Billy Graham met every President from Truman to Trump, but he was particularly close to Richard Nixon, an intimacy he came to regret when the Watergate tapes became public and Nixon was heard repeating anti-Semitic remarks that Billy had made to him. In 2011, Billy Graham admitted that this closeness was an error. “Looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now,” he told the magazine Christianity Today... When I asked Graham if there was a lesson in his father’s regrets, he brushed off the question, and told me the story of his dad’s reaction to Nixon instead. “He was hurt by President Nixon, and things that Nixon said, when, like the Watergate tapes, he never heard President Nixon cuss, use profanity—so that was a shock to him, and he felt a little bit betrayed by that.”.. Later, with Graham seated next to him, Trump warned of the stakes for Christians if Republicans lost in the midterms. “They will overturn everything that we’ve done, and they will do it quickly and violently,” he said. Later, by phone, I asked Graham what he thought of this rhetoric about “violence” from the left—didn’t it seem far-fetched to him? Graham defended Trump, invoking the Cold War era, when Christians faced persecution in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries. “I do agree, to some degree,” he said. “The Democratic Party is moving very quickly toward socialism, and I know what socialism does to the church.”.. Graham has also been criticized for his relationship with Vladimir Putin, which began before Trump took office. Putin’s anti-gay legislation aligns with Graham’s views, and, in 2014, Graham wrote, “In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues. Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.” In 2015, Graham spent forty-five minutes with Putin in Moscow, discussing the persecution of Christians and what evangelical Christianity actually entails, Graham told me... He told me that he didn’t think Trump should have gotten “more aggressive” with Putin. “I don’t think that’s the way you get things done,” he told me. Graham has repeatedly denied the possibility that Trump colluded with the Russians to win the 2016 election, and is only slightly more circumspect on the issue of Russian interference. When pressed on the issue, he said, “I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know. But I do know that the United States has interfered in many countries’ elections. We’ve interfered in Iran, with the Shah. We interfered in Vietnam and put our own people in. We did this in Korea. And President Obama did this in Israel.” Graham, who is also a strong supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu, was speaking about President Obama’s alleged support for the more liberal Israeli opposition during the 2015 election. This is one of the many conspiratorial half-truths that Graham has levelled as criticism against Obama. He has also supported outright lies, including the spurious accusation that Obama wasn’t born in the United States... And Trump’s moral failings are old news, he told me. “Well, you take American Presidents in the past. Bill Clinton wasn’t the first man to have an affair in the White House,” Graham said. “We’re all flawed, and the Bible says we’re all sinners. And the Bible tells us that God sent his son to take our sins, to die for our sins. And America needs a heart transplant. And we need to put our heart and faith and trust in Jesus Christ, because every politician—I don’t care who they are, what party you put in there—they’re flawed men or flawed women.”“Do you think that President Trump really wants to turn the nation to God?” I asked.
“No,” Graham told me. “No. That’s not what he’s trying to do, no.”
.. “People think I’m closer to Donald Trump than I actually am, ” Graham said. “I haven’t seen Trump since my father’s funeral.” He didn’t want to go to the White House dinner, he told me, preferring to spend time with his family. “But people told me if I didn’t go it would look like a snub.”
.. “Can you imagine if the majority of the school board were controlled by God-fearing Christians?” he asked, continuing with a treatise on how secularism was no different from Communism, how abortion was murder, and how same-sex marriage was a sin against God.
Southern denominations faced enormous social and political pressure from plantation owners. Public expressions of dissent on the subject of slavery in the South were not merely outlawed, they were a death sentence.
.. Baptist ministers who rejected slavery, like South Carolina’s William Henry Brisbane, were forced to flee to the North. Otherwise, they would end up like Methodist minister Anthony Bewley, who was lynched in Texas in 1860, his bones left exposed at local store to be played with by children.
