Graham was the greatest evangelist of the Twentieth Century, “America’s Pastor,” the antithesis of liberal Quakerism with his belief that the only way to Heaven was a personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. But in the latter part of his life, Graham changed his mind. He had thought that “all those Chinese babies” were going to Hell. Now, he didn’t think so. He told Kenneth Woodward, “My job is to do the preaching and God’s job is to do the saving.”
There were other changes as well. When Graham started out as an evangelistic preacher, his fellow fundamentalist Christians thought the world was evil. There was no point in participating in worldly politics. It was best to lead a pure, Christian life, separated from the corruption of political power and double-dealing. But when Graham associated with Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon, he opened the door for his fellow fundamentalists to flood into the political arena. He paved the way for Jerry Falwell and the “Moral Majority.” He was the originator of a phenomenon that now divides our country between the religious right and the more secular left. Yet in the last twenty or so years of his life, Graham distanced himself from politics and returned to the idea that faith and politics should not be bedfellows.
Graham’s first mass revival in 1949 in Los Angeles was an unqualified success, attracting perhaps 350,000 people. People were afraid of world-wide Communism, and Billy used that fear to convert people to Christianity, which—according to him—was the only spiritual force that could stop the spread of the godless menace. Of course, the key to the triumph of the 1949 “Crusade” was the news coverage and publicity that William Randolph Hearst gave it.
In any case, Billy Graham was motivated by that success to seek out public figures and celebrities who could support his evangelism and satisfy his own ego. He practically begged Harry Truman for a meeting and eventually got twenty minutes with the President. Truman, however, was uncomfortable with Billy grabbing his shoulder during prayer and positively enraged when Graham later divulged details of the meeting to the press.
Billy continued his journey into the modern world by embracing its technology. He followed his radio program, Hour of Decision, with a presence on television and even started his own movie studio, Worldwide Pictures. Some fundamentalists were suspicious of technology, believing that TV and movies were a highway to Hell. Not so, Billy Graham, who became a media celebrity.
And Graham continued to seek out American Presidents, both to publicize his Gospel message and to bolster his own image. He became fast friends with Dwight D. Eisenhower, who shared Graham’s idea that Americans needed Christian spirituality in the Cold War against Communism.
It was during Eisenhower’s presidency that “under God” was inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance. “In God we trust” became the official motto of the United States. Eisenhower and Graham popularized the idea of America as a “Christian nation,” even though the U.S. Constitution enshrines the idea of separation of church and state. Eisenhower and Graham turned that idea on its head and laid the foundations of a new religious nationalism, with which we have to contend today.
Billy did not have much of a relationship with John F. Kennedy, of whose Catholicism he was suspicious. Weren’t Catholics supposed to obey the Pope in all things, spiritual and political? After Kennedy’s assassination, however, Graham resumed his role as spiritual adviser to the President, this time with Lyndon Baines Johnson. Graham spent perhaps twenty nights at the White House, at Camp David, and on the LBJ Ranch.
It was a very real, personal friendship although of course LBJ understood the political advantages of a well-publicized relationship with Graham, the per-eminent protestant evangelist of the day. And—apparently—Johnson had a truly religious motivation as well. Recalled Graham, “a number of times I had prayer with him in his bedroom at the White House, usually early in the morning. He would get out of bed and get on his knees while I prayed. I never had very many people do that.”
Well, in Part II of this mini biography of Graham, I’ll examine his relationship with Richard Nixon and the softening of Graham’s own religious fundamentalism. I’ve consulted the internet to confirm some basic facts about Billy Graham, but this Part I is based on the PBS documentary, Billy Graham. For the section on Graham and LBJ, I used William Martin’s article, Billy and Lyndon, from the November 1991 issue of Texas Monthly.
~ Richard Russell
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