Religion. Politics. Sex. Separately, the three subjects can provoke controversy, but when mixed, the combination can be toxic.
Graham’s jarring commentary stands in stark relief to how his father handled a similar intersection of sex and politics during the 1964 presidential election. The difference between their approaches reveals a toxicity in our politics that, ironically, has arisen even as our broader culture has become far more tolerant and welcoming.
By 1964, Billy Graham had established himself as a spiritual adviser to American presidents. He would go on to counsel every president from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. But his closest relationship was with Lyndon B. Johnson.
That fall, Johnson was cruising toward an easy victory over his far-right Republican challenger, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Goldwater had courted Graham, suggesting that their shared concern about moral decay offered the preacher a reason to support his campaign. But Graham rebuffed him, dismissing any interest in politics.
On the surface, Johnson agreed with this stance, telling the Baptist preacher: “Now, Billy, you stay out of politics.” Nonetheless, the president relied heavily on Graham during a potentially explosive moment in his campaign. The incident reveals both the compassion of the elder Graham and the hesitancy of some far-right conservatives in the 1960s to exploit issues of sexual preference for electoral gain.
On Oct. 7, 1964, Walter Jenkins, a close adviser to the president, was arrested in a Washington YMCA men’s room on charges of homosexual activity. Initially, the media sat on the story at the request of the White House. The president originally feared that the arrest had been a Republican Party sting operation to create bad publicity for the Democrats. But when a reporter discovered that this was not the first such arrest for Jenkins — he had been charged with a similar “crime” in 1959 — newspapers published accounts of Jenkins’s arrest.
This was a moment when the subject of homosexuality remained taboo and was even labeled a mental disease by the American Psychiatric Association. Johnson brooded that if Republicans weaponized the Jenkins scandal, he might not win in a landslide as he hoped — one bigger than his idol Franklin D. Roosevelt’s in 1936.
Once the story was public, the question became what Johnson would do. Those closest to him, especially his wife, Lady Bird, insisted he not fire Jenkins.
Johnson sought the counsel of Graham. The Baptist preacher stressed that compassion and love were the only proper response to the Jenkins matter. “You know, when Jesus dealt with people with moral problems, like dear Walter had . . . he always dealt tenderly. Always.” Graham stressed, “I just hope if you have any contact with him, you'll give him my love and understanding.”
Some Republican operatives did try to manipulate the story for partisan gain, with bumper stickers reading “Either Way with LBJ” and “LBJ — Light Bulb Jenkins: No wonder he turned the lights out.”
But Goldwater refused to capitalize on the issue. He knew Jenkins as a long-serving aide and friend of Johnson, and he had been Jenkins’s commanding officer in the Air National Guard. More important, he believed such tactics were tawdry and unfair to Jenkins’s wife and six children.
Ultimately, the scandal did not become a decisive issue in the election. Johnson won a massive victory in November 1964, besting Roosevelt’s 1936 totals in terms of percentage and in the number of votes cast. Said one journalist who covered the contest, “Perhaps the most amazing of all events of the campaign of 1964 is that the nation faced the fact [about Jenkins] fully — and shrugged its shoulders.”
Jenkins received understanding, if not love, from the two presidential candidates, as Graham had advised. So what accounts for the difference between Billy Graham’s response and his son Franklin’s recent statements about homosexuality?
Political conservatives in the 1960s were not yet attuned to the potential benefit of adopting and stoking religious arguments about LGBTQ rights and other culturally explosive topics. Although its roots trace back to the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s, the religious, or Christian right, as it is sometimes called, did not emerge as a formidable political movement until the late 1970s. With its rise came the overt politicization of issues ranging from LGBTQ rights to abortion to gender equality, as Republicans sought to capitalize on their potency.
The religious right’s influence in national politics in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has grown in part because Republicans have seen evangelical voters prove decisive to victories for Republican presidential candidates in the 1980s, the 2000s and 2016.
And so today, almost all Republicans take hard-right positions on issues important to the religious right. But this makes it easy to forget that the roots of this doctrinaire embrace of cultural conservatism are historically very shallow. Neither Billy Graham nor Goldwater had much patience for the vitriolic, religion-based politics of the Christian right. Graham believed it imperative for clergy to separate themselves from politics. In 1981, he wrote in Parade magazine: “I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.”
Goldwater, for his part, rejected the attacks on sexual identity that now pervade the 21st century Christian right. By the end of his life, Goldwater advocated for gay rights, remarking in 1994: “When you say ‘radical right’ today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party away from the Republican Party and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.”
Today, while our culture has become far more accepting of LGBTQ Americans more broadly, the political right sees it as an issue to churn up its base of evangelical Christians. The result is toxic rhetoric from the likes of the younger Graham, and an ever-deepening political divide, where the partisan divisions feel increasingly like unbridgeable gulfs.