The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The president who made Billy Graham ‘America’s pastor’

Ike and Graham forged a partnership that fed America's religious revival in the 1950s — but it came at a cost.

Billy Graham, right, talks with President Dwight D. Eisenhower during a visit at the White House in 1957. Graham was a counselor to each president from Harry S. Truman through George W. Bush. (AP)

Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the year in which In God We Trust became the national motto as 1954. The slogan actually became the national motto in 1956. 

In late December 1955, the Gallup poll issued its annual list of the “most admired men in America.” At the top of the list stood President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had also been ranked first for the previous four years. But a new name entered the list that year: the Rev. Billy Graham, the most charismatic evangelical preacher of his generation.

Graham lies in honor today in the Capitol, an exceedingly rare privilege for a private citizen. From Ike on, Graham served as a close personal adviser to every U.S. president. But it was his relationship with Eisenhower that turned Graham from a popular preacher to “America’s pastor.” Together, Ike and Billy formed a powerful tandem, twin exemplars of the public piety and fatherly certainty that marked — and marred — midcentury America.

The 1950s were a time of religious revival. Prodded by the Cold War struggle against “godless Communism” and an active movement to engender piety, Americans filled the nation’s pews. Church membership rose from 49 percent in 1940 to 69 percent in 1960. The most popular public figures of the day were men of the cloth. The Rev. Fulton J. Sheen, a bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, was a national radio personality who, after 1951, hosted a  popular weekly television program called “The Catholic Hour.” His program regularly bested Milton Berle and Bob Hope in the ratings.

Norman Vincent Peale, Methodist pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, also became a household name in the 1950s. He published a stream of best-selling self-improvement books containing handy biblical passages designed to solve any problem at home or in the workplace. His book, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” appeared in 1952 and stayed on the bestseller list for 186 weeks.

But the most significant evangelist of that decade was Billy Graham, the tall, rangy Baptist from Charlotte, who had been leading youth revivals since the mid-1940s. An eight-week run of revival meetings in Los Angeles in 1949 — which Graham called a “crusade” — pulled in 350,000 worshipers and made the reverend a national figure. With unrivaled charisma, Graham argued that all the world’s problems could be solved with conversion to Christ. “If we change men,” he said, “we can change the world.” The Cold War and the arms race, poverty and inequality, divorce and moral turpitude, all this would simply wither away if the people of the world made a “decision for Christ.”

As president, Eisenhower championed this kind of popular piety. Raised in a nonconformist family of devout Mennonites, Eisenhower often said he was “the most spiritual person I know.” As a boy, Ike sat with his family every night in the living room of their simple Abilene, Kan., home reading from Scripture, and he carried this belief into politics. Eisenhower told an audience of church leaders in 1955 that “religious principles must not be kept in a realm apart from everyday life.” He welcomed the insertion of the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance, and gladly declared “In God We Trust” the official motto of the country in 1956.

It is not surprising that Eisenhower found himself drawn to Graham. Connected in 1952 by a mutual friend, the Texas oilman Sid Richardson, Graham and Eisenhower formed a tight bond that deepened once Ike moved into the White House. On March 6, 1955, he gladly sat at the feet of Graham as he delivered a sermon on “Faith in Our Times” — the first time Graham had preached to a sitting president.

For all the ecumenical piety promoted by the Ike-Graham partnership, however, when it came to the moral issues of the day, they failed to take advantage of the revival they were fostering. The two men also formed a common front in facing the growing activism of the nation’s civil rights movement. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Brown v. Board of Education that barred the segregation by race of public schools.

White Southern leaders rose in near unanimity to denounce the ruling and threatened to halt all public schooling rather than desegregate. Whites formed citizens councils across the South to intimidate black activists and to defy federal law. In spring 1956, Southern congressmen and senators signed a “Southern Manifesto,” denouncing the Brown decision and blaming the Supreme Court for “destroying the amicable relations between the white and negro races.”

Eisenhower, seeking to placate the South while insisting on the constitutional priority of federal law, sought guidance from Graham. In late March 1956, Eisenhower queried Graham on whether Southern churches might help lead the way in promoting better race relations. The pastor’s reply was evasive.

He promised to convene church leaders and ask them to speak out in favor of compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision. But Graham insisted in a letter to the president that it would be best if Eisenhower himself “stayed out of this bitter racial situation that is developing.” Graham praised the president for artfully staying “above the controversies” of racial conflict.

Presidential leadership on civil rights, Graham was saying, could do little good and risk only deepening the backlash against the court’s ruling. Eisenhower was only too happy to take Graham’s advice. In his 1956 reelection campaign, Eisenhower went to great lengths to avoid any discussion of civil rights or the Brown ruling and instead sought to appease white Southern opinion.

Eisenhower could not avoid the civil rights crisis entirely, of course. In September 1957, when Gov. Orval Faubus (D-Ark.) defied a district court order to begin the desegregation of Little Rock High School, Eisenhower used federal troops to enforce the law. Yet Graham and Eisenhower both believed, and repeatedly said, that only a change of heart among Americans would solve race relations. Reliance on law, especially the enforcement of that law, could only harden hearts and stiffen resistance, they believed.

Graham and Eisenhower shared the view that racial discrimination was abhorrent. But both also believed that black civil rights leaders of the 1950s wanted to move too fast, overturning in an instant the customs and habits of many generations of white supremacy. Like Graham, Eisenhower felt it was his job to “understand the Southerners as well as the negroes,” as he told a speechwriter. In the face of the great moral crisis of their times, Eisenhower and “America’s pastor” Graham counseled a policy of delay and prevarication.

This cautious attitude toward social change characterized the “age of Eisenhower” perfectly. More striking, though, is that Graham carried this view during the next six decades. Graham always remained cool to social movements, preferring to see conversion to Christ as the only righteous path of change. Lifting his eyes to heaven, he proved too ready to turn his gaze away from the urgent needs for racial justice in the here and now.