Billy Graham

In life, presidents embraced Billy Graham. In death, he has same pull for politicians.

During Billy Graham’s long life, U.S. presidents publicly embraced him, seeking his spiritual and political advice and hoping his popularity would rub off on them.

And in death this week, Graham still had that pull for not only presidents but for politicians of both parties.

President Donald Trump was in the front row at Graham’s funeral Friday. So was Vice President Mike Pence, who has his eye on a run for the White House later or sooner. Both men look to the evangelical Christian community, for whom the Graham family is still like royalty, as the most loyal pillar in their political base.

Earlier in the week, former presidents George W. Bush, a Republican, and Bill Clinton, a Democrat, also came to Charlotte to pay their last respects to Graham during visits that were widely covered in the media. Both involved him in their presidencies – Graham spoke at Clinton’s two inaugurations and he helped Bush unify the country by preaching, days after the 9-11 attacks, at a prayer service in Washington’s National Cathedral.

Bush’s father, former president George H.W. Bush, also valued the Graham seal of approval so much that he invited the evangelist to spend the night at the White House on the eve of Bush’s launch of Operation Desert Storm in Iraq.

As Graham aged and began fading from the public scene in recent years, his son Franklin has formed his own political alliances, almost all of them conservative and Republican.

The younger Graham, who inherited the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, is an enthusiastic supporter of Trump and Pence – he lauds them often in his daily Facebook posts.

And while N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, was given a front row seat at Friday’s funeral, many of the other invitees were prominent Republican politicians from Franklin Graham’s generation.

Some of these GOP guests have run for national office and may again, including Ben Carson, Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani.

The Grahams also invited both leading Republicans in the 2018 battle for North Carolina’s 9th congressional seat: U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, who worked for Campus Crusade for Christ right out of college, and his challenger, the Rev. Mark Harris, former pastor of Charlotte’s First Baptist Church.

Also spotted at the funeral Friday were other evangelical Christian leaders who, like Franklin Graham, have been politically aggressive in promoting conservative issues. 

These included Ralph Reed, who once made the Christian Coalition a major force in the Republican Party, and Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University in Virginia and an early Trump backer. 

Falwell’s father, Jerry Falwell Sr., headed Moral Majority and led many evangelical Christian voters into the GOP tent to help elect Ronald Reagan president in 1980.

By then, Billy Graham – a registered Democrat who tended to vote for Republicans for president – had been burned by his too-close relationship with President Richard Nixon, a Republican who resigned amid the Watergate scandal in 1974.

So, unlike his son now, the elder Graham kept his distance from the Religious Right.

Still, Billy Graham continued as more of pastor, offering spiritual counsel to Reagan, as he would be to both Bushes and Clinton.

In earlier decades, he had worn religious and political hats when he prayed with Republican Dwight Eisenhower, but also urged him to send federal troops to Little Rock, Ark., to help enforce the court-ordered integration of the high school. He was pastor to Democrat Lyndon Johnson, but also supported LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War. And he stood by Nixon late into the Watergate scandal, insisting that the president was a righteous man of God.

As anti-Vietnam War demonstrations mushroomed around the country in 1970, Nixon even attended Graham’s crusade in Knoxville, Tenn., partly, Nixon aide Charles Colson later said, “to get some of Graham’s charisma to rub off on us.”

Billy Graham was too old, deaf and blind by the time Trump was elected in 2016. But Franklin Graham, perhaps seeing a future president in Trump, invited the then-TV reality show star to his father’s 95th birthday party in 2013 at Asheville’s Grove Park Inn.

Trump was back in North Carolina on Friday as yet another U.S. president embraced the popular Billy Graham.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer