Was Billy Graham the Father of the Religious Right?

Baylor recently hosted the eminent historian of religion Grant Wacker, of Duke Divinity School, who spoke on his biography of Billy Graham, America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation. In particular, he spoke on “Billy Graham and American Political Culture.”

Since many younger people today may not fully appreciate Graham’s enormous influence, Wacker emphasized that Graham was the most important evangelist in the Christian history of the English-speaking world since George Whitefield. He probably preached to 215 million people face-to-face all over the world during his ministry. He made the Gallup “most admired man” list 59 times. Even Bob Dylan attributed his evangelical “phase” to hearing Graham preach. Graham “brought the storm down” with his sermons, Dylan said.

Graham had relationships with presidents from Truman to Obama, and was close to four of them: Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush ’41. (George W. Bush also attributes his Christian conversion to conversations with Graham.) Even though Lyndon Johnson was a more worldly and profane man, he counted Graham as one of his closest confidants. Reagan and Graham were not necessarily as close, but they did converse about theology on multiple occasions.

Wacker believes that Graham’s close relationship with Richard Nixon was the “nadir” of Graham’s career. Graham defended the embroiled Nixon to the bitter end, and in one of the most unfortunate episodes of Graham’s life, he and Nixon were recorded in a 1973 conversation making anti-Semitic statements.

Wacker sees “upsides” and “downsides” to Graham’s access to these presidents, and I would suggest that these “upsides” and “downsides” set important patterns for white evangelicals’ relationship to political power in America, especially to the Republican Party since the 1980 presidential election and the advent of the Moral Majority. Among the downsides, for Wacker, were the way that Graham presented himself, dubiously, as non-partisan, but often made it clear where his political preferences lay. It was tempting to become a kingmaker. Also on the downside was the way that access to power “dulled” Graham’s judgment, especially in the case of Richard Nixon.

On the upside, Graham offered substantial pastoral care to a number of presidents, including Nixon and Johnson. Presidents, of course, need pastoral care as much or more than anybody else. Graham did not use his access to presidents to aggrandize himself, or to cut corners in any personal sense, such as financial improprieties. (In spite of his failings with Nixon, Wacker generally regards Graham as an excellent moral example, especially in his personal life.)

Wacker suggests that although Graham helped to inaugurate the modern evangelical overlap between religion and politics, especially Republican politics, he was not a direct progenitor of the Religious Right. Graham did not overtly endorse the work of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, or other leaders of that political movement in the 1980s. Wacker thinks that if Graham still maintained a public presence, he would not approve fully of the political activism of his son Franklin (who has recently been one of Donald Trump’s most dogged evangelical supporters). And Graham took positions on issues such as desegregation and nuclear disarmament that frustrated some other white evangelicals across the course of his career. He was never fully in lockstep with what would become the Christian Right.

Still, Graham illustrates the temptations of evangelicals and American politics. Who wouldn’t want to have the ear of the president? But access not only can blur ethical judgment, it can blunt one’s prophetic edge. Most concerning of all, politics can confuse the gospel message, even for someone who spoke as clearly about the new birth of salvation as Billy Graham did.