In a recent interview with Christianity Today, the magazine he helped to found in 1956, Billy Graham expressed regret that he hadn’t spent more time with his family. But he also reflected that he had become too involved in politics.
If that sentiment sounds familiar to those who have followed Graham’s remarkable career over the decades, that’s because we’ve heard it before. Many times.
Graham has had a lifelong fascination with politics and especially with politicians. He agitated to get an audience with Harry Truman at the White House in 1950, an encounter that did not go well. The president was not impressed with the brash young evangelist, especially when Graham and his associates, playing to the press, later simulated the prayer they had with Truman on the White House lawn. When the photograph hit the newspapers the following day, the president was not amused.
Graham fared better with Truman’s successor, Dwight Eisenhower, offering political advice and volunteering to undertake diplomatic missions in the course of his evangelistic travels. But Graham’s most notorious entanglement was with Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon. Graham and Nixon forged a friendship that endured until Nixon’s death in 1994.
While I was researching God in the White House, I came across correspondence in various presidential libraries that demonstrates the depth of Graham’s political ties; especially with Republicans, and particularly with Nixon. On August 10, 1960, for example, Graham sent a letter to John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee for president and only the second Roman Catholic to run on a major-party ticket. Graham assured Kennedy in no uncertain terms that, contrary to rumors, the evangelist had no intention of raising the “religious issue” during the course of the campaign.
Eight days later, however, Graham convened a gathering of American Protestant ministers in Montreaux, Switzerland, to discuss how to derail Kennedy’s campaign. The follow-up to the Montreaux meeting was a closed-door gathering of 150 Protestant clergy at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington on November 7—the purpose of which, once again, was to sound the alarm about the dangers of a Roman Catholic in the White House.
After Nixon finally won the presidency in 1968, Graham conducted several religious services in the White House over the course of Nixon’s first term, a task he shared with other clergy, including Norman Vincent Peale of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. During Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972, when the notorious Watergate scandal broke, Graham openly favored the incumbent over George McGovern, the son of a Methodist minister who had himself studied for the ministry.
Once again, Graham declared himself chastened by too close an association with Nixon, especially after the White House tapes came to light. During the Gerald Ford presidency, Graham tried to stay out of view, ceding the spotlight to another preacher named Billy—Billy Zeoli, a comical, Rasputin-like figure from Ford’s hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, who arranged to have his “Dear Jerry” devotionals placed on the president’s desk every Monday morning.
But Graham was hardly inactive, even during the Ford years. He pressed the new president to pardon Nixon, the act that, more than anything else, defined the Ford presidency and probably cost him election in his own right in 1976. But Graham was at it again during that campaign, albeit out of sight. Correspondence in the Ford Presidential Library indicates that Graham tried to persuade Ford to appear onstage at one of Graham’s revival crusades, and Graham made no secret of the fact that he understood the political benefits that would accrue to Ford if he did so.
What made the 1976 campaign tricky for Graham, however, was that Ford’s Democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter, was, like Graham himself, both a Southern Baptist and a self-professed “born-again” Christian. The fact that Graham was maneuvering against a fellow evangelical, however, apparently troubled the evangelist not at all.
Throughout his career Graham mastered the art of the wink or the nod or the hand brushing a shoulder in order to convey his political preferences. Occasionally Graham has taken bold, even courageous, stands on political matters—as when he advocated nuclear disarmament or in 1981 when he warned, presciently, that the “hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”
Too often, though, and despite periodic expressions of repentance, Graham allowed himself to be used for political, even partisan, ends.