It’s hard to overestimate the influence of Billy Graham, who died on Wednesday at the age of 99. The North Carolina native son ushered evangelical Christianity into the mass-media era while consolidating it as a political force.
The evangelical movement’s enthusiastic support for Donald Trump has made it increasingly clear that its animating faith is neither public compassion nor private morality, but rather a tribal identification with white, Christian nationalism. It’s tempting to look back on the public life of Billy Graham through a rosy filter and see a kinder, more inclusive vision of evangelical Christianity.
As Tara Isabella Burton wrote in a piece for Vox entitled, “Evangelical America needs Billy Graham now more than ever,” Graham was “for the majority of his career, a religious figure who transcended and unified the political spectrum. He provided a glimpse of a sincerely held faith that, at times, prompted political action, rather than the other way around. In that, he represents a vision of authentic evangelical Christianity drastically different from today’s politicized Christian right, which has become little more than the faith-outreach arm of the Republican Party.”
Graham’s reputation as a faith leader able to bridge the United States’ political chasm is often premised on the fact that he sat at the side of both Democratic and Republican presidents. He advised them and gave them moral cover in ways that were at the very least problematic. As an evangelist who pioneered religious broadcasting through radio and television, Graham rose to prominence during an era of political consensus. Yet the increasingly theocratic cast of the current merger between the evangelical movement and the GOP has Graham’s fingerprints all over it.
Before Billy Graham, evangelical Christianity was a social force deeply at odds with conventional politics, more focused on spiritual rewards in the hereafter than attaining political goals in the earthly realm. Its sensibilities were captured in the old hymn “This World Is Not My Home.” Graham’s pivotal role was to create a comfortable meeting place for Christian faith and political power. Along with radio and television, Graham harnessed the new technology of sound amplification to preach to 350,000 people during the eight-week Los Angeles Crusade in 1949. He soon was consorting with the politically powerful: As Tim Funk reported in the Charlotte Observer, one year later the 31-year-old Graham would be kneeling on the White House lawn in a white suit and buck shoes after praying with President Truman.
To appreciate Billy Graham’s legacy, one need look no further than his son, Franklin Graham, who serves as president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelical Association in Charlotte. The younger Graham is among the most vocal evangelical leaders in supporting Trump, while espousing homophobic and Islamaphobic views.
Here’s what Graham said in an interview with the Moskoviskij Komsomolets newspaper during a 2015 trip to Russia, according to People for the American Way’s Right-Wing Watch: “I very much appreciate that President Putin is protecting Russian young people against homosexual propaganda. If only to give them the opportunity to grow up and make a decision for themselves. Again, homosexuals cannot have children, they can take other people’s children. I believe that President Obama — and I’ll repeat, he’s a very nice person — is leading America down the wrong road. He’s taking a stand against God.”
Around the same time, when then-candidate Donald Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” Franklin Graham rightly credited himself for being a step ahead, writing on Facebook: “For some time I have been saying that Muslim immigration into the United States should be stopped until we can properly vet them or until the war with Islam is over.”
The father Billy Graham was known for a humility that has vanished among the current generation of evangelical leaders. In 1993, he called the Cleveland Plain Dealer to publicly apologize for suggesting that AIDS was “a judgment of God.” The elder Graham is shrewd in a way that his son, Franklin, doesn’t need to be. As a public figure whose star shown in the latter half of the 20th Century, Billy Graham had to be cognizant of the power of daily newspapers and broadcast media to enforce the liberal consensus of the era.
His true feelings, expressed in private conversations with President Nixon, are right in line with the Christian nationalism openly espoused today. Aside from advocating that the United States bomb the dikes to destroy the rice crop in North Vietnam — a war crime — Graham and Nixon expressed a shared hostility towards Jews. After Nixon complained about the “Jewish influence in Hollywood and the media,” tapes record Graham as saying, “This stranglehold has got to be broken or the country’s going down the drain.”
When the tapes were released in 2002, Graham apologized and said not only did he not remember making the statement but that he also didn’t recall “having those feelings about” Jews.
The apology strains credibility: The tapes reveal a man not only aware of his feelings but actively concealing them.
“I go and I keep friends with Mr. [AM] Rosenthal at the New York Times and people of that sort, you know,” Graham told Nixon. “And all — I mean, not all the Jews, but a lot of the Jews are great friends of mine, they swarm around me and are friendly to me because they know that I’m friendly with Israel. But they don’t know how I really feel about what they are doing to the country. And I have no power, no way to handle them, but I would stand up if under proper circumstances.”