Graham, one of our own!

And, finally, when the televangelist scandals hit in the late 1980s — Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Oral Roberts, Robert Tilton, Marvin Gorman, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell — Graham was not implicated. Any talk of legacy must include the fact that, aside from his regrettable comments about Jews in a private conversation with Nixon, Graham never faced a credible charge of impropriety.

The burden of this very long prologue is to say that I approach the question of Graham’s place in history with an enormous reservoir of good will. I think he was a remarkable man, a person of integrity and rare talent.

To take one tiny example, anyone who has looked into a television camera knows how difficult it is to deliver one’s lines, even if they are prepared and memorized; to do so extemporaneously — and flawlessly — is an achievement. When I’m asked by reporters who will be the next Billy Graham (a favorite question), my answer is unequivocal: no one. Graham came to prominence at a unique moment in history, when new media were emerging. He and his associates exploited those media brilliantly to create the 20th century’s first religious celebrity.

No, there will never be another Billy Graham.

If I were to offer a “Yes, but” on Graham’s legacy, it would center around his political machinations. And here, in the interests of transparency, I should probably confess that I have never quite forgiven Graham for endorsing Nixon over George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election, even though Graham himself apologized to McGovern for his comments during the heat of that campaign.

My qualms, however, reach deeper than that. While conducting research for God in the White House at the Kennedy presidential library, I came across a letter from Graham to Kennedy, the Democratic nominee for president, dated Aug. 10, 1963. Graham acknowledged the rumors that he, Graham, intended to raise the so-called religious issue (Kennedy’s Roman Catholicism) during the general election campaign. Graham allowed that he would probably vote for Nixon, but he assured Kennedy that he would in no way raise the religious issue.

Eight days later, on Aug. 18, 1960, Graham convened a gathering of American Protestant ministers in Montreux, Switzerland, to discuss how they could thwart Kennedy’s election in November. The upshot of that meeting was a behind-closed-doors gathering of Protestant ministers at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington just after Labor Day, the traditional start of the general election campaign. Once again, the agenda was how to sound the alarm about the prospect of sending a Roman Catholic to the White House; the obvious beneficiary of such calculations, of course, was Nixon. Later in the same campaign, Graham visited Henry Luce at the Time & Life Building and, according to Graham’s autobiography, said, “I want to help Nixon without blatantly endorsing him.” Graham drafted an article praising Nixon that stopped just short of a full endorsement. Luce was prepared to run it in Life magazine but pulled it at the last minute.

I suppose you can contend that Graham never technically broke his promise to Kennedy. But that argument is Jesuitical, not evangelical. Everyone has lapses, of course, and Graham was likely blinded by his loyalty to Nixon — an astigmatism amply demonstrated in the ensuing years, especially as the Watergate scandal unfolded.

If that were the only instance of Graham’s political duplicity, I’d be willing to drop the matter. Unfortunately, similar skullduggery attended other politicians and other political campaigns.

In the 1976 campaign, shortly after Nixon’s resignation and not long after the first of Graham’s serial renunciations of politics, the evangelist wrote to Gerald Ford, the Republican nominee, and offered him a spot on the platform at one of Graham’s crusades. Graham noted that such an appearance had worked well for Nixon and that it would similarly provide a political boost for Ford in his campaign against the Democratic nominee (and avowed evangelical), Jimmy Carter.

Long before the 1980 campaign, Graham convened a dozen fellow preachers in Dallas for “a special time of prayer” and talk about the upcoming presidential campaign. Carter’s liaison for religious affairs had only recently returned from a visit to the evangelist’s home in Montreat, N.C., with a report that Graham “supports the President wholeheartedly.” But that support was apparently less than robust.

The unmistakable subtext of the gathering was the need to rally behind someone who could mount a challenge to Carter, and the upshot was an overture to Ronald Reagan, encouraging him to run against Carter.

On Sept. 12, 1980 (coincidentally, 20 years to the day after Kennedy’s famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association addressing the “religious issue”), Graham called Paul Laxalt, U.S. senator from Nevada and chair of Reagan’s election campaign. Laxalt’s memorandum following the call indicated that Graham offered to help “short of public endorsement.”

Eleven days following that phone call, Graham sent a letter to Robert L. Maddox, Carter’s religious liaison. “I wanted to discuss the religious situation and the political campaign,” Graham wrote. “As you know, with the Lord’s help I am staying out of it.”

In 1960, eight days had elapsed between Graham’s letter of assurance to Kennedy and the Montreux gathering. During the 1980 campaign, eleven days separated Graham’s phone call offering help to the Republican nominee and his pledge of neutrality to a staff member of the Democratic nominee.

I’m less interested in arguing the specific points of each betrayal — yes, I’ll call it that — than in the overall shape and direction of Graham’s political activism. The real tragedy of Graham’s machinations is that they played a role in changing the course of history — not in a narrow sense, but in a larger sense.

I have little doubt that Nixon would have been re-elected in 1972 without Graham’s help; to suggest otherwise is ludicrous. But if you step back to take in the larger picture, you watch the most influential evangelist of the 20th century lending his endorsement to the man who (at least until recently) has little competition for the dubious distinction as the most mendacious politician in American history. Let me say that again: the most mendacious politician in American history.

I suppose it’s possible to admire Graham’s loyalty while simultaneously questioning his judgment, but Graham supported Nixon not only in 1972 but throughout Nixon’s entire career, despite the unspeakable things that Nixon did throughout that career. Similarly in 1976 and 1980. In both cases, Graham, though less overt, supported politicians and, therefore, policies that represent a betrayal (that word again) of the best of the evangelical tradition, a tradition that historically sought to avoid the scourge of war and to address the concerns of the poor, women and minorities, those on the margins, those Jesus called “the least of these.”

The collateral damage of Graham’s political intrigues was that evangelicalism came to be identified with a political movement largely at odds with the New Testament teachings of Jesus and with the noble tradition of 19th-century evangelicalism. Graham was not solely responsible, but he played a role, a not insignificant role.

And that certainly will weigh in the ledger in any accounting of Billy Graham’s standing in history.

Randall Balmer is chair of the Religion Department and director of the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College. He produced, wrote and presented the PBS documentary Crusade: The Life of Billy Graham, and his most recent book is Evangelicalism in America. A version of this essay appeared in 2016 in Syndicate Theology.

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