.. Generation after generation, Southern pastors adapted their theology to thrive under a terrorist state. Principled critics were exiled or murdered, leaving voices of dissent few and scattered. Southern Christianity evolved in strange directions under ever-increasing isolation. Preachers learned to tailor their message to protect themselves. If all you knew about Christianity came from a close reading of the New Testament, you’d expect that Christians would be hostile to wealth, emphatic in protection of justice, sympathetic to the point of personal pain toward the sick, persecuted and the migrant, and almost socialist in their economic practices. None of these consistent Christian themes served the interests of slave owners, so pastors could either abandon them, obscure them, or flee.
.. What developed in the South was a theology carefully tailored to meet the needs of a slave state. Biblical emphasis on social justice was rendered miraculously invisible. A book constructed around the central metaphor of slaves finding their freedom was reinterpreted. Messages which might have questioned the inherent superiority of the white race, constrained the authority of property owners, or inspired some interest in the poor or less fortunate could not be taught from a pulpit. Any Christian suggestion of social justice was carefully and safely relegated to “the sweet by and by” where all would be made right at no cost to white worshippers.
.. Stripped of its compassion and integrity, little remained of the Christian message. What survived was a perverse emphasis on sexual purity as the sole expression of righteousness
.. Guarding women’s sexual purity meant guarding the purity of the white race.
.. Graham never made any difficult statements on race, never appeared on stage with his “black friend” Martin Luther King after 1957, and he never marched with King. When King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Graham responded with this passive-aggressive gem of Southern theology, “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.”
.. There is no changing the white evangelical movement without a wholesale reconsideration of their theology.
.. Why is the religious right obsessed with subjects like abortion while unmoved by the plight of immigrants, minorities, the poor, the uninsured, and those slaughtered in pointless gun violence? No white man has ever been denied an abortion. Few if any white men are affected by the deportation of migrants.
“White Democrats will desert their party in droves the minute it becomes a black party.”
Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority, 1969
Thirty years ago, archconservative Rick Perry was a Democrat and liberal icon Elizabeth Warren was a Republican. Back then there were a few Republican Congressmen and Senators from Southern states, but state and local politics in the South was still dominated by Democrats. By 2014 that had changed entirely as the last of the Deep South states completed their transition from single-party Democratic rule to single party rule under Republicans.
.. Analysts often explain the great exodus of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party by referencing the Southern Strategy, a cynical campaign ploy supposedly executed by Richard Nixon in his ’68 and ’72 Presidential campaigns, but that explanation falls flat. Though the Southern backlash against the Civil Rights Acts showed up immediately at the top of the ticket, Republicans farther down the ballot gained very little ground in the South between ’68 and ’84. Democrats there occasionally chose Republican candidates for positions in Washington, but they stuck with Democrats for local offices.
.. Crediting the Nixon campaign with the flight of Southern conservatives from the Democratic Party dismisses the role Southerners themselves played in that transformation. In fact, Republicans had very little organizational infrastructure on the ground in the South before 1980
.. The flight of the Dixiecrats was ultimately conceived, planned, and executed by Southerners themselves, largely independent of, and sometimes at odds with, existing Republican leadership. It was a move that had less to do with politicos than with pastors.
.. Southern churches, warped by generations of theological evolution necessary to accommodate slavery and segregation, were all too willing to offer their political assistance to a white nationalist program.
.. Forget about Goldwater, Nixon or Reagan. No one played as much of a role in turning the South red as the leaders of the Southern Baptist Church.
.. When you’ve lost the ability to mobilize supporters based on race, religion will serve as a capable proxy.
.. What was lost under the banner of “segregation forever” has been tenuously preserved through a continuing “culture war.”
.. Religion is endlessly pliable. So long as pastors or priests (or in this case, televangelists) are willing to apply their theological creativity to serve political demands, religious institutions can be bent to advance any policy goal.
.. The Southern Baptist Church was organized specifically to protect slavery and white supremacy from the influence of their brethren in the North, a role that has never ceased to distort its identity, beliefs and practices.
