Billy Graham is dead.
Born in 1918 near Charlotte, North Carolina, just a small town at that time, Graham entered into an evangelical conversion experience in 1934 at a revival meeting. He attended Bob Jones College, which was then located in Tennessee, then transferred to the Florida Bible Institute and eventually Wheaton College, where he graduated. While at FBI, Graham used to row out to an island and preach to the animals. I’m sure the gators appreciated the crazy person. Naturally this space is now next to the 18th hole of a golf course, because Florida. Graham got his start holding revival meetings in Illinois and Michigan, but it was his 1949 revivals in Los Angeles that got the attention of the Hearst newspaper chain that rocketed him into the spotlight. They were supposed to last for three weeks, but ended up going for eight weeks. Sounds like the worst two months in history, but then I guess I’m not the target audience. Or I am the target audience, but I’m not a willing target. Graham was the perfect religious man for his time-telegenic, publicity-happy, and warning of the dangers of the Cold War and the sins that led us there. He wasn’t totally sure that he wanted to go in that direction. In 1948, he was named president of Northwestern Bible College in Minneapolis, despite being only 30 years old. He held that position until 1952, when he went full time into televised religion.
Graham played no small role in turning the nation to the right during the Cold War. He was obsessed by the evil of the Soviets and determined that the battle between the United States and the USSR was really a battle between Christianity and atheism, God and Satan. Because of this belief, he turned up the rhetoric to 11 on every topic related to the Soviets. For example, in a 1953 sermon, he called the Soviets “fanatical and ruthless disciples of Lucifer” who “have slaughtered millions of innocent persons” to spread communism. Of course, he wasn’t entirely wrong about the latter point, but capitalism did the same thing and he wasn’t going to admit that. The choice was simply the future of whether the world would be godly or uncivilized. If people moved to the left and became communist “this godless philosophy of deceit, force, and bloodshed, it would plunge into the dark abyss of totalitarian despair and gloom, and ultimate annihilation.” On the other hand, if civilization “turns to the right and takes the way of the Cross” modern humans would enter a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity. This was a highly politicized, highly promoted brand of Christianity, which went far to shape Cold War America and the modern evangelical movement.
Graham was better than a lot of other white southerners on racial issues, but never too far outside the mainstream. To his credit, he bailed Martin Luther King out of jail once and invited King to speak at one of his rallies in 1957. But as is not atypical of white conservatives who think they have a black friend, Graham struggled to understand why his own actions would upset his black friend. In 1958, Graham had Texas governor Price Daniel introduce him at a crusade in San Antonio. Daniel was a total race-baiter and King told him so. In fact, King told Graham that “it can well be interpreted as your endorsement of racial segregation and discrimination.” This was true, that’s precisely what Graham was endorsing. Graham’s top advisor gave the classic right-wing dodge, writing King, “even though we do not see eye to eye with him on every issue, we still love him in Christ.” Sure thing. When King turned against the Vietnam War, Graham attacked him directly for the first time. Yet he also integrated crusades in Birmingham soon after the legendary bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Ultimately this is a complicated history, but there was long a relationship between some strains of southern evangelical Protestantism and a willingness to hold integrated church services. A lot of the movements around Pentecostalism embrace this, for instance. But that’s as far as it would go. While Graham never to my knowledge defended publicly the system of segregation that he grew up with, or at least not when it mattered, he also did nothing to challenge that outside of the church services. If you want to be generous, bailing out King took that a step further. He also denounced apartheid when he preached in South Africa in 1973.
Graham became America’s minister because he was famous and because both Democrats and Republicans would listen to him. Of course, this had no small part to do with the type of Democrats who entered the White House. Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton were all very comfortable with evangelicalism as southern Democrats. What was really important to Graham was maintaining his position as America’s pastor and he did so by openly cultivating the love of presidents. This wasn’t necessarily that hard most of the time, given the number of southern or conservative western presidents during his lifetime. He was particularly close to Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon. One president he did not succeed in cultivating, not surprising, was John Kennedy. In fact, Graham had been part of a meeting of big-time preachers in 1960 to stop the horror of a Catholic gaining the White House.
Graham’s closeness with Richard Nixon led him to defend the crook all through Watergate, a serious stain on his record. To help Nixon out during Vietnam, Graham decided to hold a big rally at a university with a conservative student body and then invite the president to speak. He chose the University of Tennessee over Ohio State. There was some disgust among some in Knoxville, but this was the kind of crowd that would love Graham and Nixon to the end.
Not every president liked Graham. Harry Truman took an instant dislike to him when they met and hated him the rest of his life, referring to Graham as a “counterfeit.” It likely didn’t help when Graham excoriated Truman for firing Douglas MacArthur, calling the general “a great man, a great Christian” and believed the Soviets were “jubilant” about his firing. Graham had long spoken out against Mormonism, but when he endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012 (although there was plenty of speculation it was his son Franklin speaking through his aging father), his church did as much as possible to expunge all his anti-Mormon statements from the internet and other sources.
He was always a political person himself, though he resisted the temptation, quite strong, to run for office himself. After all, the money and power are better as the outsider with everyone’s ear. He was asked to run by a group of conservative North Carolina Democrats in the 1950s when they wanted to get rid of Senator Kerr Scott for being soft on segregation, but he turned them down. He was also approached by Republicans to run for president in 1964 on several occasions, before Goldwater won the nomination. More importantly, he wanted Christians to vote. Traditionally, evangelical Christians had often found the political process ungodly and had relatively low voter turnout rates. Graham did much to change that. People such as Jerry Falwell get most of the credit for the politicizing of evangelicals, but while Graham is seen as less grotesquely partisan and horrible than Falwell, he had at least as big a role in this process. To his credit, Graham always distanced himself from Falwell and refused to get on board with the Moral Majority and the extreme partisan politicization of evangelicalism that so dominates the Republican Party today. But much of that is also just Graham getting old. His son would have no such scruples.
Graham also always found ways to increase his empire and his money. He was savvy that way, no question. He had his own pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, for instance. He had a famous theological debates of sort with Woody Allen on the latter’s 1969 television special. The entire Graham family is involved in the evangelical grift, most notably his loathsome son Franklin who took over the ministry and moved it back to a hard right. The later period of Billy’s career saw a move toward the right and many speculated whether that was really him or his son controlling the strings.
Graham retired in 2013, after recording a sermon to be released on TV and DVD on his 95th birthday, but he was pretty much out of the public after about 2003, with the failing health that simply happens once you reach your 80s.
I once got stuck in traffic near a Billy Graham Crusade in Nashville. I have never forgiven the man. This is how Billy Graham’s mission affected me personally, leaving me surrounded by annoying old people in large vehicles on a blistering hot Tennessee summer day. Hail Satan is my response.
With famous figures like this, usually there is a ton of easily available material to write about. But Graham is so full of mystique, apologies, and propaganda from his own people, that I had to go to the scholarship. Some of this material comes from Richard Pierard’s “Billy Graham and the U.S. Presidency,” published in the Winter 1980 issue of Journal of Church and State.