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The Book of the Week is “The Preacher and the Presidents, Billy Graham in the White House” by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, published in 2007.
Billy Graham was one of the most famous Christian preachers in the world from the middle of the twentieth century, into the single-digit 2000’s. He was a religious version of Rush Limbaugh. Although he was raised as a Presbyterian, in 1939 he earned his Baptist-minister certificate from the Florida Bible Institute. By 1949, he had become president of a Bible College, and he had founded a radio station. He spouted propaganda on various political issues through the years, but claimed he was nonpartisan, and claimed he wasn’t aware of the implications of his speechifying.
Graham got friendly with as many powerful, influential people as he possibly could, including American presidents from Truman through Dubya. He rubbed shoulders with publishing magnates Henry Luce and William Randolph Hearst. His philosophy was, believe the Bible or leave the ministry. He was a true, literal believer. Graham told worshipers in Los Angeles that the Soviets were planning to attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons because they were sinners. Yet, he preached love rather than fire and brimstone.
In January 1952, Graham held a religious rally– er, uh, revival in Washington, D.C. He invited president Truman, who didn’t like him because he was a grand-stander. About eleven thousand people attended. “To keep his finances transparent, he [Graham] insisted that crusade accounts be audited and published in the local papers when the crusade was finished.” (Apparently, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker didn’t get that memo with regard to their ministry.)
Graham continued to identify himself as a staunch desegregationist. He delivered sermons to that effect in president Eisenhower’s second term, after racial incidents. A common situation cropped up when Graham courageously took a stand on controversial issues. People on each extreme side of the political spectrum complained he was doing too much for their opponents, or not enough for them.
But Graham was still ever-popular through the 1950’s. In 1957, about two million people attended his 97-day crusade (which was publicized via prayer chains in fifty different countries, leaflets, mailings and bumper stickers) at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He strove for quality over quantity in holding only a few crusades a year, but Martin Luther King, Jr. was constantly on the move for the Civil Rights Movement, spreading himself and his resources too thinly.
Graham prayed at president-elect Nixon’s 1969 inauguration. A few days later, he spoke at the National Prayer breakfast, and presided over a church service at the White House; all these events jammed into a few days to provide efficiency for Secret-Service security. “Whatever else they were, the [religious] services were a great opportunity for arm-twisting, fund-raising, loyalty-testing. [both for Nixon and Graham].”
Also in early 1969, the government was drafting young men working full-time for (college) Campus Crusade for Christ (Graham’s organization) to fight in Vietnam. Graham pulled strings so they would be treated like ordained ministers and evade conscription. However, in late April 1970, Nixon said that it was up to the United States to save the world, be its police officer, lest free nations were threatened with dictatorship and anarchy. Never mind that America had been an aggressor for two decades in so many little global wars, replacing one dictator with another, and had been bombing Cambodia for the year prior(!)
Also in 1970, the president held a July 4th event called Honor America Day in Washington, D.C., to help ordinary Americans calm down. It featured interfaith speakers and celebrity singers, and attendees from all walks of life. Nixon himself, however, didn’t personally attend. He was at his San Clemente property. Later, the media revealed that the event had been a nepotistic donor-fest presented by J.W. Marriott and Nixon’s brother, Donald. Once again, there is nothing new under the sun.
A dress rehearsal for the Patriot Act was proposed in the summer of 1970. It was called the Huston plan. It would have legalized a bonanza of spying in America, like there is currently. Through that plan, Nixon wanted to get rid of influential antiwar troublemakers, but FBI head J. Edgar Hoover opposed it. Even so, as is well known, the Nixon administration committed countless evil acts in order to “… stop leaks, track down traitors, punish enemies, and ensure domestic tranquility.”
In mid-October, 1971, Charlotte, NC enjoyed a holiday named “Billy Graham Day” with a parade and school and government closures. Nixon and Graham rode together in the motorcade. The Secret Service barred anyone who appeared to be a demonstrator, from entering the Coliseum — the venue of a political rally– er, uh, a speaking event. In early 1972, the White House perceived that Jews dominated the American media, so they attacked certain of its members.
As is well known, in the past century, separation of Church and State has waxed and waned in this country. But the main reason for the separation is that civil law must trump religious law, as this nation’s diverse people have diverse religious beliefs. Graham always used the technique of “whataboutism” whenever people pointed out Nixon’s high crimes and misdemeanors, using the cliched excuse: He who is without sin, cast the first stone.
In the mid-1980’s, for the 1988 presidential race for George H.W. Bush, an evangelical political-consultant prepared a 57-page briefing book for wooing devout Christian voters– identifying their demographics, denominations, leadership and beliefs; providing a glossary (with such entries as, “born again”) and recounting how Reagan had wooed them.
Read the book to learn numerous other factoids on Graham’s life, career and political impact.