It’s rare to find consensus in the American media, but the passing of Billy Graham has provided one such moment.
In outlets ranging from established newspapers such as USA Today to next-generation outlets such as BuzzFeed and Vox, from the high-culture perch of NPR to the pop-culture world of E! Online, from conservative Fox News to liberal HuffPost, one common concept ran throughout their headlines: Graham had been “America’s pastor.”
Graham worked hard to earn that title. He served, to varying degrees, as counselor and confidant for every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. In times of crisis, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11, the nation’s leaders called upon Graham to give solace to a grieving nation.
Beyond those moments, he spent much of his career crossing lines that had long divided Americans. Though he was ordained as a Southern Baptist, Graham’s public ministry was broadly ecumenical. Though he grew up in the Jim Crow South, he made early and earnest efforts to break down the barriers of racial segregation, first in his own religious rallies and then in society at large.
To be sure, Graham was, as he would admit, not without sin or shortcomings. Privately, he made anti-Semitic comments that suggested insincerity in his religious outreach; publicly, he resisted full equality for gays and lesbians, showing limits in his understanding of civil rights.
Oddly, Graham’s political power as “America’s pastor” stemmed from the fact that he seemed, to most Americans, inherently apolitical. He served Republican and Democratic presidents alike and worked to reach out to Americans from across the racial, religious and political spectrum.
But that image was one largely cultivated later in his life. Early in his career, Graham made his name as an outspoken conservative — a chapter largely forgotten in most remembrances but crucial to understanding his legacy.
At the 1949 revival that launched his career, Billy Graham staked out an identity as an ardent Cold Warrior. “Communism,” he thundered from a Los Angeles stage, “has decided against God, against Christ, against the Bible, and against all religion. Communism is not only an economic interpretation of life — communism is a religion that is inspired, directed, and motivated by the Devil himself who has declared war against Almighty God.”
In keeping with the tenets of postwar conservatism, Graham paired his assault on communism with a defense of capitalism. “When Graham speaks of ‘the American way of life,’ ” an early biographer noted, “he has in mind the same combination of economic and political freedom that the National Association of Manufacturers, the United States Chamber of Commerce, and the Wall Street Journal do when they use the phrase.” Indeed, Graham had a close working relationship with the nation’s rich and powerful, which landed him favorable press from conservative media giants such as Henry Luce and William Randolph Hearst.
With their backing, Graham devoted himself in his early years to spreading the gospel of free enterprise. Capitalism and Christianity, as Graham understood them, went hand in hand.
This warm embrace of business contrasted with the cold shoulder Graham gave organized labor. The Garden of Eden, he told a rally in 1952, had been a paradise with “no union dues, no labor leaders, no snakes, no disease.” A Christian worker “would not stoop to take unfair advantage” of his employer by joining a union.
Likewise, Graham denounced government involvement in the economy, which he invariably condemned as “socialism.” “Government restrictions” on free enterprise, he warned, would lead to the loss of “freedom of opportunity” in America. He called on conservatives to revolt against the New Deal.
Concerned about the threat of socialism at home, Graham made his presence felt in D.C. He led a congressional prayer service in April 1950 and used his contacts in the Capitol to secure a visit to the White House that June.
To Graham’s lasting embarrassment, his meeting with Truman was disastrous. Most egregiously, Graham and his associates divulged details to the media and posed for photographs on the White House lawn. A furious Truman dismissed Graham as a counterfeit interested only in “getting his name in the paper.”
The coldness from Truman only made it easier for Graham to express his opposition to the Democratic administration from the pulpit. In January 1951, he warned that “the vultures are now encircling our debt-ridden inflationary economy with its 15-year record of deficit finance and its staggering national debt, to close in for the kill.” He chided Democrats for wasting money on welfare at home and the Marshall Plan abroad.
As an alternative, Graham championed Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom he personally recruited to run. Publicly, the preacher claimed not to take sides in the 1952 presidential race, but behind the scenes, he offered spiritual advice at Eisenhower’s campaign headquarters and suggested scripture for his stump speeches.
In his own appearances that year, Graham embraced Republican slogans as his own and all but endorsed Eisenhower. “The Korean War is being fought,” he told a Houston congregation, “because the nation’s leaders blundered on foreign policy in the Far East.” He called Truman “cowardly” for not following the advice of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and pursuing “this half-hearted war” rather than unleashing the full might of the military.
On domestic issues, meanwhile, Graham warned that “communists and left-wingers” posed a danger to the nation and suggested that there might be “a fifth column in our midst.”
With Graham at his side, Eisenhower won in a landslide.
Graham and Eisenhower worked together over the next eight years, blending piety and patriotism in remarkable new ways. The preacher served as a constant source of support for the president, offering prayers at Eisenhower’s inauguration and at other events, such as the national prayer breakfasts they initiated in 1953.
In these years, Graham became closely associated with the Republican administration, especially Vice President Richard Nixon. Graham supported Nixon in his 1960 campaign against the Catholic John F. Kennedy, who Graham believed would be beholden to the pope. Nixon narrowly lost that time, but Graham redoubled his efforts when his friend ran again in 1968 and helped carry him to victory.
With Nixon in power, Graham stepped up his involvement again. A constant presence and trusted adviser, the minister became, in the words of biographer Marshall Frady, “something like an extra officer of Nixon’s Cabinet, the administration’s own Pastor-without-Portfolio.” Others were more critical of Graham’s willingness to mingle politics and religion. The Rev. Will Campbell denounced Graham as “a false court prophet who tells Nixon and the Pentagon what they want to hear,” while journalist I.F. Stone dismissed him as a “smoother Rasputin.”
In the end, Graham would regret his close association with Nixon. When the president fell from grace, he took some of Graham’s public prestige with him. The same Oval Office recordings that revealed the crimes of Watergate also exposed anti-Semitic remarks from Graham. Seeking to recover his standing, the preacher swore off political intrigue and finally removed himself from the inner circles of power.
In remembering Graham, we must reckon with both halves of his career — the quarter-century he spent working as a shrewd political insider, and the slightly longer span he spent atoning for it.
While Graham did much to enshrine the politics of religious nationalism that came to define the modern era, he also came to regret it.
Famously, in 1979, he refused to join the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. “Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person,” he noted then. “We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.”
More than just rejecting partisanship, Graham also distanced himself from the larger politics of piety and patriotism. “I came close to identifying the American way of life with the kingdom of God,” he noted in a 1980 interview. “Then I realized that God had called me to a higher kingdom than America.”
As Graham started this second act of his public life — less involved in partisan politics, less concerned with the nation’s leaders and more focused on its citizens — he secured his place as “America’s pastor.” And now that his place in our political life lies vacant, those who would seek to fill his considerable void would be wise to remember the lessons he learned along the way.