If there were one Christian who could walk the halls of power without tripping, it was Billy Graham. The preacher and evangelist, now 99, and living out his days in Montreat, N.C., ended his public ministry with nary a scandal. He has appeared 60 times on Gallup’s list of most admired men and women, and his good-natured charisma earned him the title “America’s Pastor” throughout the 20th century.
Graham’s forays into politics were largely personal, not partisan. He met and prayed with every U.S. president from Truman to Obama. Graham didn’t endorse candidates and refused to join Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the late 1970s. He understood that his call was to preach the gospel, and that overaligning with one party would compromise that call.
There was one time, though, when Graham self-admittedly teetered: in his friendship with Richard Nixon. That episode is a warning to Christian leaders who have cozied up to President Trump – including Graham’s son Franklin, who presides over the nonprofit named after his father. The younger Graham recently defended Alabama Senate hopeful Roy Moore after allegations that he sexually abused several women while they were teenagers. His allegiance to a political ideology has compromised his allegiance to the gospel.
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Billy Graham and Nixon’s friendship began on a golf course in 1950 and was forged through a seeming shared spirituality. Nixon credited Graham with urging him to run for president in 1968, and Graham gave the invocation at Nixon’s first inauguration ceremony.
But by Nixon’s reelection bid in 1972, Graham had begun offering direct campaign strategy. He also started leading church services inside the White House. He seemed unaware that the Nixon administration’s spiritual fervor might have been a ruse. According to historian Kevin Kruse, Nixon aide Charles Colson later said, “One of my jobs in the White House was to romance religious leaders... I found them to be about the most pliable of any of the special interest groups that we worked with.”
In one 1972 chat, Graham played into Nixon’s anti-Semitism, commenting that Jewish leaders’ “stranglehold” on national media “has got to be broken or this country’s going down the drain.” After the National Archives released Nixon’s White House tapes in 2002, Graham apologized for this comment, saying that they ran counter to his efforts to foster Christian-Jewish relations.
“It was naïve of me, I suppose, to think that such a close relationship with a president would never be used to serve his political ends,” wrote Graham in his autobiography. Later, when he read through the Watergate transcripts, he was shocked to hear a racist, profanity-laden Nixon. “He was just suddenly somebody else.” The full truth devastated Graham.
Ten months into his presidency, the truth about Trump is painfully clear. His administration is mired in potential collusion with Russia, chaotic leadership changes, and failure of nerve in the face of white supremacy. Just as many have drawn parallels between Trump and Nixon, so Graham’s self-admitted mistake in supporting Nixon sheds light on evangelicals leaders’ choice to support Trump.
But unlike the elder Graham, members of Trump’s evangelical advisory council can’t claim ignorance about the character of the leader they support. Trump is nothing if not consistent in his childish and vindictive tone. He himself has been accused by at least 16 women of sexual harassment. Evangelicals who continue to defend Trump are hurting the church’s witness and tarnishing Graham’s legacy.
When asked in 2011 if he would have done anything differently, Graham said, “I also would have steered clear of politics... looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn't do that now.”
If Billy Graham failed to resist the aromatic lure of political power, even if for a season, then surely very few of us will come out of the Oval Office with our souls unscathed.
Katelyn Beaty is former managing editor of Christianity Today, a magazine founded by Billy Graham.