.. In a passage that managed to avoid explicit racism, he described what would become the primary political weapon of the culture wars:
Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision…to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. Let me build my life. Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends. Let me have my home. Let me have my family. And what you give to me, give to every man in America and keep it like our glorious forefathers made – a land of the free and the home of the brave.
.. Long after the battle over whites’ only bathrooms had been lost, evangelical communities in Houston or Charlotte can continue the war over a “bathroom bill” using a rhetorical structure Criswell and others built.
.. He had constructed a strangely circular, quasi-libertarian argument in which a right to oppress others becomes a fundamental right born of a religious imperative, protected by the First Amendment.
.. A generation later you might hear Southern Baptists mention that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a Baptist minister. They are less likely to explain that King was not permitted to worship in a Southern Baptist Church. African-American Baptists had their own parallel institutions, a structure that continues today.
.. However, in public Graham was careful to keep a safe distance and avoided the kind of open displays of sympathy for civil rights that might have complicated his career.
.. King was once invited to speak at a Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville in 1961. Churches responded with a powerful backlash, slashing the seminary’s donations so steeply that it was forced to apologize for the move. Henlee Barnette, the Baptist professor responsible for King’s invitation at the seminary, nearly lost his job and became something of an outcast, a status he would retain until he was finally pressured to retire from teaching in 1977.
.. In 1967, Mississippi began offering tuition grants to white students allowing them to attend private segregated schools.
.. Battles over the status of these institutions reached a climax when the Carter Administration in 1978 signaled its intention to press for their desegregation.
.. Televangelist Jerry Falwell would unite with a broader group of politically connected conservatives to form the Moral Majority in 1979. His partner in the effort, Paul Weyrich, made clear that it was the schools issue that launched the organization, an emphasis reflected in chain events across the 1980 Presidential campaign.
.. The Southern Baptist Convention expressed support for laws liberalizing abortion access in 1971. Criswell himself expressed support for the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe, taking the traditional theological position that life began at birth, not conception. The denomination did not adopt a firm pro-life stance until 1980.
.. In August of 1980, Criswell and other Southern Baptist leaders hosted Republican Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan for a rally in Dallas. Reagan in his speech never used the word “abortion,” but he enthusiastically and explicitly supported the ministers’ position on protecting private religious schools. That was what they needed to hear.
.. The new President would not forget their support. Less than a year into his Administration, Reagan officials pressed the IRS to drop its campaign to desegregate private schools.
.. in 1981, Reagan advisor Lee Atwater let down his guard, laying bare the racial logic behind the Republican campaigns in the South:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N…r, n…r, n…r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n…r”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N…r, n…r.”
For decades, men like Atwater had been searching for the perfect “abstract” phrasing, a magic political dog whistle that could communicate that “N…r, n…r” message behind a veneer of respectable language.
.. It was religious leaders in the South who solved the puzzle on Republicans’ behalf, converting white angst over lost cultural supremacy into a fresh language of piety and “religious liberty.”
.. By the late 80’s religious activists like Stephen Hotze in Houston were beginning to cut out the middleman, going around pastors to recruit political warriors in the pews. Hotze circulated a professionally rendered video in 1990, called “Restoring America,”that included step-by-step instructions for taking control of Republican precinct and county organizations. Religious nationalists began to purge traditional Republicans from the region’s few GOP institutions.
.. A young Texas legislator, Rick Perry, spent much of 1988 campaigning for his fellow Southern Democrat, Al Gore.
.. Moore criticized those who stirred up hatred against refugees and ignored matters of racial justice. He drew sharp criticism when he denounced the Confederate Flag, explaining, “The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire.”
.. Moore drew the obvious comparison last year between Trump and Bill Clinton
.. As religious leaders lined up solidly behind Trump last fall, Moore commented, “The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about.”
.. In the end, evangelical voters backed Donald Trump by a steeper margin than their support for Romney in ‘12.
.. Today, W.A. Criswell’s Dallas megachurch is pastored by Robert Jeffress
.. Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, retooled the ministry he inherited, turning it into something a civil rights era segregationist could love without reservation. Graham, who earns more than $800,000 a year as the head of his inherited charity, has made anti-Muslim rhetoric a centerpiece of his public profile and ministry.
.. Graham explained that black people can solve the problem of police violence if they teach their children “respect for authority and obedience.”
.. For Jeffress, the heir to W.A. Criswell’s pulpit, to champion an effort to silence Moore, reflects the powerful persistence of an unacknowledged past. After being pressed into an apology for his “unnecessarily harsh” criticisms, Moore has been allowed to keep his job – for now.
.. Public perception that a “Southern strategy” conceived and initiated by clever Republicans turned the South red is worse than false. By deflecting responsibility onto some shadowy “other” it blocks us from reckoning with the past or changing our future.
.. A refusal to honestly confront our past leaves us to repeat our mistakes over and over again.
.. Texas House member Rick Perry was taking a chance in 1989, when he decided to leave the Democratic Party to become a Republican. He leaned heavily on the emerging religious right and their campaign to convert the state’s Democratic majority. His efforts were richly rewarded. Baptist mega-pastor Robert Jeffress was a major supporter along with other evangelical leaders. Now Perry, after becoming the longest-serving governor in Texas history, sits in Donald Trump’s cabinet as the Secretary of Energy.
- .. The father was a powerful evangelist who turned evangelicalism into the dominant spiritual impulse in modern America.
- His son is—not to put too fine a point on it—a political hack, one who is rapidly rebranding evangelicalism as a belief system marked not by faith, hope, and love but by fear of Muslims and homophobia.
.. Graham got into bed with the wrong man in Richard Nixon. And while he must be praised for integrating his revivals (which he called crusades) and for inviting the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver an invocation at his massive New York City crusade in 1957, he was missing in action when it came to civil rights legislation.
.. After King imagined in his 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech” a “beloved community” in which “little black boys and little black girls will join hands with little white boys and white girls,” Graham dismissed that dream as utopian. “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children,” he said.
.. ultimately chastened by his chumminess with Nixon
.. worked hard to transcend the racism and anti-Semitism that swirled around him as a farm boy in North Carolina
.. understood (at his best) that the Christian message (at its best) is about love rather than fear, inclusion rather than exclusion.
.. When asked to join in common cause with Jerry Falwell after the foundation of the Moral Majority in 1979, Graham refused to yoke his organization to the cultural wars of the Religious Right and the Republican Party.
.. Shortly after 9/11, Franklin Graham provided the sound bite of today’s culture wars when he denounced Islam as “a very wicked and evil religion.” He later became thestandard bearer for the view that Islam is, in his words “a religion of hatred . . . a religion of war.”
.. In addition to purveying the birther nonsense
.. suggested that President Barack Obama was not a Christian and might in fact be a secret Muslim.
.. he demonstrates no awareness of the ways in which his political pronouncements are breaking down the evangelical witness his father devoted so much energy to building up.
.. During World War II era, European churches were hurt badly by the affiliation of Christianity with right-wing political movements
.. Americans witnessed a powerful religious revival after the war, thanks in part to Billy Graham. That revival is over. Religion is now declining in the United States, and evangelicalism with it
.. the portion of white evangelical Protestants in the United States declined from 23 percent to 17 percent.
.. 27 percent of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and another 18 percent as “neither religious nor spiritual.”
.. There are many reasons for this decline in religious believing and belonging. But the most important in my view is the increasing identification of the Christian churches with right-wing politics.
.. Reinhold Niebuhr, who criticized Graham for his “pietistic individualism” and his neglect of social sin.
.. stuck for the most part to his simpler message that the world would be saved only through individual regeneration.
.. mistake the gospel of Christ for the gospel of American civilization.
.. Graham had a humility almost entirely lost among the public preachers of our day, his eldest son included.